A great many people have passed through the doors of both firms and, of course, the many others that emerged around them – including Edelman, virtually a contemporary, which through its independence had a somewhat different trajectory.
However, there is something unique about this “Burson” community. The agency was the first to acknowledge and support an alumni group. Founder and chairman Harold Burson says that it was a natural extension of a “strong sense of family” that pervaded it, particularly through the 1980s and early 1990s.
Perry Yeatman, SVP of corporate affairs at Kraft Foods, was a local hire in Singapore, who went on to lead efforts in the firm's nascent Russia office and later in London.
“This is my professional alma mater,” she says. “You could always tell a Burson person. There's the love of intelligent people, creative programming, and the tough client challenge. They were tremendously passionate and you knew you were among friends.”
A Burson pedigree, Yeatman adds, has had traction both for in-house employers as well as other agencies. “Burson people did have that stamp of quality,” she explains. “If you made it to the top at Burson, no one asked you, ‘Do you get it?' or “Are you good?'”
Indeed, it is interesting to see how many alumni assume leadership of organizations across the profession. While not scientific, a look down the list reveals a remarkable list of achievers, both entrepreneurial and working for other, many times larger, organizations.
These leaders cite several reasons for the trend.
Bob Feldman, principal of PulsePoint Group, was hired as an AAE right out of Utica College in 1978. He remembers that training occurred daily, including having all writing done for clients reviewed by a former newspaper editor on staff.
“You had to have it signed off by him before it went to a client,” Feldman recalls. “It was a great training experience and a great statement about the firm's commitment to quality.”
Burson's famed training retreats to Sterling Forest, NY, were helmed by Elias “Buck” Buchwald, Harold Burson's longtime number-two executive.
Bob Chandler, founder of Chandler Chicco Companies, worked at Burson from 1981 to 1995, closing his time there as president of the biotech group and healthcare practice EVP. He remembers a special culture and drive from his Burson tenure.
“We felt we were the smartest people on the planet,” he says. “We were a tight group; learning tremendously from each other. We also worked on accounts that were industry leading. Doing that kind of groundbreaking work naturally led to a new set of industry leaders.”
A clear theme emerges in interview after interview of former Burson staffers – the respect and admiration felt for the man whose name is still on the door and who still keeps regular office hours every week.
“Harold's style has an impact far beyond Harold,” says Feldman. “He is disarming to his own employees and clients by virtue of his being thoughtful, reflective, intellectual, practical, and low key. Many people modeled themselves on those characteristics.”
Christine Barney, CEO of rbb Public Relations, got her first PR job at Burson-Marsteller in 1986. Her most senior level there was account executive, but even at that more junior level, Harold “made you feel you were just as important as everyone else. He was so approachable, with a fond hello and a smile.”
Burson's character helps foster the alumni network. “Harold is the catalyst,” says Laura Schoen, regional head of Latin America for Weber Shandwick and chair of its healthcare practice. She was at Burson from 1983 to 1991, working on the nascent global division. “Close to his 90s now, he's still so interesting, so up to date, and with valuable insights. It's why they've been able to have that network.”
However, Burson's pleasant nature should not be mistaken for lack of ambition, stresses Feldman. “That relatively low-key, cerebral personality belied a fiercely competitive guy who was passionate about the firm's growth by expanding the service offering and being of enormous value to clients,” he notes.
Burson's management style influenced the way some went on to run their own organizations. It might also have been a key reason why so many leaders emerged from the firm's ranks. They believed they could lead, in part, because of the trust they had placed in them during their time at Burson.
Chandler sees a connection to the firm's culture of empowerment, which came straight from the top. “The philosophy is if you hire the right people, set the right structure, and allow them to deliver in their own way, you and they will be successful,” he says.
Harold Burson echoes this philosophy. “My style was to hire good people, tell them what the goal was, get out of their way, and let them do it,” he says.
Upon reflection, Burson says the agency business in general has moved away from this philosophy.
“The business has changed,” he notes. “As these entities have become larger, you must have tighter management control and a less personal touch. Competition is a lot more severe than it was back then.
“And it's not always easy for managers to give up control,” he adds. “Just staying out of the way is a lot of hard work.”
Kathryn Beiser, VP of corporate comms, Discover Financial Services
Kay Breakstone, chairman and CEO, Breakstone Group
Robert Chandler, CEO, Chandler Chicco Companies
Curtis Chin, US ambassador/US executive director, Asian Development Bank
Paul Critchlow, former senior PR officer, Merrill Lynch; now serves as counselor to the chairman and vice chairman of the Public Markets group
Bob Feldman, principal and cofounder of PulsePoint Group
Rob Flaherty, senior partner and president, Ketchum
Bill Hughes, SVP of corporate communications, CA
Jeff Hunt, principal and cofounder, PulsePoint Group, former CEO of GCI group
David Kalis, retired VP of communications, IBM
Larry Kurtz, VP of investor relations, McKesson
Judi Mackey, SVP and global comms director, Lazard
John Margaritis, SVP, Marcus Group
Dermot McNulty, former CEO, Burson-Marsteller, Europe
Doug Michaelman, global corporate relations head, Visa
Jim Murphy, retired chief marcomms officer, Accenture
Tom Nides, COO, Morgan Stanley
Paula Polito, CMO, UBS Wealth Management
Linda Recupero, global head of communications, White & Case
Laura Schoen, president, global healthcare practice, Weber Shandwick
Kirk Stewart, EVP, APCO worldwide; former corporate communications VP, Nike
Daniel Tarman, EVP, PIMCO Cristina von Bargen, head of communications, Credit Suisse
Perry Yeatman, SVP of corporate affairs, Kraft Foods