Holmes Report 13 Jan 2020 // 5:55AM GMT
He was the best listener I ever met. In the 35 years I knew Harold Burson, I never once heard him interrupt, interject or impose himself in a conversation, not once. He always waited patiently and respectfully for that precise moment when his quiet, plain-spoken response or opinion would resonate. Those moments were often profound and inspirational.
I recall noisy meeting rooms with atmospheres charged by opinionated conflict, vested interests and jostling individual agendas brought to an almost embarrassed and introspective silence by his sage-like wisdom, his insight, his concern for the client, the better interests of the team, and for the integrity of our profession.
Heads around the table would literally bow, not in deference to his position (he would have hated that) but involuntarily and subconsciously as we absorbed and reflected on what we had just heard. It is impossible to relay such profound experiences without it coming across as hyperbole. Those who were there, at least the team-players, will relate. He was a moral and professional compass, an inspiration in the truest sense.
Harold had more impact on my life than any other person outside of immediate family; indeed, my family would look very different were it not for him. It’s a little story worth telling because it says so much about Harold’s trust in untested young talent and his desire to see them fly even if their wings were not yet fully formed.
I first met Harold in the heady and intoxicating agency world of the mid-80’s. He visited the Burson-Marsteller London office a couple of times but I only got to meet him in group gatherings. There was nothing to suggest he had taken any notice of this cocky and naive London-based Liverpudlian. Then, on New Year’s Eve 1985, completely out of the blue, I received a phone call at home. In hindsight it was to change my life dramatically.
“Hello Bill, this is Harold Burson calling from New York. Happy New Year.” I thought it was a colleague, the practical joker of the office. I still blush recalling how I initially responded to what I thought was a prank call.
After a silent pause and a reassurance that it was indeed the firm’s founder on the phone, he forgave my cynical profanity and went on to tell me that the firm had won the hugely prestigious contract to manage the global comms for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. I still pinch myself today when I recall him asking if I would be willing to up sticks to lead the assignment from the Olympic Organising Committee headquarters in Korea. I had no idea why he asked me but I accepted on the spot (told you I was cocky) and found myself sitting in his New York office the following week to discuss the finer details.
I was 27 and the rest, as they say, is history. I ended up staying in Asia for 30 eventful years hence the reference to my family. The moral of this story is not to relay my “Sliding Doors” moment, but to illustrate how Harold Burson saw things in us that we ourselves could not perceive. He trusted his instincts and he trusted us. This was never more evident than when we moved on from the company bearing his name. His trust and goodwill went with you because, with Harold, the relationship endured long after the transaction was over.
Giants sometimes appear in small, unassuming forms. They don’t stomp around asserting their seniority but tread carefully through the world making a difference to others through wisdom, empathy and humility. Harold would frown and flick away any such idolatry therein only reinforcing his greatness.
The giant may be gone but he will always remain an inspiration.
Prema Sagar, CEO & founder, Genesis BCW:
Every time I met Harold—the last time was on April 30, 2019 in New York at the BCW office—I came away awed and inspired. Here was this man in his nineties, warm and engaging, involved in everything around him. Concerned about everyone who came in touch with him. Coming to the office every day, perky and alert, showing no signs of ever slowing down. Where did he get his energy from? Today, when I hear about his passing and see the outpouring of tributes, I realize that he drew energy from people and gave that energy back as well. He was shaped by them and shaped them in turn. I am lucky to have been one of those people.
I met Harold way back in the early 2000s, when Genesis PR was just about completing a decade. The Indian economy was opening up and a number of companies from abroad started coming into India. With them came several international PR firms and that gave us a great opportunity to learn. At our end, we were doing our own soul-searching—people like Deepshikha and Sheena in the firm questioned, “How will we learn more, grow bigger and go beyond what we are doing now?”
One of our clients was getting into a joint venture with an international company and it is in this context that a gentleman from Burson-Marsteller flew in to meet us. It was Bill Rylance, a great person to have as a CEO in APAC. We realized that we had similar thought processes and work ethic and a mutual respect grew. He then recommended that I go and meet the global CEO. I landed in New York to have lunch with Harold in his large meeting room. Over the conversation, it was clear to me that the work ethic that I was so admiring came from this man—a warm, polite, yet clear and firm man. We first decided to become an affiliate for BM in India. But once Harold visited us in India, met our clients and our team, we were ready to be more fully integrated into the BM family. When we celebrated 25 years of Genesis, he wrote to me, “Every time I hear or see the word Genesis, I say a special thank you to Bill Rylance for bring our two organizations together!” The feeling was definitely mutual.
Over the years, BM changed and so did we, but Harold continued to be the true north that we all continued to look towards in good times or bad. When his book came out a couple of years ago, I got a chance to learn more about his life—parts I had only vaguely heard about. His experiences during the Nuremberg trials, his meeting Bill Marsteller and creating Burson-Marsteller, his determined steps towards making BM the number one public relations firm in the world and expanding to several countries. For me, though, the core of the book was the man himself—one of the nicest people I ever met, but with the strength and focus that set him apart from others.
I have always considered Harold my idol. His kindness and generosity will always keep him in the hearts of all those who knew him. Me…I will always remember his smile.
Ferry De Bakker, former Burson-Marsteller Asia president/CEO:
“The public relations business is not profitable enough to satisfy the demands of both shareholders and managers.” Words spoken about 20 years ago by Harold Burson. How right this extraordinary man was. I have known Harold for almost 40 years and of all the people I have met in my life, none has taught me more about life, people, ethics, commitment, humility and, yes, our profession. When Harold spoke, in business meetings, at conferences or in private, he set the tone. His incredible wisdom and the gentle way he expressed his views, silenced people and forced them to rethink their convictions. Harold was a great storyteller too and I particularly loved his many anecdotes about his experiences in World War II and its aftermath. Always ready to help other people, always available to coach anyone, young or old, Harold Burson will be missed.
Kim Hunter, chairman & CEO, The Lagrant Foundation:
My memories then and now of Harold Burson are when he would ask me to come by his apartment on the Upper West Side and then go to lunch. And they would be when it was snow on the ground and very cold…28 degrees! It never bothered Harold at all. We would talk about family, friends, life, and of course, the PR industry. Two entrepreneurs. My parents always told me when people invite you into their homes, it is a sign of respect and mutual admiration. Harold was more than a legend. He was a human being with a great deal of knowledge about how you treat people, how you work with people, how you provide the best counsel to clients, and be authentic.
One day I asked Harold if I could meet with him to discuss an ideal I had and he said, of course. I flew to NYC from LA and I made my pitch of creating The LAGRANT Foundation (TLF) Harold Burson Fellowship for ethnically diverse graduate students. Harold asked me how much was I thinking it would cost. I said $50,000. Harold said, "that’s it. I thought you were going to ask me for $250,000. Count me in.” It was truly one of my highlights with the impact of TLF. Harold was one of kind….I will miss his words of wisdom
Alan VanderMolen, former B-M executive for 13 years:
At a time when communicators and their agencies struggle with definitions of what it is we do or should do, Harold Burson remained steadfast and brilliantly simple on the topic: ‘anything that communicates about a company or organisation is PR.’ His genius was his clarity of purpose; his gift to us all was his kindness and generosity in good times and in bad. RIP Harold.
Robyn de Villiers, EVP, chairman & CEO, BCW Africa:
In addition to being the founding father of PR, a trusted advisor to presidents and CEOs, and the man who truly embodied what being a Burson-person meant to us all, Harold was a true gentleman. I recall my first visit to the New York office when the Arcay Communications Africa network became the exclusive affiliate network to Burson-Marsteller in 2007. Not only did Harold attend my presentation on Africa in the New York office, he also gave me an hour of his time one-on-one. And, he personally set up an interview for me with the Editor of PR Week US to which he escorted me — we walked from the NY Office — and he sat with me throughout the interview.
And this was not a once-off. I am privileged to have spent time with Harold on numerous occasions since then and to have learnt from his wisdom and been able to listen to his amazing stories of our industry over the years. Harold was also a master at making videos for us to use on special occasions, one in 2011 when we were acquired by WPP in which he expressed his excitement at seeing the Burson-Marsteller network moving onto its 6th continent and one, in October 2019, when we celebrated our 30 year anniversary, to name just two. And he always only needed one take! We will treasure these and our memories of Harold forever. May he rest in peace.
Andy Polansky, chairman & CEO, IPG CMG:
Harold was an inspirational figure to me personally and for our industry. I had the great pleasure of spending time with Harold over many lunches and industry events over the years, and always enjoyed hearing stories about his life and how he built his firm and built connections to people around the world.
Many will remember him for how he was a trailblazer in globalizing the PR agency business and in developing sophisticated approaches to reputation management. I will remember his kindness, his generosity, his commitment to diversity and inclusion, his good humor and his friendship.
Chris Boehlke, co-founder and principal, Bospar:
“We all know the huge contributions Harold made to our profession. But those of us who were fortunate enough to work side by side with him also never ceased to be amazed by his continued humble and down to earth approach to people, to work, and to life. He was the ultimate kind and soft spoken gentleman with an ever-present sense of humor. I’m honored to tell him – one last time – “I’m proud to be a Burson-person”.
John Saunders, CEO, FleishmanHillard:
“I like to think I get on well with most, if not, all my competitors. Harold Burson was different league. The first time I met him – several years ago at Potsdam in Germany – I did something I hardly ever do. I asked him to do a selfie with me. That’s how much I respected him. He was a rare, true, icon. And a perfect gentleman.”
Ken Makovsky, CEO, Makovsky & Co.:
"Harold Burson was a role model for most in our industry as both an innovator and prodigious worker. His longevity in servicing clients illustrated his intense passion for Public Relations. He will be missed dearly."