Burson-Marsteller, which has long positioned itself as an expert on issues relating to CEO communications, will soon face its own experiment in executive transition.
The news that Thomas Nides will succeed Chris Komisarjevsky as the new CEO was startling - not in its timing, but in the decision by Young & Rubicam to tap this relative unknown - at least in the PR realm - to take over.
While the press release lauds Nides' credentials as a communications professional (he did have the function reporting into him at Credit Suisse First Boston [CSFB]), his background is clearly more oriented to the political arena and senior corporate administration. It would be antithetical to current PR thinking to suggest a background that doesn't include the requisite 20 years at a PR firm means he isn't the right choice. But it is surprising.
One can't help but think that his appointment may be, in part, intended to support Burson's mission to answer C-suite needs. One senior agency executive I spoke to mentioned a kind of "management consultant envy" endemic to the firm, a desire to increasingly play a role in C-level decision-making and problem-solving. Y&R chief Ann Fudge seemed to reinforce that view when she told our reporter: "[Nides'] experience put him in a league where he knows a lot of client partners and CEOs."
But in spite of all its CEO-centric strategy, Burson is also the firm that recently won Old Navy business, relaunched the new $20 bill, and got the new WWII memorial on every morning show in the US. High-level corporate boardrooms are a great place to be, but Burson must also be in the supermarket cart and in the pages of consumer magazines.
Nides' time in the trenches of a highly contentious period at CSFB will probably reassure clients looking for authoritative counsel. That experience will also help him navigate the sometimes-treacherous holding-company waters, particularly in a structure that has him reporting into an ad-led network, as is the case within WPP.
There are many advantages to holding-company life, but it is also a relationship with high expectations for firms, especially in the down times.
A priority for Nides will need to be continuing to grow the depth of Burson's senior talent pool. Just last week, the firm announced that Ame Wadler and Richard Mintz were being promoted to global practice heads of their respective areas, healthcare and public affairs. But Burson has also lost key people during the past few years, and never replaced US CEO Chet Burchett. There is an opportunity, under new leadership, to empower the firm's legacy leaders and develop a clear executive structure.
Nides has a slightly easier task than did Komisarjevsky, who of course took over for the iconic Harold Burson. But those who have worked with Komisarjevsky note his passionate commitment to research and thought-leadership. He is considered highly ethical, disciplined, collaborative, and an excellent communications practitioner.
As for the firm Komisarjevsky leaves behind at the end of the year, it seems from the outside to be in its own state of transition. It is the firm that scored highest in overall satisfaction in our Agency Excellence Survey. And it is also the firm that needs to continue to gel in its senior ranks and straddle the multiple faces of the industry.