'A visionary; always informed about the region' - remembering Harold Burson

Sunil John, founder of ASDA'A BCW and president of BCW Middle East, pays tribute to Harold Burson, who passed away last week aged 98.

Harold Burson and Sunil John catch up at New York’s Landmarc restaurant last summer to reflect on 16 years of successful affiliate and network partnerships
Harold Burson and Sunil John catch up at New York’s Landmarc restaurant last summer to reflect on 16 years of successful affiliate and network partnerships

When I last saw Harold, our Founder Chairman, for lunch in the famous Landmarc restaurant in
New York’s Times Warner Center last July, I had a sense of foreboding. The restaurant was closing, Harold was moving to Memphis and I left with a feeling of regret as to whether I’d see him again.

He was as sharp as ever, excited and nostalgic, enquiring about the business. That sense of
curiosity defined Harold. He was always informed about the region, writing in his book The Business of Persuasion: "I well remember my first visit to Bahrain, Dubai and Abu Dhabi in 1979. The Dubai Skyline consisted of three buildings, each about 30 stories high. Outside the back door was the ever-stretching desert sand."

We first met at Burson-Marsteller’s 50 th anniversary in 2003, when Asda’a was just an affiliate,
five years before WPP acquired our firm and we became an integral part of the Burson-
Marsteller network. Whenever we met over the years, he was always keen to know everything
that was going on, our Arab Youth Survey, our clients and our people.

Fast forward to 2012, on our invitation to be the star speaker at the IPRA 20 th Public Relations
Congress in Dubai, I remember the ‘fireside chat’ with Richard Dean, and the insights he gave
on the profession then still ring true today.

Harold observes that, "PR professionals have failed to put digital in the proper context and often see it as an alternative to PR, when in fact PR professionals need to adapt to digital all the time, much like they did when TV was the new medium."

You need only see some of the tributes this week, many from our industry’s top leaders, to see
how much of an impact he had on the industry. In a survey conducted by PRWeek, Harold was
described as "the century’s most influential PR figure" and architect of the largest public
relations agency in the world.

Without doubt, he was a visionary, transforming PR into a global enterprise.
Harold’s values and contributions will always be at the heart of BCW. His illustrious career
began in New York in 1946, he launched Burson-Marsteller in 1953 and as CEO of the firm, he
built it to become the largest PR agency in the world by 1983. He continued to come to the
office in his role as Founder Chairman of BCW right up until his passing.

While Harold strode like a colossus through the public relations industry across six decades, his
legacy is his kindness, humility and generosity. Every one of us who had the opportunity knows
what a tremendous privilege it was to have worked with Harold. I’m delighted to see there is a
special memorial website – www.celebratingharoldburson.com – which will keep his legac alive.

We have produced a commemorative book for our Dubai team to share their condolences and memories. While we grieve for his loss, it is Harold Burson who we celebrate. What a man. 


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