NEW YORK — After an 18-month search, Omnicom has finally hired a CEO for its $1.3bn public relations unit, bringing in BCW North America president Chris Foster for the high-profile role. 

As CEO of Omnicom Public Relations Group (OPRG), Foster takes charge of the PR industry's biggest network, housing 15 firms including FleishmanHillard, Ketchum and Porter Novelli, and employing 6,300 staff. The CEOs of those firms now report directly to Foster.

Foster himself reports to John Doolittle, who becomes OPRG chairman after serving as interim CEO since Karen van Bergen relinquished the role in late 2019. Doolittle continues reporting to Omnicom's Diversified Agency Services division chairman and CEO Dale Adams, to whom van Bergen previously reported directly. 

Van Bergen's exit, to become dean of Omnicom University, triggered a lengthy search for her successor, which ultimately proved fruitless through 2020. It is understood that Foster was ultimately chosen for the role from a final shortlist that included one other contender.

He will begin the job in late June, after more than three years as BCW's North American president, following the B-M/Cohn & Wolfe merger. Foster spent more than a decade with Burson-Marsteller in three separate stints, working in senior healthcare, corporate and business development roles, and was also at Booz Allen Hamilton for more than five years, where he focused on reputation and communications analytics. 

According to the job description deployed by Omnicom's executive recruitment partners, key responsibilities include leading the OPRG group of agencies "on a path of sustainable, profitable growth," along with development of a strategic plan for group growth, including acquisition opportunities. However, Foster told PRovoke Media that he will also bring a specific focus on client counsel and data science. 

"I'm a practitioner; in addition to getting to know the agencies better and identifying our strategic priorities for growth, I'm excited to dig into client challenges and add value wherever possible," said Foster. "Obviously there's been a lot of investment in data science and analytics — that's an area that's very important to me. Making sure we build but continue to add and invest."

In January, OPRG unveiled the launch of omniearnedID, an insights to analytics platform that aims to help communicators measure the impact of earned media on business outcomes.

"In the process of evaluating and learning more, I'm sure I'll identify areas where we want to invest and strengthen," said Foster. "I'm excited about the portfolio and clients, and — of course — the people. Job one is to take care of staff and clients."

While sustained topline growth has proven elusive for OPRG in recent years, the unit's PR firms performed credibly in 2020, reflecting the industry's overall resilience by only declining 4.2% on an organic basis during a year that was dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic. And while that took place under Doolittle's interim leadership, Foster believes that OPRG still requires a PR practitioner in overall charge, particularly when it comes to bigger assignments. 

"As we're seeing more opportunities to do more work globally, one of the things I'm excited about is for some of the larger, more integrated opportunities, to pull some of the best talent and go to market as Omnicom PR Group," said Foster. "As individual brands, their strategy and notoriety are important, and in most cases I want to support that. But I also think there's an opportunity to scale new and innovative solutions."

Under van Bergen's leadership, OPRG emerged as a standalone brand in several European and Asian markets. Foster would not be drawn on whether that approach may be extended. "I think the verdict's out," he said. "I would probably think there will be more opportunity for the right campaign and the right client solution — we'll probably see more of that. Omnicom has been pretty clear on the strength of the individual brands. We want to protect but also grow."

Success in the role, according to the job description, is measured by year-on-year revenue and EBITDA growth, talent development and measurable collaboration within OPRG and other Omnicom networks. Said Omnicom CEO John Wren: “With [Foster's] passion for talent and proven ability to drive growth through innovation, I look forward to OPRG’s continued success under his leadership."

"Chris comes to us with significant, hands-on agency leadership experience," added Doolittle. "His fluency in integrated marketing communications and his data-centered approach will be a tremendous asset to our clients and our business."

As one of the few Black professionals in senior leadership roles in the PR agency sector, Foster also brings a vital perspective on the industry's diversity and inclusion efforts, which have struggled to drive real change. 

"As an industry, we're on a journey," he told PRovoke Media. "I've allowed myself to be hopeful about where we are as an industry. We've made a lot of commitments. There's obviously a lot more work to be done and I do know that many of the leaders in the business acknowledge that and the role we have to play. I certainly hope to use my voice and my position to support what's been done in the past but also find ways to extend and enhance that. We have to be deliberate and accountable."