Approaching 100 days on the job as Burson-Marsteller's CEO, Tom Nides talks to Julia Hood about his transition into agency life and how he envisions his firm's future
Hood: Do you like working in the PR business?
Nides: It's spectacular. It allows me to do things I enjoy doing, like dealing with clients. I love working with Harold Burson and dealing with talent on a global scale.
This was one of the first occasions when I took a job and found that what I was told about the company when I arrived was actually true. I was told our brand was quite strong, which is true. I was told that we had strong, phenomenal people, and that became clear to me from the very beginning. I was told that it was quite healthy financially, that we had a really strong market position in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and the US, and that really is the case. Happily, they didn't lie to me.
Hood: How does the agency business differ from what you expected?
Nides: It's very competitive. You've got to be on top of your game every day - not only for the sake of getting new business, but for keeping what you have. That's a bit of a surprise to me, but it's a healthy dose of reality. The issues we're facing are the same as what the industry faces. It is a very competitive environment. Like every other organization out there, we are working hard to differentiate ourselves.
I hate to lose. Every time we go for something, I want to do everything that I can to show best results for clients. Every day you wake up, one of your competitors is trying to get the business you have. If you're not always focused on it, there is a possibility you could lose - and I don't like to lose.
Hood: How is your leadership different from that of [former CEO] Chris Komisarjevsky?
Nides: Chris and I have a great relationship. I talk to him at least once a week. We are similar in our desire to grow the top line, but he's obviously been here longer, so his passion is something I can emulate. We have more similarities than differences. We both want to win and to protect the brand.
Hood: What are the qualities that currently define the Burson brand?
Nides: That the agency has a stellar reputation in the marketplace. People know that you're getting first-class service, first- class talent, a global footprint, and truly innovative thinking. You hire an agency for those things. In most cases, we hit the ball out of the park in those four areas.
I believe Burson is the gold standard of PR firms. That said, we have to push our people every day to make sure we are promoting and looking inward all the time. When you start getting lazy and resting on your laurels, that's when the competition will get you.
Hood: What has been the thinking behind the recent senior management shuffles? [Ken Rietz was appointed vice chairman and interim US CEO; Carlos Lareau was named COO; Heidi Sinclair moved to Spain to be co-CEO of Europe; Richard Mintz was promoted to head of new global business development.]
Nides: I'm a big believer in moving talent around and moving people out of their comfort zones. [For example], Heidi Sinclair was running technology and the SAP account. I wanted to infuse her energy and excitement, take her out of her comfort zone, and move her to Europe. She wanted the challenge. SAP is one of the most fabulous brands in Europe. It's a great calling card. She should be able to use that in a successful way throughout continental Europe.
I asked Ken Rietz to take his leadership in Washington and expand it around. With Richard Mintz, I believe we must focus aggressively on the new-business platform.
What you try to do is look at our talent and say, 'OK, if you're good at this, you should be good at that.' Talent is transferable. People make mistakes by typecasting people in jobs. I've worked in financial services, government, communications - people have taken bets on me and I like taking bets on people.
Hood: You recently lost Alan Arkatov [former president and CEO of the Southern California office]. That's a tricky market for many large firms. How do you plan to fill that vacancy?
Nides: I knew Alan before I came here. He's a great guy who wanted to go work at a smaller operation. We have a handful of people interested in the post.
Hood: Burson has long made CEO communications and counsel a critical part of its strategy. Will that continue?
Nides: It will not only continue, but our efforts are going to double in that area. Leslie Gaines-Ross [Burson's chief knowledge and research officer] is a jewel in our crown. [Being CEO] is a treacherous role. CEOs are desperate for advice, counsel. They like to learn from mistakes other people have made. Burson has been able to provide hundreds of CEOs that kind of information. You can't just enter this knowledge world, you have to be credible in it, and obviously we gain the trust of the C-suites.
Hood: What is your relationship to Ann Fudge (Y&R CEO), Howard Paster (WPP EVP), and Martin Sorrell (WPP CEO)? How do the WPP brands work together?
Nides: I didn't really know what I was getting into when I took the job. They told me I would be left alone, meaning I wouldn't be micro-managed and I could run the company the way I saw fit. That's exactly what has happened. Ann has been a great help and mentor in terms of brand strategy and managing within the other Y& R brands. Howard has been a friend for 20 years, and I often pick up the phone to call him for help on a WPP [matter].
Martin Sorrell could not have been any nicer, nor could he have given me [more of] what I need to be successful. You can ask me what I think two years from now, but for now they have done exactly what they told me they wanted to do - and they have been very hands-off.
I haven't had as much time yet with [direct-marketing firm] Wunderman and [design and branding agency] Landor, but there are really great opportunities for us. Ann has tried to bring all the brands together - trying to cross-pollinate between brands. If nothing else happens beyond the fact that Wunderman and Landor help us get business, and we help them get business, that's worth its weight in gold - any advantage you have in the marketplace. We have it if we want it, it's not forced upon us. I don't feel that every day we have multiple brands to sell all the time.
Hood: How can agencies balance the need to maintain margin growth with substantial client engagements while procurement is guiding the process? Is the PR business at risk of being commoditized?
Nides: We are not immune to the pressures that our clients are under. We provide a service, and we must do it faster and as reasonably priced as the market will bear. And that's OK, because we're a sophisticated industry. It just makes us think about how we can do our business faster and more competitively. That's healthy in some respects.
In many cases, big global clients can be some of the most profitable clients because they understand the importance of the network of resources [we provide]. Does [procurement] make our job harder? On the margins, sure. But it is a fact of life our industry is dealing with. Frankly, it forces us to constantly look inside ourselves to make sure we provide smart services.
Hood: What keeps you up at night?
Nides: I want to make sure I'm providing the best possible service to our clients and that we don't ever rest. I want to always feel that we are operating at the highest level of standards that we can, and that I make Harold Burson and the people at this firm proud to work here.
It's been a great first 100 days. The people here are spectacular. I've really been fortunate to have inherited a very strong company.