Burson Cohn & Wolfe sheds two U.S. leaders, promotes four others

In the wake of an exodus of former Burson-Marsteller executives, BCW CEO Donna Imperato says the U.S. changes mark the end of post-merger restructuring.

BCW CEO Donna Imperato says she has almost completed her post-merger restructuring.
BCW CEO Donna Imperato says she has almost completed her post-merger restructuring.

NEW YORK: Burson Cohn & Wolfe’s U.S. CFO Jerry Selick and U.S. MD of human resources Maya Kalkay are leaving the firm as four other employees take on senior leadership roles.

CEO of BCW Donna Imperato said Pat Przybyski was made global CFO; Maury Shapiro, deputy global CFO; Michele Chase, chief talent officer; and Stephanie Howley EVP of HR in North America. All four assumed their new positions on August 13.

Przybyski was formerly COO and CFO of Burson-Marsteller; Shapiro was worldwide CFO of Cohn & Wolfe; Chase was worldwide MD of human resources at B-M; Howley was EVP, global talent manager at C&W.

Imperato added that BCW would name "a couple more" leaders soon and is set to roll out the company’s new website just after Labor Day.

Selick and Kalkay are the latest in a series of leadership changes since WPP merged Cohn & Wolfe and Burson-Marsteller six months ago. The deal created the world’s third-largest PR firm by revenue with Imperato, formerly head of Cohn & Wolfe, as CEO.

Last month, BCW named nine North American market leaders, all of whom report to Chris Foster. The former Burson-Marsteller worldwide EVP and chief business development officer was named president of North America in March when BCW appointed its global leadership group.

In April, BCW named a new spate of APAC leaders and, in July, it appointed new market leaders in Europe and Africa.

At the time of the merger, Imperato said BCW didn’t plan to cut any executives, but since then there has been an exodus of former Burson-Marsteller leaders in addition to Selick and Kalkay.

Departures include the following B-M execs, according to direct reach-outs and LinkedIn research:

  1. Mike Fernandez, CEO of Burson-Marsteller U.S, left around the time of the merger
  2. Worldwide president Kevin Bell retired
  3. Chief strategy officer Thomas Gensemer left this spring to "pursue other opportunities"
  4. U.K. CEO Stephen Day departed
  5. Asia-Pacific CEO Margaret Key left to become Zeno Group’s Asia-Pacific CEO
  6. Kyle Farnham, U.S. practice chair, consumer, brand marketing, and integrated marketing communications, is now New York MD at Porter Novelli
  7. Helaine Klasky, U.S. VP, chair, public affairs and crisis management
  8. Rowan Benecke, global technology chair
  9. Tech practice chair Jodi Brooks now runs Finn Partners tech practice
  10. U.S. healthcare chair Henry Engleka
  11. Ian McCabe, Asia-Pac vice-chairman of public affairs and government communications, is now APAC vice-chair of public affairs for Edelman
  12. Bill McQuillen, senior director of public affairs, is now VP of comms at the American Hotels and Lodging Association
  13. Chicago senior director Thekla Eftychiadou is now a partner at Finn Partners
  14. Jeremy Gaines, MD of Washington D.C., is now SVP of comms at PBS
  15. Sarah Shelden, senior director of workplace labor and public affairs, is now senior director of corporate communications at XPO Logistics
  16. Sam Harper, former senior director of public affairs and crisis, is now a principal of digital and analytics at Locust Street Group
  17. Josh McConaha, director, public affairs and crisis, is now a  partner at New Paradigm Strategy Group
  18. Sarah Tyre, MD of public affairs and crisis, left for Weber Shandwick
  19. James Atkins, formerly MD of US corporate and financial practice, is now COO and MD at Marathon Strategies
  20. Patricia Caballero, MD of U.S. business development, is now a principal at PSC Consulting
  21. Barbara Laidlaw, an MD for global clients streamlining and growing activity worldwide, is now at Allison+Partners
  22. Cameron French, director of public affairs and crisis, is now a VP at SKDKnickerbocker
  23. Katherine Boehret, senior director at B-M D.C. is now senior director at Subject Matter

Imperato said turnover at BCW is normal for a company going through a major transformation and less than 1% of the approximately 4,000 people BCW said it employed in a statement announcing the merger.

"It’s normal for any restructuring," she added. "The combined attrition rate is actually lower this year than last. It’s not any higher [here] than the average."

A spokeswoman said BCW’s overall attrition rate is 23.05% which, the spokeswoman said closely matches the PR Council’s industry average of 23%.

In most, but not all cases, Imperato said the leaders were offered jobs but chose not to accept them. According to the spokeswoman, only one role was officially eliminated as a result of the restructure.

"The people who left didn’t want the roles we created for them," said Imperato. "I’m really good at putting people in positions where they’ll succeed. I totally understand that people want different roles. I wish the people did stay. But I understand why they left and we wish our friends well. Still, I stand by every move I’ve made in terms of talent."

However, at least two senior BCW leaders said on background they weren’t offered a new position.

"Attrition is through the roof," said one former mid-level staffer who was surprised to find he would no longer have a role at the same level he had prior to the merger. Some teams inside the company, he said, were "being decimated."

The staffer added that people are leaving because of uncertainty about their future in the post-merger agency.

"The absence of communication and lack of a clear direction and vision from the top of the U.S. market and globally was creating some angst," he said.

Some people planned to leave prior to the announcement of the merger, including McQuillen. Others, such as Key, said the merger was not the motivation for leaving, but it did create the opportunity.

"I had a really good opportunity within BCW to run Axicom," Key explained. "But at the same time, like many, because of the merger I was approached by others."

Rowan Benecke, former global chair of BCW’s technology practice, said an agency puts client relationships at risk when it loses so many senior leaders at once.

"When several top leaders proactively choose to leave, or exit involuntarily — including the heads of HR, finance, practices, services, and several key client relationships — the business risk is that people across the organization question if their individual contributions are valued enough for them to continue to stay, regardless of the business plan," he added.

Imperato said client loss has not been an issue. "The relationships stay with the team," she added. "No one person owns a client and we have an incredible team. I’m working with some of our top 10 clients and I’m not worrying about clients leaving because any one person left. It’s not happening."

In fact, Imperato said BCW’s APAC business is growing "30% year to date." Also, the agency hasn’t lost a single client and is "winning like crazy in Asia." She also said overall revenue for the agency through July is up 10.6% year on year.

In 2017, according to PRWeek’s  2018 Agency Business Report, BCW saw 4% revenue growth to an estimated $691 million.

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