Burson-Marsteller US: Agency Business Report 2015

Burson-Marsteller's year was defined by two major client losses - Hewlett-Packard and SAP - that led to millions of dollars in fees departing the firm.

Burson-Marsteller CEO and worldwide chair Don Baer
Burson-Marsteller CEO and worldwide chair Don Baer

Principals: Don Baer, CEO and worldwide chair; Michael Law, US CEO
Ownership: WPP (part of Young & Rubicam Group)
Subsidiaries: BWR, Direct Impact, North of Nine Communications, Palisades Media Ventures, Penn Schoen Berland, Prime Policy Group, and Proof Integrated Communications
Offices: Global: 74 wholly owned; US: 14
Revenue: Global: $400 million to $450 million; US: $200 million to $250 million
Headcount: Global: more than 2,300; US: 1,050*
*PRWeek estimate

Burson-Marsteller’s year was defined by two major client losses – Hewlett-Packard and SAP – that led to millions of dollars in fees departing the firm, but a strong new business performance replaced the lost accounts and balanced out its revenue.

Agency CEO and worldwide chair Don Baer says HP and SAP decided to consolidate under a different network holding company – Omnicom – and noted that HP hired Burson’s account lead and US tech practice chair Sabrina Guttman in September as VP of strategic communications.

Burson was conflicted out of its work with Discover Financial Services due to the growth of its Bank of America account, which has grown fivefold in two years. And the agency decided not to rebid for the $20 million Nevada Tourism integrated account.

On the plus side, Burson’s global healthcare practice, led by Helene Ellison, added $10 million in new business in 2014, including Sanofi, Bayer, AstraZeneca, Novartis, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, and Roche. Other wins included Pitney Bowes, Egon Zehnder, and Nestlé Purina PetCare.

"It may be our best year ever when it comes to new business from clients," says Baer. "We have momentum and we’re making Burson future-ready, which has transformed us."

Eye-catching hires
Burson raided client and agency sides for new talent with eye-catching senior hires.

MetLife CCO Kate Triggs joined as global client lead on Bank of America; Stephen Burns moved from Chevron to be an MD in Burson’s US public affairs and crisis practice; and Jay Kosminsky left Johnson & Johnson to be an MD.

Jon Wentzel crossed over from Ogilvy PR to become EVP and US chief client officer. Rowan Benecke joined from Text100 as global technology practice chair; Ann Davison arrived from Vox Global as US public affairs and crisis practice chair; and Steve Naru moved over from FleishmanHillard as MD of Burson’s US corporate and financial practice and head of US media relations.

The external hires complemented internal promotions such as Michael Law’s elevation to US CEO from US president when incumbent Dave DenHerder returned to his public affairs roots at FP1 Strategies. Gary Koops, 18-year agency veteran and MD and chair of Burson’s global media practice, took DenHerder’s role as global WPP client lead on Ford.

Law is supported by Nicole Cornish, who moved from CEO of Burson subsidiary Direct Impact to become US COO. Terri-Helen Gaynor joined Burson as Asia-Pacific CEO, meaning Pat Ford could return to the US in his role as global chief client officer having overseen Asia since 2012.

"These people have changed the dynamic of the firm," adds Baer. "Content creation, driven by data, analytics, and research that is integrated across the board – and not just bolted on as an afterthought – is what we do."

This integration is led by US chief strategy officer Thomas Gensemer and Brad Mays, who left Edelman to become Burson’s chief integration officer late last year.

"Great progress has been made, mostly in the US, but we already have centers of excellence around the world and are scaling what we do globally," explains Baer.

In April, the firm launched Burson-Marsteller StudioB to aggregate these new content and data services and better facilitate the conversation with CMOs.

Senior departures included US digital practice chair and CEO of Burson’s integrated shop Proof, Michael Bassik, who left for MDC Partners; MD Bob Christie, who left to join Alibaba Group; and US public affairs and crisis lead Steve Lombardo, who joined Koch Industries after just 10 months at the agency. Staff turnover was 20%. 

"We separated from people we needed to move on from," says Baer.

He is also focused on upholding Burson’s expertise in senior strategic advice and counsel across crisis, issues, corporate, and government relations. This was evidenced through continued work with Target on its data breach response and helping Texas Health Resources manage crisis comms around its care for the first US patient diagnosed with Ebola. In 2015, the agency supported Germanwings’ crisis response after one of its jets crashed.

"It’s what Harold Burson was the pre-eminent example of in his generation," says Baer. "It might seem traditional, but there is a desire on the part of current and would-be clients to have more of that."

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