News Analysis: B-M bullish after pharma faux pas

Burson-Marsteller UK has travelled a 'rocky road' of late with misconduct in its health team and the exit of senior staff. But Alex Black finds the group optimistic.

Burson-Marsteller became the talk of the industry for all the wrong reasons last week after the actions of an unidentified individual in its London health team caused a major pharma client to be named and shamed for bad practice.

The saga began this summer when a staffer offered cash to journalists in exchange for their attendance at a National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) appeal hearing. The agency's immediate apology and admission of a ‘total breach of policy' based on human error (PRWeek, 9 June) was accepted by NICE and client Janssen-Cilag (J-C) - but the latter, it emerged last week, is to be named in pharma trade journal ads as a result of the gaffe (PRWeek, 3 Nov).

All parties are understandably keen to put the incident behind them, none more so than the WPP-owned agency, which has been working hard behind the scenes to put what it terms a ‘rocky road' - specifically, various high-level departures - behind it.

The most high profile departure was the resignation of UK chief executive Per Heggenes (PRWeek, 11 Aug) - the Norwegian 24-year agency loyalist - who moved in-house, at shipping company Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics (WWL). Corporate and tech MD Jonathan Jordan was swiftly installed as interim CEO - a decision is expected soon on whether he has secured the job full-time.

Comings and goings
B-M's health and PA divisions have also been experiencing some turbulence. Healthcare joint head Richard Rockliffe resigned in September (PRWeek, 8 Sep). Healthcare directors Ellen Sarewitz, Monica Shuman and director Sam Barnes have also all departed in the past few months.

But Athena Medical PR associate director Anna Gray and Solaris joint MD Rachel Terry have subsequently been brought in, along with veteran health specialist Tessa Hopkins (on an interim basis). The team is now run single-handedly by stalwart Amie Malkin.

Over in public affairs, B-M lost chairman Simon Elliott in October, along with director Charles Willis (PRWeek, 20 Oct). MD Rhoda Macdonald, who joined from Bell Pottinger Public Affairs in September last year, has taken responsibility for the practice. UK chairman Gavin Grant, an agency stalwart, also continues to ‘play an active role'.

Both Jordan and European CEO Heidi Sinclair, who is based in Madrid, vehemently disagree that the comings and goings have left the agency's London office in turmoil.

Nor do they accept that the agency has suffered a ‘brain drain' over several years, a view held by some former employees.

‘B-M used to employ the best brains in the business,' says one, speaking anonymously. ‘Sometimes, sitting around a table used to be terrifying because of the number of brilliant people in the room. Now it seems to have lost direction.'

Another ex-employee blames the parent: ‘In WPP there seems to be more concern with hourly rates than fostering genuine creativity. The philosophy seems to revolve around hiring lots of 20-somethings and just keeping a few senior people around to spin the plates.'

Sinclair indignantly refutes this. She says: ‘There are the same number of senior people here as there were three years ago and I can assure you we do more than spinning plates.'

She adds: ‘It is a myth that being part of a big parent is a constraint. We get on pitch lists for things we never would if we were not part of a WPP.' B-M does not publish such information in full, but it is known to work for major clients including Accenture, Hewlett-Packard, Royal Dutch Shell, Standard Life and Visa International. B-M claims to be unable to reveal operational numbers due to Sarbanes-Oxley, but is believed to employ at least 100 staff in London.

Allan Biggar, the former global chair of B-M's corporate finance practice, believes the agency has been forced to adapt to a changing market in the past few years, and has survived what even B-M admits has been a difficult period, by evolving into ‘a different agency'.

Part of this evolution is physical. The agency's Bloomsbury Way offices are being refurbished and updated to include better client facilities and their own TV studio and editing suites.

But the real change, says Jordan, is a shift away from B-M's traditional practice structure to focus instead on ‘creating the right team to meet client needs'. ‘We do not work in silos,' he says. ‘B-M sees its ability to draw consultants from specialist areas across the organisation - be they based in the UK, Europe or any other part of the world - as one of the firm's major differentiators.'

Grant goes as far as to admit: ‘Seven years ago people on different floors in this building had no reason or inclination to speak to each other - we have now smashed that, we are a full- service agency. Clients don't care what practice people come from, they care about the end result.'

‘Generally in good shape'
Former MD of brands and integrated marketing Mark Rollinson, who left almost a year ago, believes B-M's intellectual capital remains focused around its core business of PA, healthcare and corporate affairs.

Rollinson says he thinks the agency is ‘generally in good shape' and finding its feet after ‘losing its way three years ago'.He is one of many who credit the unassuming Heggenes with playing a major role in the turnaround.

B-M's senior management are candid when it comes to admitting that the past few years have been far from terrific - but are nonetheless bullish about the future.

‘Some people are nostalgic about the "old days",' says Sinclair. ‘We are not interested in the past. We have the right leadership, the right people and are winning new business. Come back in a year's time and you will see a very different B-M.'

Burson-Marsteller's top brass

In London...
Jonathan Jordan - UK CEO (interim); Gavin Grant - UK chairman; Geoffrey Hyde - UK corporate MD; Amie Malkin - UK healthcare MD; Rhoda Macdonald - UK public affairs MD; Neil Honor - MD of Communique (bought by B-M seven years ago and which now handles its UK consumer work)

In New York...
Mark Penn - worldwide president and CEO; Harold Burson - founder

In Madrid...
Heidi Sinclair - European chief executive

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