“What Added Value Do We Get?”: In-House Comms Leaders Respond To Burson Merger

PRovoke Media3rd February 2024

Client-side communicators weigh in on what they stand to win and lose from the H&K/BCW merger.

Now that the initial dust is settling, we asked client-side communicators what they think of WPP’s plan to merge BCW and Hill & Knowlton into a single entity, Burson, and the impact the move will have on their agency partnerships. They responded with confidence and trepidation

Stephen Forshaw, in-house veteran:

“In cases of mergers and acquisitions of agencies, the onus is on the new company to show its clients the benefits and value that come from the merger. To most clients, and always has been the case with me, an agency, even a global mega-agency, is only as good as the team it has servicing the account.

“Keeping overheads in check, ensuring account teams are well-motivated to deliver and not over-stretched servicing too many accounts while chasing new business, and contributing because they know their clients’ businesses really well; these are the keys to attracting and retaining business. This matters to most clients more, and probably explains why good independents are able to find their day in the sun, which is adding to the pressure on the big global firms. So, the test is simply, how a merger leads to benefits to clients.“

Marian Salzman, chief corporate citizenship officer, US, Philip Morris International

“The challenge in the PR space is ensuring clients benefit from these consolidations: how big is best? What added value do we get from these mega-agencies? It also spells opportunity to balance big global networks with amazing boutiques which move in a stealth fashion and become arms and legs for us clients who need more implementation and less safe counsel. In the best-case scenario, global unification is very helpful; but I also worry about conflicts and Chinese walls.”

Mark Truby, CCO, Ford

“Ford and WPP have worked together for 80 years and that’s a pretty special relationship. I really trust Corey and the team to leverage this merger to innovate and raise the bar on talent and creativity.

Brian Lott, CCO, Mubadala:

“As a Burson alum, I’m obviously thrilled to see Harold’s name back in lights. Corey is an industry leader and former CCO, so it’s an exciting move that shows he, AnnaMaria and Mark Read are thinking big.

“Public relations companies are only as good as their talent, so combining that capability under one brand should give clients easier access to a broader talent base with less hassle. I’ve found a unified model more efficient than, say, asking clients to work with multiple brands within the same holding company, where agencies are often incentivized to compete rather than cooperate.

“And, in general, I value names with meaning over acronym soup to help tell the heritage and story of a company, although it’s important to remember the legacies of John Hill, Don Knowlton, Bill Marsteller, Bob Cohn and Norman Wolfe, too. As Harold titled his book, E Pluribus Unum — I wish them well on this new, unified venture.’

Genevieve Hilton, ex-communications head, BASF and Lenovo Asia-Pacific

“My question: what use — to a client — is a giant agency? As a client, even if I needed the geographic reach, it’s rare that I would need a giant team in any given market. Assuming that there is still going to be a good portion of the agency’s business that focuses on media relations, it seems odd to think that a larger team would be better, since there are fewer and fewer journalists to engage with.

Global in-house communications chief

“Neither Burson nor H&K—and certainly not the soon-to-be-combined ‘top 2’ PR firm — are attractive options for clients now. As a purchaser you have ask: how many offices will close and where? who is leaving and when? How can leadership focus on clients (or people) when there is consolidation? This merger is nothing about clients or people. It is a way to prop up a long-struggling agency (H&K) and provide its good people and desirable clients a home. WPP has never believed in PR … and will also bet on high-end boutiques (FGS) or marketing PR (Ogilvy). Shareholders will be happy, though.”

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