Profile: Matt Carter, CEO, Burson-Marsteller UK

Burson-Marsteller's new UK CEO tells Arun Sudhaman why his political background will help him in his quest for success.

Matt Carter
Matt Carter

Matt Carter's Power Book entry does not shy away from the truth. Asked to describe himself in 140 characters or less, Burson-Marsteller's new UK CEO opts for: 'Driven, assured, grounded, hard-working, clever, loyal, analytical, unflappable.' In case you thought it ended there, he also adds 'creative, curious and sociable'. Unsurprisingly, modesty does not make the cut.

Then again, perhaps the 38-year-old has good reason to blow his own trumpet. Carter was once the youngest general secretary of the Labour Party, and followed that feat by driving rapid European growth at B-M's sister agency, research house Penn Schoen Berland (PSB).

This, says B-M European CEO Jeremy Galbraith, proved a key factor in Carter's hire, after an extensive search: 'It was the extraordinary job Matt has done in growing PSB in four years. And he is extremely well-networked in the corporate world.'

The move to B-M was just a short hop within its Bloomsbury HQ, and while Carter may not come from a conventional PR background, he dismisses the notion that this will somehow handicap his chances for success.

'The world that I come to B-M from is actually not that dissimilar in many respects,' he points out. 'And that world has had me working in this building for the past four years, albeit in a different part of it. So, I know an awful lot of the team.'

Observers of B-M's recent history will not be overly surprised by his hire. Carter is, in many respects, an ideal candidate to help run the type of agency that global CEO Mark Penn is trying to build: smart, research-focused and politically connected.

One highly placed industry source says: 'Mark is taking B-M in a very research-focused, political direction and Matt is a big part of that.' Carter is too savvy to completely agree with this description of affairs. He shies away from the contention that B-M is being positioned as a lobbying firm first and foremost, despite the recent hire of former Tory MP Andrew Mackay, as well as a slew of political heavyweights in other global offices.

'Where B-M is at its greatest is with a really strong corporate team, a really strong healthcare team and so on,' says Carter. 'In some ways, the first obvious point of frustration is we haven't told our story strongly enough. B-M has a brilliant reputation for lots of things - but we've got a story around consumer PR, digital, sports and sponsorship activity. There are lots of things I want to evangelise about.'

Dressed in standard business attire, Carter is buttoned-down and relatively wary. Last year, Penn told PRWeek that the PR industry needed to become more about 'BlackBerry breaks' than golf days. Carter, one senses, would have little trouble fitting into this ideal. 'I don't play golf, unfortunately, but that's not because of what Mark (Penn) may have said,' he points out. 'I have worked closely with Mark, but it's also about somebody who has the drive and passion to write a new chapter for B-M.'

With that in mind, Carter's political skills are likely to come in extremely handy. As general secretary for the Labour Party, he worked closely with senior Cabinet ministers. While he points out that the experience 'certainly toughens you up', there is an evident fondness for the political world. Carter visibly relaxes when the conversation takes this turn, particularly when it comes to describing his close working relationship with former deputy PM John Prescott. 'Somebody once said John is John,' he says with a laugh. 'He is a formidable campaigner and king of the blog osphere. Nothing surprises me about him.'

There is a serious point here. Carter's exposure to high-level political campaigns is, he says, a valuable asset when it comes to approaching strategic client problems: 'Too often, businesses are building the campaign for where they are today. You need to start from the end point. Four years out, you need to anticipate the mindset of voters at that point.'

Against the backdrop of an exciting general election campaign, does Carter not miss the political melee? 'There are bits of me that miss it, but I wouldn't trade the political war room at this point.'

Instead, Carter's formidable focus, and all of his political skills, are being applied to B-M: 'My starting point with the team is not about delivering gradual change, but about who we want to be as an agency.'

In succeeding Jonathan Jordan, who was both popular and successful during his tenure at the helm of B-M, some might say Carter has big shoes to fill. 'JJ was a good guy,' he says. 'We are in a position with a solid platform now, but we are not where we, as a team, want to be. The challenge is to craft that next stage for B-M.'

 

MATT CARTER's turning points

- What was your biggest career break?

Being selected as a parliamentary candidate at the age of 23. I stood in the Vale of York, which was a rural seat in North Yorkshire. It was a relatively safe Tory constituency and so there was not much expectation that I could win, which was lucky because I didn't. However, I did learn a lot about the art of campaigning and how to get a message across, which has served me well in all the jobs I have done since.

- Have you had a notable mentor?

Not one person, although I owe a lot to a number of friends and colleagues who have helped me at different times.

- What advice would you give to anyone climbing the career ladder?

Be comfortable in your own skin and do not be afraid to speak up. Too often people are risk-averse and can only see the downside of trying something out. In my experience, people who have an interesting point of view or an idea to improve things are rarely ignored. The much bigger risk is playing it cool and being overlooked.

- What do you prize in new recruits?

Hunger for success.

 

CV

- 2010 Chief executive, Burson-Marsteller UK; chairman, Penn Schoen Berland Associates

- 2006 Managing director, Penn Schoen Berland Associates EMEA

- 2004 General secretary, Labour Party

- 1998 Assistant general secretary; regional director; regional organiser, Labour Party

- 1997 Freelance consultant

- 1994 Undergraduate tutor, University of York

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