NEW YORK: When Karen van Bergen formally takes the helm as global CEO of Porter Novelli in January, she should focus on her staff and bringing talent on-board, say industry executives.
Van Bergen, currently senior partner and MD of the agency's New York office, will step into the chief executive role after what one Omnicom Group executive described as a “shakeout at the top with senior management.” Departures in the last year have included former CEO Gary Stockman, CMO Michael Goldberg, CFO Anthony Viceroy, and president Julie Winskie.
“The No. 1 priority if I were her would be to try to acquire the best talent I could, find ways to motivate the people they have running the offices all around the world, and try to make some steady progress month-by-month in 2013,” the executive added.
Van Bergen garnered praise from other agency leaders that spoke with PRWeek. The McDonald's and Fleishman-Hillard veteran is a “very strong communications executive,” said the Omnicom source, but a challenge for her in the top job will be managing a large staff around the world.
Before joining Porter a year ago, van Bergen spent three years as SVP and senior partner in Amsterdam for fellow Omnicom firm Fleishman-Hillard and global leader of OneVoice, a network of Omnicom agencies that work with Royal Philips Electronics. She managed more than 600 staffers in 80 countries at OneVoice.
Previously, van Bergen was Fleishman's regional director for the Netherlands and Central and Eastern Europe. She also served as chief of staff and VP of corporate affairs for McDonald's Europe during a 13-year career at the fast-food giant.
Carmichael Lynch Spong president Doug Spong says van Bergen will work to build on the culture that Bill Novelli and Jack Porter founded the firm on. Her focus should be making sure her staff understands the agency's purpose and bringing a voice to what it has to offer, he adds.
However, another agency executive says that while van Bergen has considerable experience, she has a difficult job ahead because Porter has become “subscale” in terms of its global reach. She should focus on hiring senior talent and working on large accounts such as Hewlett-Packard, the source said.
Rob Flaherty, chief executive at sister Omnicom firm Ketchum, praises van Bergen's leadership ability, calling her a “force of energy.”
“She is incredibly high-energy, diplomatic, yet gets her point across, she has tremendous experience, and she's very smart. Those will be real assets to Porter Novelli and its clients,” he adds.
Another woman moves into a top agency role
Executives from around the industry also note that van Bergen's elevation is heartening because it places another woman at the top of a major firm. An Omnicom heavyweight says it is “encouraging and important” to see a woman reach the top rung at Porter because the industry has as many qualified women as men.
Other women have reached high-level agency roles in recent months. In September, Renee Wilson replaced Jim Tsokanos as MSLGroup's president for North America, a move that executives said at the time bodes well for other women in the industry. Ketchum named Barri Rafferty CEO of North America in August.
Spong notes that van Bergen will move into the role once held by former Porter CEO Helen Ostrowski. He says gender doesn't matter anymore in the industry because “it comes down to how smart you are, what kind of a vision you have for the firm, how you incite people to action around that vision, and what kind of a voice and reputation you bring for the firm.”
Flaherty agrees that the industry is “in the post-gender era where it's not a big deal anymore.”
Executives also say that van Bergen, who hails from The Netherlands, brings international expertise to the firm. Michael Ramah, who ran Porter on an interim basis since Stockman stepped down from the CEO role in July, says the fact that van Bergen has led global teams and can speak several languages will help the firm leverage its network in other countries. She also has the ability to consolidate talent and “balance what clients need and want and what opportunities employees need and want,” Ramah adds.