PROFILE: John Smith, Burson-Marsteller - Stepping into B-M’s breach. John Smith brings management consultancy skills to his new role at B-M

John Smith, Burson-Marsteller’s new European president and CEO, is a subject who asks almost as many questions as he answers - perhaps a result of 25 years as a management consultant, most recently as a partner in the Mead Point Group. Even before the interview bagan, his interrogations succeed in unearthing shared Yorkshire roots with the photographer, initially disguised by Smith’s distinctive Atlanta drawl.

John Smith, Burson-Marsteller’s new European president and CEO, is

a subject who asks almost as many questions as he answers - perhaps a

result of 25 years as a management consultant, most recently as a

partner in the Mead Point Group. Even before the interview bagan, his

interrogations succeed in unearthing shared Yorkshire roots with the

photographer, initially disguised by Smith’s distinctive Atlanta

drawl.



The consultancy was bought by B-M in October, after playing a key role

in the agency’s move into a practice management structure. The

acquisition of Mead Point, Smith’s appointment to one of the most senior

posts in B-M after only three months in PR, and the agency’s rather

grand positioning of itself as a ’perception management firm’ could lead

to the conclusion that it aspires to management consultancy status.



’We are not trying to be a management consultancy,’ insists Smith with a

smile. ’The distinction between management consultancy and PR is that

consultants sell clients questions, not answers.’



So, who exactly is John Smith? He began his career as a hospital

administrator in Yorkshire before joining management consultants Booz

Allen Hamilton in 1972. He spent 18 years in the US, running Booz Allen

Hamilton’s worldwide healthcare practice, moving back to the UK in 1989,

subsequently joining the Mead Point Group in 1993.



John Langan, chief executive of Kingston Hospital NHS Trust, worked with

Smith when the hospital was reviewing its organisation. ’Where some

consultants can be aggressive and demanding, he’s very calm and

reflective. He soaks up questions and doesn’t just react to them. And he

can sell ideas to people.’



’When you talk about people who are wise, John’s name comes to mind,’

says Bain Farris, executive vice president of planning and development

for US health insurance company Anthem, who worked with Smith for 20

years.



But what does Smith think he can bring from the world of management

consultancy to PR or, in B-M’s case, ’perception management’? ’The

strategic component,’ he says. ’I can help people understand and work

the practice structure to gain benefits.’



B-M’s move to a practice management structure has been greeted with some

scepticism within the industry, and a certain amount of confusion within

the agency. Some sources have felt that the reorganisation was not

explained, and are unsure of its value.



Smith admits that the internal communications task he faces has yet to

be mastered, so his ability to ’sell ideas’ should come as a bonus.

While the agency claims that the new structure has worked superbly in

the US, it does not seem to have transferred to Europe so smoothly,

perhaps partly because there is no single language or culture, which

makes the move away from a geographical structure more complicated.



He believes the key focus of the new structure should be that it makes

knowledge available globally. ’We want to feel that a client in Germany

is as well serviced as one in Chicago.’



However, Smith acknowledges that it is virtually impossible to abandon

geographic identity altogether and that certain skills like public

affairs and media knowledge have to be ’local’. ’We are not leaving

behind the things we did well, or walking away from local clients, but

adding to them,’ he claims.



According to Smith, the PR industry has become something of a commodity

business. ’There isn’t much difference among the leading players,’ he

says. ’How do you differentiate? It’s not clear to me. If it is a

commodity then clients will buy it on the basis of price.’



Smith has obviously already worked out his own job strategy - continuing

to work closely with clients. ’That’s what it’s about,’ he says. ’(My

job is) not about management and administration. I see my role as

developmental, rather than command and control.’



Joani Bessler, now vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton, says that

Smith has fantastic relationships with his clients and believes he is a

natural leader. ’He will create his followers. He will be able to lead

on the strategic and creative side and he will create a team to make it

happen.’



HIGHLIGHTS



1977: Senior vice president, Booz Allen and Hamilton



1993: Partner, Mead Point Group



1997: Global healthcare practice chairman, Burson-Marsteller



1997: European president and CEO, Burson-Marsteller.



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