Profile: Chris Komisarjevsky, Burson-Marsteller

Komisarjevsky looks ahead during Burson-Marsteller's 50th anniversary.

If Chris Komisarjevsky was not near the start of a ten-year plan for growth at Burson-Marsteller, the short but imposing 58-year-old would still be several years away from hanging up his tailored suit and retiring to his Long Island home. He has nine children from two marriages - including six between the ages of eight and 15 - and is frank enough to recognise the looming financial commitment that will keep him at B-M for years to come: 'I have a lot of college fees coming up.'

He is an agency lifer, with close to 30 years' experience in consultancy, including almost 20 as a CEO or president. After a spell as a helicopter pilot, including combat in the Vietnam war, he joined Hill and Knowlton in 1974, where he stayed for over a decade and rose to EMEA president and CEO. He served as president and CEO of Carl Byoir Associates for three years from 1989, and headed both H&K's corporate practice and US East Coast division in the years after. He then spent three years as CEO of Gavin Anderson, before landing at B-M in 1995.

It is the B-M role that brought him to the UK last week, as he marked the firm's 50th anniversary. It was in March 1953 that New York PR consultant Harold Burson teamed up with Californian ad man Bill Marsteller to create what was to become a driving force in the history of PR.

Five decades on, the firm's revenues make B-M the world's second largest PR agency (it was the largest for many years until Weber Shandwick merged with BSMG). The company has 46 owned offices and a similar number of affiliates. A dozen or so key global client relationships - from Accenture to AstraZeneca to GSK - contribute between them 28 per cent of total revenue, which in 2001 reached $250m.

But it's not been without problems in recent years. The agency Burson sold to Young and Rubicam in the early 1980s changed hands again two years ago, when the UK's WPP bought Y&R.

Then a widely criticised plan to strip country heads of profit-and loss accountability in place of regional practice-based profit centres had to be reversed when it became clear that copying the US template in other parts of the world was failing. And according to Komisarjevsky (or Chris K, as he is universally known across the B-M group), B-M still struggles with a variety of conflicts.

The most important of these - whether B-M should be a strategic resource or an implementer, an adviser or a doer - has now been addressed, he says: 'We found we couldn't be at the top of our game if we were not able to do both things - it is a gaping hole in your service if when you advise a client on what needs to be done, they ask you to do it, and you say "er, we can't".'

Komisarjevsky decreed what he terms a '50-50' strategy, whereby 50 per cent of the agency's revenue would come from strategic advice, and 50 per cent from tactical implementation.

He says a similar target is to achieve a balance between work handled globally and work handled by each national operation's office in its own geography. 'This has had a liberating effect on the network. The key relationships worldwide give each office a base and frees them to become the gold standard in their own territory,' he says.

The most refreshing aspect of Komisarjevsky's approach is that he understands the perception of B-M in the wider business world. This may include the 'gold standard' he refers to again and again, but it also includes aspects such as working for non-democratic regimes or companies in controversial sectors like tobacco or arms.

'Sure that's part of how some see us,' he says. 'But we have an executive committee that takes these issues seriously, and if anyone in any of our offices is worried about any particular piece of business it gets referred to the committee. It is most certainly not a case of "any fee is takeable" - it is a judgement call and we have to be able to look ourselves in the mirror.'

The 50th anniversary is an opportunity for all those at the top of the firm to take stock, and in general they seem very pleased with what has been achieved. The first PR trainee the firm ever hired, former chairman Bob Leaf, has now worked for the firm for 45 of its 50 years, and still works out of its Manhattan HQ. He sums up the first half century and the legacy bequeathed to Komisarjevsky: 'The most satisfying thing is that we are getting back to the thing that made B-M what it was - delivering for clients.'

Komisarjevsky echoes these words, and took especial pride in B-M picking up a clutch of prizes at the PRWeek US annual awards earlier this month. One senses that even if he didn't have the nine kids and their college fees to fund, he would still be around in a decade's time pushing forward the B-M vision.

HIGHLIGHTS

1972: Army helicopter pilot

1989: President and CEO, Carl Byoir Associates

1993: US CEO, Gavin Anderson and Co

1998: CEO, Burson-Marsteller Worldwide

2003: Celebrates 50 years of B-M

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