Maja Pawinska Sims 26 Jan 2024 // 3:08PM GMT
LONDON — After WPP announced this week it would be merging its two biggest PR agencies, BCW and Hill & Knowlton, to create a $1 billion communications firm, the holding group’s chief executive Mark Read spoke to PRovoke Media.
In our Q&A, he addresses the biggest challenges and opportunities of the move, from the impact of AI to client conflicts, talent and bringing back the Burson name to the PR industry.
What’s the rationale for and thinking behind the merger?
Covid demonstrated to clients the value of strategic communications. When I looked at the agencies, both had done well, so this is nothing to do with the performance of the businesses. It’s about the opportunity Corey [duBrowa, BCW global CEO] and AnnaMaria [DeSalva, H&K chairman and CEO] saw to take a leadership position in the industry.
Clients are looking for more strategic advice – strategic communications companies including FGS Global within WPP have demonstrated that – and global reach is important; both agencies have a complementary footprint. And AI and technology will change some of the rules of the road for PR businesses, so the merger is a combination of building an agency that will grow more quickly and have resources to invest in these new areas, and frankly so we can hire a particular type of talent – top senior counsel – that clients want.
What’s your vision for Burson? What will it be able to do that the separate brands can’t?
I’m a great fan of simplicity. If you merged two independent companies the resulting company would be stronger, and it’s no different inside WPP. The new Burson will have the talent of both agencies and the ability to invest in technology, and a strong set of client relationships. We’ve had a great reaction from clients, who are excited, and from our talent, who can see the opportunity to build stronger careers in a bigger business.
What are the biggest challenges and opportunities of the merger?
In any merger the real test is how the business is doing in one and five years’ time. That’s what we have to focus on, as well as ensuring this is truly a merger and not a takeover, and keeping the best people in the company. The biggest opportunity is to lead our industry in working through the challenge of AI, which will be doing many of the things we’ve been paid for, more quickly than before.
It concerns me a lot, how we train junior people when many of the things we learned how to do are now being done by computers, from writing press releases to press cuttings, and while I believe in AI-augmented people, we learn lots of things doing the mundane. We will have to learn to take advantage of it as a technology and spend time giving our clients strategic advice.
Why did you decide to bring the Burson name back?
There were times when I used to refer to BCW as ‘the agency formerly known as Burson’, and Corey and AnnaMaria agreed it was a smart thing to do because of Harold Burson’s integrity and role in the industry. I’ve been delighted by the reaction on LinkedIn to bringing back the name – it might feel tougher for H&K people but it’s not a reflection of the performance of either of the brands, it’s about uniting behind something meaningful we can all stand for. I’m proud to bring it back.
What would you say to comments that the merger will be a client conflict nightmare
We always have to reassure clients, but having brought together VLMY&R and Wunderman Thompson [WPP’s two biggest ad agencies, which merged in October last year] we didn’t lose any clients to conflict. There are mechanisms and ways of making sure that doesn’t happen.
The Burson-Marsteller/Cohn & Wolfe merger was a cultural clash that took some time to unravel – will this go more smoothly?
We do need to build a common culture, but the two agencies are more alike than different, and it starts at the top. In Corey and AnnaMaria we have two extremely professional leaders who are committed to taking their teams on this journey. I’m optimistic and confident that we can create a culture that reflects Harold’s founding principles of honesty, transparency, integrity and excellence.