PR's leaders must go global - literally - to succeed

Two of PRWeek's recent editorials have touched upon the issues of PR agency leadership and PR industry leadership. One referred to the search for a new CEO for my firm, Burson-Marsteller.

Two of PRWeek's recent editorials have touched upon the issues of PR agency leadership and PR industry leadership. One referred to the search for a new CEO for my firm, Burson-Marsteller.

The other took stock of the recent International Communications Consultancies Organization (ICCO) Summit held in Prague.

Both organizations are dear to my heart: I've been a part of Burson for 15 years, and I've had the privilege of leading ICCO for the past two - handing over to my good friend John Saunders at the Prague event. This affords me a dual perspective from which to further reflect on Julia Hood's themes - albeit from an overseas vantage point.

It all boils down to two widely held opinions. One is that the future of our industry does not depend on continued consolidation within global networks and groups, most of which have a distinctly US heritage. The other is that the innovation, creativity, and leadership required to take our business to a new level will not necessarily come from the two traditional market-makers: the US and the UK.

PR is indeed a global business, one where large, multi-office, international firms will continue to be major participants. But it is simplistic to believe that this model is the only way to attain the critical mass needed to develop innovative and value-added services.

The geographic breadth and deep proprietary knowledge and experience offered by "the majors" are powerful reasons for clients to seek a global AOR approach to their needs. However, local knowledge, contacts, insights, and - in one word - "belonging" to the national markets that are important to our clients often override the benefits of agency consolidation.

Building a global footprint has always been a challenge for the large networks. Some, like Burson, have historically gone down the route of organic expansion and a few, very selective, acquisitions. Others have relied on the quicker option of buying up local agencies.

Both paths have their drawbacks. Organic growth requires investment, management attention, and patience until a new operation becomes profitable and sustainable. However, bringing a "hot" local player into the fold of a large network is by no means a formula for assuring success. Networks inevitably require structure, procedures and, in this age of Sarbanes-Oxley, a high standard of reporting. Too often the local talent - the spark and entrepreneurship that made the local shop successful in the first place - becomes frustrated and is eventually lost at the end of the seller's earn-out period.

It is encouraging to witness the creative flair and intellectual depth that leading local PR firms are displaying in places as diverse as Dublin, Delhi, or Sao Paulo. Just like advertising "discovered" during the '80s the world-class talent of creative directors hailing from Buenos Aires or Milan, we should be looking closely at the new and emerging "R&D" centers of our industry.

I firmly believe a great deal of the innovation and business acumen that will help us overcome the oh-so-bemoaned commoditization of our business will come from places we have until now considered "export markets."

For that to happen, global agency leadership - meaning "management" in this instance - needs to be a more faithful reflection of the global nature of our business. That leaders of the large American firms "spend as much time, if not more, outside the US," as Hood points out in her October 31 piece, isn't quite enough to benefit from the talent and business drive hailing from abroad.

A quick look at the leadership of the world's six largest international firms - including my own - is quite telling. If my count is accurate, these top executives add up to 87 individuals. Of them, 68 are American, a further 12 "other Anglo-Saxon" (British, Irish, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealander), and only seven (two Norwegians, and one each from Germany, France, Chile, Spain, and Japan) hail from the rest of the world.

Considering that these same firms generate anywhere from 50% to 60% of their combined revenue outside the US and the UK, the disproportion is staggering - and shortsighted.

Couldn't the kind of bright, charismatic, and truly global individuals required to "transcend geography" and provide not just talent but leadership be found outside the usual hiring grounds of New York and London?

Organizations like ICCO help showcase these leaders and serve as a platform for their refreshing contributions to our industry. "Harnessing their wisdom," as Hood suggests, is a smart move. Placing more of them in the executive suites of our industry's global players perhaps would be even smarter.

Carlos Lareau is COO of Burson-Marsteller and served for two years, until October 2005, as chairman of ICCO.

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