Profile: Robert Leaf, Robert S Leaf Consultants - Turning over a new Leaf/B-M’s international chairman Bob Leaf prepares to branch out on his own

Soon to retire as international chairman of Burson-Marsteller, Bob Leaf’s claim that he is ’by nature an optimist’, raises a knowing smile among people who have worked with him. He’s a man who throws himself into his ideas, protected from fear of failure by a large measure of self-confidence.

Soon to retire as international chairman of Burson-Marsteller, Bob

Leaf’s claim that he is ’by nature an optimist’, raises a knowing smile

among people who have worked with him. He’s a man who throws himself

into his ideas, protected from fear of failure by a large measure of

self-confidence.



’His great strength as a manager is that he is so dynamic, says former

Burson-Marsteller chairman and chief executive Reggie Watts, an employee

at B-M for 18 years. ’There was no point in thinking you could get in at

7am and beat him - he’d already be there.’



Leaf is best known as the man who directed B-M’s expansion into Europe

in the 1960s and then on to much of the rest of the world. He set up

China’s first PR agency in 1986 after impressing Chinese officials with

his knowledge of the five styles of Mandarin cooking. ’There was a

tendency with Bob to meet somebody on a plane,’ says Watts, ’and shortly

afterwards you’d hear that we’d set up an office in their country.’



B-M founder Harold Burson says that Leaf’s degrees in journalism and

modern European history, and his ability to operate in any part of the

world made him a natural to gently introduce the B-M philosophy on an

international level.



According to Leaf, until B-M exported it, PR was ’an Anglo-Saxon skill’

- involving a willingness to share information with outside agencies

that was still completely alien to most European CEOs.



Although Leaf’s interpretation of Burson’s perception management

theories subsequently drove B-M’s direction in England, he acquired a

reputation for interpreting the New York mandate in terms that actually

worked here.



Watts says he fiercely defended the British preference for PR on a

’broad front’ over the heavy media exposure favoured by New York.



That openness to new ideas has developed into a Burson-Marsteller

institution - ’lunch with Leaf’ - in which new recruits are invited to

share their thoughts with him. It’s a way of introducing newcomers to

one of the grandees of PR’, says B-M’s former UK chief executive Alison

Canning, and is part of the ’family culture’ that Leaf believes he is

largely responsible for in Burson-Marsteller today.



Part of that culture is being able to admit when things have gone wrong

- witness Leaf’s reaction to last June’s press coverage of B-M’s pounds

3,000 payments to Prince Michael of Kent to host dinners at which agency

staff would try to collar potential customers. ’This is not going to

look good,’ he told PR Week. ’It’ll make us look slimy.’ Then there was

his attempt to break into the restaurant business ten years ago which

proved less than entirely successful. Surprise, in London’s Great

Marlborough Street, had one USP - birthday guests got a surprise

present. Burson-Marsteller practice chair Edna Kissman suggests

charitably that it was a victim of its own success: ’It got such good PR

before it opened that it got caught short when it did open. There were

too many customers for the number of dishes and the plates.’



There are signs that Leaf has grown more cautious. He refuses to comment

on any of the work he and Burson-Marsteller have done for exiled royals,

such as Libya’s crown prince Muhammad, or to reveal whether any will be

among the clients of his new agency Robert S Leaf Consultants. ’It’s for

the clients to call,’ he says, pointing out that the agency will simply

advise existing B-M clients on how to handle their international PR.



Although Leaf relinquished his operational role with B-M some time ago,

he has not been idle. A keen theatre-goer, he helped raise funds for the

Globe theatre reconstruction and has this to say about the controversy

over its shape: ’It’s a minor detail. Just look at the PR - Hilary

Clinton was there.’



As well as playing more tennis, retirement will give him time to

write.



A natural step for someone who, Watt’s says, is an excellent

after-dinner speaker in the Woody Allen mode. As for the timing of his

departure, Leaf says he’s is taking Burson-Marsteller CEO Tom Bell’s

advice and ’leaving on a high’.



HIGHLIGHTS

1957

Joins B-M as its first trainee

1965

Sets up B-M’s Brussels office

1968

Moves to London to head up international operation

1986

Establishes China’s first PR business from B-M’s Hong Kong office

1997

Sets up Robert S Leaf Consultants



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