NEW YORK — WPP is to merge BCW and Hill & Knowlton into a single entity called Burson, creating a $1bn PR firm that could arguably be the industry's biggest player.

The decision to merge the holding group's two biggest PR firms, set for 1 July, comes five years after BCW was created by the takeover of Burson-Marsteller by Cohn & Wolfe. According to spokespersons from the two firms, Hill & Knowlton will continue to operate as a distinct brand within Burson, "serving a select group of clients globally through strategic communications, advisory and public affairs services, including clients where there may be conflicts." 

BCW global CEO Corey duBrowa, who joined the firm from Google last May, will serve as Burson’s global CEO, while AnnaMaria DeSalva, H&K’s global chairman and CEO since 2019, is named global chairman. duBrowa and DeSalva will together oversee strategy, client service, employee and experience, WPP said in announcing the merger Thursday.

However, further leadership appointments, including regional leadership roles, have yet to be confirmed. "Appointments will be announced throughout 2024 as the integration progresses," said a spokesperson, with leaders drawn from both BCW and H&K. 

Job losses were not ruled out. "Our goal in bringing the agencies together is to build a stronger organization and minimize impact on jobs to the greatest extent possible," said a spokesperson. 

The new firm, named for the late PR pioneer Harold Burson, is expected to weigh in at more than $1.1bn, according to figures from PRovoke Media's Global 250 Agency Ranking. WPP does not disclose fee income for individual firms, but BCW was estimated at around $800m in 2022, making it the industry's third largest player.

H&K, meanwhile, dropped out of the top 10 for the first time in its history, despite a reasonable revival under the leadership of DeSalva. Together, the combined billings of the new Burson entity are expected to exceed Edelman, which has been the industry's biggest PR firm for more than a decade. 

The integration of BCW and H&K also reflects WPP CEO Mark Read's long-term 'simplification' strategy, which has resulted in the mergers of Wunderman Thompson and VMLY&R, Essence and MediaCom, Grey and AKQA, Sard Verbinnen and Finsbury Glover Hering (now FGS Global), and WPP's various design agencies. The holding group issued two profit warnings last year, while its PR agencies were hit by “cautious spending trends” by clients in Q3 – with like-for-like revenue down by 0.9% to £283m.

The combination creates considerable scale in such sectors as healthcare and technology, while the overall firm will employ more than 6,000 people across 43 markets worldwide. Axicom and GCI Health will continue to operate as distinct specialist brands, focused on technology and healthcare, respectively. 

“Harold Burson believed strongly that actions are stronger than words, and he established honesty, transparency, integrity and excellence as the guiding principles of his business,” said duBrowa in a statement. “Those principles are the foundational ideals of Burson, upon which we will set the bar for modern communications through our AI-first innovation pipeline. Together as Burson, we will bring insights, expert strategic counsel and technology solutions into a higher value offering for our clients to help them innovate and lead in today’s complex operating environment.” 

Added DeSalva, “The combination of Hill & Knowlton and BCW is highly synergistic, creating a premier partner for business leaders who are focused on commercial growth, risk management, and reputational capital. Our body of work increasingly demonstrates that strategic communication, elevated by creativity, is a primary force for sustainable value creation. By accelerating our transformation through this combination, we will enable the investments in talent and technology that advance communications leadership when it has never mattered more.”

Since duBrowa took over from Donna Imperato, he has significantly reshaped BCW's global leadership. In the US, Kristine Boyden joined the agency in the new role of Americas CEO, following the departure of North America president Mary Corcoran. Scott Wilson, a 13-year BCW veteran, was promoted to CEO of BCW’s newly-formed EMEA region, and MENA president Sunil John departed. 

Since being brought in to revitalize the agency, DeSalva has restored momentum in the US, where business was languishing, and Asia-Pacific — while the firm's EMEA operation remains formidable. H&K has also made two recent acquisitions — JeffreyGroup, which doubled its Latin America presence, and German healthcare firm 3K.

“Hill & Knowlton and BCW are two high-performing businesses with complementary strengths, shared ambitions and many shared clients," said WPP CEO Mark Read. "I am delighted to see the Burson brand brought back to unite them. The new agency will be the standard bearer as the most modern, strategic, technology-driven, full-service communications offer in the industry.”

Additional reporting by Diana Marszalek