A new sheriff hits town at H&K

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. But, in retrospect, maybe this week's tumult at WPP PR giant Hill & Knowlton could have been foreseen in the statement that accompanied the Martin Sorrell-led marketing services group's Q3 2010 trading update.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. But, in retrospect, maybe this week's tumult at WPP PR giant Hill & Knowlton could have been foreseen in the statement that accompanied the Martin Sorrell-led marketing services group's Q3 2010 trading update.

The commentary on revenue growth ended with the statement: “The Group's public relations and public affairs businesses grew by 5.1%, compared with 3.5% in quarter two and 2.8% in quarter one,” and, significantly, “with Burson-Marsteller, in particular, showing excellent growth.”

Clearly Hill & Knowlton wasn't doing quite so well, and the powerbrokers at WPP seemingly decided to use a similar recipe to the one they used with Burson to try and turbo charge H&K's growth: they put the public affairs folks in charge - the Texas public affairs folks from Public Strategies to be precise.

The abrupt departure of H&K veteran MaryLee Sachs last Friday was followed on Tuesday by the surprise news that the firm's combative chairman and CEO Paul Taaffe was also leaving. And CMO Tony Burgess-Webb is retiring.

Jack Martin, who became global executive chairman of H&K when the sister WPP firm he founded – Texas-based political consultancy Public Strategies – reversed into H&K in November, assumes Taaffe's responsibilities.

What a tumultuous start to the year. And what a cloak of intrigue that no doubt has many layers still to be unveiled.

Taaffe was proud to be the only WPP PR firm CEO who reported directly to Sorrell, and his nose must have been put out of joint when, apparently, his line of reporting was all of a sudden redirected to the other Martin - Public Strategies' Jack.

Burson went through a similar hiatus in 2005 to what H&K is experiencing now, when political powerbroker Mark Penn became worldwide CEO, bringing his eponymous political research firm Penn, Schoen and Berland into the WPP fold as part of the deal.

One common factor in the changes at Burson and H&K is WPP's EVP of PR and public affairs, Howard Paster. Paster oversaw WPP's acquisition of Burson in 2005, and was also instrumental in the Public Strategies deal and its subsequent merging with H&K. Paster goes back a long way with Austin-headquartered Public Strategies' senior executive team, including Martin and vice chairman Jeff Eller.

Another Texas connection is the further appointment this week of Lone Star State PR fixture, former Weber Shandwick president of global client management Ken Luce, as H&K's COO.

The jury is still out on whether the Burson recipe can indeed be replicated at Hill & Knowlton. Skeptics suggest the Public Strategies team has little experience of running a truly global operation, for example.

But there's definitely a new sheriff in town at H&K's NYC head office – and the Texas gunslingers are shooting for growth to match Burson-Marsteller's in 2011.

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