The 'reluctant takeover': office move announced but progress slow on UK integration of Burson Cohn & Wolfe

Burson-Marsteller's London staff will move into Cohn & Wolfe's office in the Autumn, PRWeek understands, as the agencies' supposed merger takes on the appearance of a straightforward takeover.

When WPP announced in February that Burson and Cohn & Wolfe were being combined, it was positioned as a "merger".

But most in the industry took that term with a pinch of salt; despite having led the far smaller pre-merger agency, Cohn & Wolfe chief (and Sir Martin Sorrell favourite) Donna Imperato was given the top job in the shake-up. Meanwhile, Don Baer, after three consecutive years without growth (according to PRWeek’s Agency Business Report) at the larger firm, had to settle for the role of chair.

Subsequent moves have also indicated that the UK nerve centre of Burson Cohn & Wolfe (BCW) is very much in Tavistock Square at Cohn & Wolfe’s office, rather than Burson’s base less than a mile south, at Central Saint Giles.

In March, Cohn & Wolfe’s Scott Wilson was named Europe and Africa president of the merged firm, while Burson EMEA CEO Ramiro Prudencio took a lower profile role in the corporate reputation business. In May and June, respectively, it emerged that Burson’s London-based worldwide president Kevin Bell was resigning, and that its UK CEO Stephen Day had been made redundant.

Redundancy reassurance

When Imperato visited London in March, she reassured Cohn & Wolfe staff that there would be no redundancies.

It is not known what she told Burson’s London staff – who sources suggest number around 50 right now, a far cry from the 100+ of previous years – on the matter.

Said a recently departed mid-level Burson UK staffer: "Morale is pretty low, recruiters are crawling all over Burson at junior and mid-level at least, and there have been a lot of junior departures."

That low morale has been exacerbated by the impending departure from their flashy modern Central Saint Giles offices, where housemates include Google. Tavistock Square is seen a step down; a less prestigious location, less likely to impress clients, in a quieter part of town.

This said, that move could save some jobs – the merged firm could realise six-figure annual cost savings thanks to leaving Central Saint Giles. Although WPP has several years left on its £52.50/sq ft lease (a good deal, secured in 2010 in a depressed property market), it could bring other companies into the building.

'No flood of CVs'

An industry recruitment specialist told PRWeek that the speed of departures had been slower in 2018, but added: "Although we are not seeing a flood of CVs at this point, that tends to happen more when people start to see real change, such as moving into the same office or if the management starts to make redundancies."

Indeed, a senior source at Burson said that the agency had picked up several clients recently and expected things to continue roughly as normal until the end of the year. The recent loss of a high-profile public affairs account with Ineos was related to controversy around the firm’s fracking activities more than uncertainty at Burson.

A UK PR figure, who employs several recent Burson leavers, suggested that in the UK the merger appeared something of a "reluctant takeover", explaining that the merger might have been primarily created to suit needs of US-based bits of the businesses, with relative outposts such as London feeling like an afterthought.

While the ‘Burson is good at corporate, Cohn & Wolfe is good at consumer’ narrative works well on a global level, there is more crossover in the UK where both entities have strong consumer and healthcare divisions.

When the creation of BCW was first reported, it was noted that WPP had brought forward the date of the announcement, due to a staff leak. This explains why, despite the fact that the merger was said to take immediate effect, there was no new logo, website or Twitter handle at the time. It is another question as to why these things still do not exist, four months later.

Culture

The clearest obvious comparison to the BCW ‘merger’ is when similarly sized FleishmanHillard and Fishburn combined in London in late 2015. The leadership duo from those agencies’ have since admitted to PRWeek that staff at Fishburn, the agency which was transplanted into Fleishman, had "fear in their eyes" after this was announced.

This was overcome through joint meetings and clear communication, such as announcements showing that the leadership structure of the new entity would be 50:50 split between the two parties, as well as a Christmas party.

It is understood that BCW's new UK workforce will be getting together for a summer outing imminently, the first formal gathering of the two constituent parts’ rank and file. The leadership would be well advised to start telling their narrative for what the combined firm in the UK will look like, and finding common ground to create a new, merged culture.

Right now, staff at the agencies don’t appear to have been told much, officially at least, about what awaits them. They have that in common with PRWeek; multiple requests to Burson Cohn & Wolfe for comment on this story all went unanswered.

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