Burson's search for new CEO leaves industry to mull what constitutes true PR leadership

On October 25, 2004, we reported that Chris Komisarjevsky was leaving Burson-Marsteller, and that the top job would be taken by an industry unknown, Tom Nides.

On October 25, 2004, we reported that Chris Komisarjevsky was leaving Burson-Marsteller, and that the top job would be taken by an industry unknown, Tom Nides.

Though some insiders privately took a dim view of the decision to hire a non-PR person to helm one of the industry's iconic brands, Nides proved in a relatively short time that he could convincingly motivate and direct an experienced team.

Nides never had time to build up a profile within the industry, so his achievements are anecdotal at best. Moreover, he did not have a chance to truly challenge the conventional perception of leadership in the profession, which is a shame. That's not to say he would necessarily have proven better than born and bred PR professionals in the long run. But as a so-called outsider, he would have provided an excellent platform for long-term comparison.

Lamenting the dearth of leadership has become almost a routine discussion in the industry. When taking a straw poll, as I recently did, to find out who informed observers believe are "leaders," several names will routinely emerge. They are names that have appeared in this column and in our pages numerous times, and who populate the rosters of prominent conferences around the world. But the list is short and predictable.

There is no lack of talent - and obviously talent and leadership are not necessarily the same thing. So what are the missing ingredients among the also-rans? One thing is the ability to be passionately committed to one's own brand, while advancing the interests of the industry as a whole.

It sounds obvious, but sometimes we will interview agency CEOs who will say one thing on the record that endorses their client's viewpoint, while in private they will disavow their own words. This has come up over such topics as measurement and procurement - two factors that go to the heart of the agency business. The necessity to appease the client will sometimes, and understandably, overwhelm the truth behind certain critical issues.

Leaders can, and do, find a way to strike a balance between the needs of the client and the needs of the profession to advance and mature. No, it isn't easy. But, guess what, leadership is usually hard.

Another characteristic of true agency leadership is being honest about and taking responsibility for things that go wrong, poor decisions, and weakness in certain areas of the business. In the largest firms, owned by holding companies, many CEOs have been absolved from this responsibility by the decision of their parent companies to withhold operating revenue information from the public. Some agency leaders have chosen to hide behind this decision and profess that all is well, but the true leaders have not let the rules change their commitment to transparency, even when it has to fall short of full disclosure.

As talk of who will replace Nides has circulated, a few names within and outside the agency world have routinely emerged, but fewer names than one would think given the wide range of talented people in the profession. Perhaps that is because the industry has gotten very good at developing talent, but not as good at building leaders. In a few years, that will be a problem.

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