It has been barely a month since WPP announced its blockbuster decision to merge BCW and Hill & Knowlton, prompting a cascade of coverage, analysis and commentary. And while the new Burson does not officially launch until 1 July, things are already moving quickly, with regional leaders confirmed and further appointments expected soon. 

To talk us through some of the decisions and context, PRovoke Media caught up with Burson CEO Corey duBrowa and chairman AnnaMaria DeSalva last week. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

People don't always like change. What's your message to staff that might feel threatened by a change of such scale?

Corey duBrowa (CdB): When people understand the strategic rationale for change, questions — which are of course natural after a merger announcement — start to shift toward enthusiasm. We had two very complementary businesses which had been moving closer together in terms of strategic direction, shared philosophies, and overall ambition. Coming together as Burson is a force multiplier for us in terms of building the full-service communications agency we envision, focused on building and protecting the reputation of our clients. We have received very positive feedback from our people and our clients and from the broader industry about the rationale for what we are building. And because we had been so similar in terms of our goals and talent and strategic direction, the change brought about by the Burson merger of equals is really more about the scale of what we can collectively build.

AnnaMaria DeSalva (AMDS): Historically, Hill & Knowlton and BCW both played really important roles in the WPP network and then of course in the industry. And I think that as the world has progressed and changed, especially in this post-Covid period, we're living in an era when strategic communications has never mattered more. And I think that the best players in the industry are focused on elevating talent, elevating technology, bringing to market interdisciplinary solutions and are endeavoring to move up the value chain and play more of a strategic role.

And I think that as both BCW and Hill & Knowlton made moves to do that, our strategic priorities just increasingly converged. So the opportunity to come together and to have a shared agenda for investment, to have a shared agenda for technology, to have a shared agenda for how we develop talent going forward and to be able to draw on our respective talent pools, I think you begin to see the power of that in the leadership announcements we made recently, and we're not done. We have several more announcements to go to flesh out the leadership team, and we have an abundance of talent at the company now because we're able to combine the rosters of both agencies. So I feel like that's resonating with people. I feel like there's an overwhelming logic, which is what comes through in the conversations that I have around the company.

CdB: I've been at BCW now for seven months, and some of the first conversations that AnnaMaria and I had were really just comparing notes. I've been away from the agency side for 15 years. So a lot of what was informing my view was the primacy of the issues that I had faced as a client. Many of those same areas of volatility or change are still quite prevalent today. What became obvious to both of us is that the firms, if anything, were moving closer together in terms of strategic imperative.

I think if there had been any difference in the past with the way that H&K may have gone to market or the way that BCW or prior to that, Burson-Marsteller and Cohn & Wolfe had gone to market — those differences had slowly evaporated as the firms moved closer together. So when I was speaking with AnnaMaria, it was almost like speaking with myself to some extent — the things that we both believed about the world, about the changes that were taking place in business, about how important strategic communications was, both from a reputation point of view, but also a business point of view. We really have viewed this as a merger of equals, the name of the firm, notwithstanding. I think that both firms really bring some similar views and philosophies to the table, but also some complementary skills and areas of expertise that actually make the logic of this union quite sound. So the more that we explored what this looked like after Mark [Read] asked us to, the more sense that it made. 

It's interesting you mentioned that the differences between how the two firms went to market were disappearing. For big firms, I think the issues that they are addressing and the ways they're investing — they are quite similar, at that end of the table. So how do you hope to distinguish yourself from other giant public relations agencies?

AMDS: I think it has a lot to do with quality. Corey and I have both been long-serving clients. So Corey mentioned his 15 years and, all in, I've spent about 18 years on the client side. I think that we both vividly live the client experience even on this side of the industry. We really understand what today's CCO is solving for. And so I feel as though today's client really has to rely on a strategic partner, sort of at the bridge of the enterprise, dealing with all the fusion of issues and stakeholders and strategies and having to make very material decisions rapidly and really intersecting strategy and execution.

When Hill & Knowlton went into the market to do some research to support our rebrand, that is really what the market told us. And so they asked us to be that firm. It made perfect sense to me because that was my own experience as a client. It's really around being able to be that partner to create those solutions that are highly material in a very complex operating environment and bridge strategy and execution globally very effectively. So that's not the only point of difference, but I think sort of a starting point.

CdB: I think that's a pretty good summary of the state of play. Two more things I might add to that that helps us bring this to life. One is the scale at which we operate. So if you think about what BCW plus H&K together as Burson will do, it really gives us unparalleled scale, in the sense that we're literally in dozens of countries, dozens of different markets, the world's most important news, business and economic capitals. Just thinking back to when I was at Google or Starbucks in particular, Salesforce too for that matter — you're really talking about big global brands that carry with them all of the complexity of operating in dozens of markets around the world. What's important to clients in that environment is your ability to translate global messages and campaigns on a locally relevant basis. I don't want to underestimate how important this scale and the talent that goes along with that scale is — I think this is really something that for many of our clients, if I think back, for example, a client like Ford that's been with WPP for 80 plus years, being able to be locally relevant in many, many different places simultaneously is hugely important.

The second thing is, and you all have covered this at PRovoke, it's that technology and our use of technology is definitely already proving to be a differentiator. If I look at a tool like Decipher, some of the most difficult issues that our clients face currently and have faced in recent years have to do with the proliferation of mis and disinformation. If I think back to what I was doing at Google, I spent six years working with a team that we had hired specifically to create a bespoke tool to help deal with this problem of predictive analytics and what does that present to us in terms of the problems that we're trying to solve as communicators, how we best protect and enhance the reputation of the company. What we're learning through tools like Decipher are how to apply predictive analytics at scale, which is tremendously valuable to clients. And that starts to give us some clues about how important these AI tools are going to be to the future of communications.

So when you ask me what makes the new Burson stand apart from its competition, the fact that we can offer this sort of expertise at scale, the kind of talent that we have around the world, and that these tools are starting to give us some clues as to how best to counsel clients in this very choppy reputational environment that we find ourselves in right now starts to build a picture of what we think can differentiate us in the marketplace and the way that our clients are finding value in the services that we bring to market right now.

It's conventional wisdom, let's say, that there's never been a time when big clients are less likely to buy agencies across multiple markets. When I started covering this industry, there were so many global pitches and one agency would win the mandate for the whole world. Those types of assignments seem fewer and further between these days. Do you think that, first of all, that premise is not correct, or do you see the scale in terms of how you are servicing clients, particularly big clients, in a different way? 

CdB: To answer your first question, I don't think it's that those kind of remits have disappeared entirely. If I look for example, at one of our biggest wins of 2023 between the two firms, AMD was essentially a global remit. Having that kind of capability at that kind of global scale, particularly given the changes in the semiconductor industry, it's probably never been more important for AMD to have a partner that can have that kind of scale and expertise. So I wouldn't say that's entirely true, I think those kind of remits still do exist. But that said, I do think there are a number of clients who are quite frankly trying to solve for more locally relevant solutions for them.

This is where, again, at the scale at which we operate, we really do have the talent, the expertise, the sector knowledge to be able to be relevant to a number of different clients, even at a local level where you're looking at specific solutions for markets within Asia-Pacific, for example, or markets within the Middle East and Africa, or things that are very locally specific to markets in the USA, whatever it might be. I actually think that it cuts both ways, because the firms have both a shared sense of philosophy and value, but also have quite complementary pieces. I think that AnnaMaria's team was a little bit further along in terms of developing global points of view about sector expertise. They already had practice experts in technology, healthcare, consumer, corporate and public affairs, energy and industrials. It's not that BCW didn't have that expertise — we do at the local market level or at the regional level — but H&K was further along in terms of developing a global point of view. Being able to take that local expertise that you have and wed that to a global perspective on technology, for example, as a former tech client, that would've been hugely valuable to me in both dimensions. So I don't think absolutes apply here. I think that both things can be true simultaneously.

AMDS: It kind of goes back to the point I made earlier about the interest in the strategy and execution continuum. I do feel like some clients will lean into a global mandate and for others it will be some sort of a combination where you have to be able to work on global strategy, but then prove that you are a worthy partner at the local market and regional level to do both strategy and execution locally. It's a win for clients when a team like ours can be coherent in that respect and can earn the right to be at each of those tables around the world. And it might be a different type of decision making process than it is in the days of when there was one big powerful decision at HQ, everybody fell in line. But it's still, I think, important for large clients that we can play and be competitive in several arenas. 

What benefits would you say a larger organization will bring to your employees?

AMDS: I think it's substantial. Frankly, people are very excited about that — and that's a lot of the feedback that I'm getting. They see that there are larger opportunities and larger client relationships. There's more critical mass around growth strategies. There's more opportunity to invest. And obviously we have a huge focus on talent at every level because that's what we offer. The entire business is about the quality and the development of our people at every level. So if we are putting a stake in the ground and saying that we're going to the trouble of combining these businesses to be an enduring leader in our industry through this period of change, then that is a really big commitment and it's a big commitment that talent is going to be at the center of that proposition.

I get a lot of notes from employees expressing support and interest in bringing creative ideas forward and wanting to be a part of the current decision making and signaling their support for what the opportunity is ahead. And that really boils down to their career opportunity. I feel that as we're making these leadership decisions around the world, it's very exciting because for a lot of our top talent, it's a step change improvement in terms of their scopes and mandates. That will continue and progress as we develop both the regional and local markets and the practice areas and the major functions. And as we invest in technology and build our creative muscle, I think there's just going to be more opportunity for a talent than there is currently, respectively, in each organization. 

CdB: If you apply the client lens to the talent question, clients get really attached to and really engage with the agency because of the talent — people are our asset. That's literally what it is that we talk about when we go to visit with clients. I think when you look at the ambition from a talent perspective at Burson, the opportunity is to make Burson the destination for top talent in our industry. That's the ambition. You want it to be the place where you know that you are signing up to do the best work of your career with the best clients in the world, with the best tools that you have access, to literally do the kind of work that would embellish or enhance your CV, whether you're with us for 30 years or whether this is a stop along the way to becoming a client or whatever it might be.

That's the ambition at the top end of it. That's ultimately what our clients are looking for. And when I was at Google in particular, the way that I would articulate this to our agency partners is 'you all are an extension of our team, of our family'. When we get it right, we are building one team to work across the business, both people who are in-house serving that capacity and people who are agency partners. You're really looking for that magic mix of skill, capability, culture fit, etc. I'd like to think that what the two firms together will offer our people are sort of unparalleled opportunities to grow, to learn, and to do the best work in the industry. Ultimately as we think about the leadership appointments, we're spoiled for choice, if you look at the level of talent within both firms and the ability for us to really make decisions that benefit our clients, benefit our people, and ultimately give us the best pathways for growth in the future. Independently, I don't know that we would've had that same opportunity, but together we absolutely have that opportunity.

How will Burson solve the 'two into one won't go' issue, if indeed it is an issue. You may have two heads of corporate, two heads of digital, there are two heads of creative. Do you expect to lose senior talent? How do you plan to address this challenge?

CdB: We're approaching this as a merger of equals between the two. We'll get to bring the expertise, perspective, values of both agencies into Burson. You saw some of that with the leadership appointments that we made last week, where you're starting to see both teams contribute to what will ultimately form the heart, soul, and scaffolding of what the new Burson will look like. One of the other things that we referenced last week was the creation of an integration team, which is represented by folks on both sides of the firms. And so I think that team of global experts will help us lead the practical work of integration planning.

The other thing that has to happen in the background, is that both agencies will continue to operate as BCW and Hill & Knowlton up until July when the transaction becomes complete. And the focus for both of those teams is really on the client work, quite frankly. I think the integration team will be working really hard to limit the impact on jobs to the greatest extent possible. Because of the work that our peer set has done at WPP and the fact that AnnaMaria and I have both been a part of mergers and acquisition activities before, we have some best practices to draw from in terms of the work that's ahead and the way that we determine what the best unified leadership team is for both agencies. I think that approach will be fair, consistent, thoughtful. It's also really early in the process right now, so I'm not going to comment about any specifics other than to tell you that that was part of what the announcement was last week — to basically chart the course for what that integration team does in the future and give us some room to be able to make the best set of decisions between now and the July date.

What do you think the most difficult aspect of the merger will be?

AMDS: I think what we are wholly focused on is on creating value for our clients and for our people. So that's a high bar. Just ensuring that we deliver on the promise and the potential of this merger is our mission every single day. It makes everything, all the challenges in a situation like this, workable and attractive, even, because if we're successful — when we're successful in creating step change value for clients and for employees, it really will be a great accomplishment, a great benefit to our business and to the industry. What we share is this tremendous commitment to making sure that this merger creates much more value than we could have delivered as separate companies. That means benefiting clients, that careers do get better, that there is a culture that elevates everyone and is magnetic and makes it an attractive place to work and to come and learn and develop. For me personally, I feel like if we can do that, that is a really enormous chapter of career and life to be able to make a contribution like that. And so that's the motivation, and certainly in that context there are challenges, but we're highly motivated to power through those challenges.

CdB: Let's just step back from this a minute. This is, to me, the opportunity of a career to be able to build Burson in the way that is true to what Harold Burson himself stood for all those years. If you sort of think about the values that he espoused when he was founding his agency, I mean, these are things that he wrote about. These are things that he spoke about. This is the way that he behaved with clients — honesty, integrity, transparency, and excellence — and these are words that fell out of his mouth. The opportunity that AnnaMaria and I have is to shape an agency for the future, an agency that sets the standard for a truly global communications leader that's the most modern, strategic, technology driven, full service communications offering in the industry. That's extraordinary. That's the opportunity of a lifetime. So I think of it less from the vantage point of challenge and more from the vantage point of opportunity.

Now, all that said, I will say, and I think PRovoke has been a part of this — but not exclusive to you all — is that the industry seems fairly obsessed with size. That has been a big theme through the early rounds of coverage about what we're trying to build at Burson. Quite frankly, I am not thinking about that at all. To AnnaMaria's point, the industry may be obsessed with size. We're obsessed with value — that we deliver to our clients and value that we can deliver in the lived experience that our people have working for both the two firms now and what the two firms will become as Burson in the future. To me, that's an extraordinary opportunity. It's also a significant responsibility and obligation that we have as leaders to be able to deliver on that. I'm really excited by that opportunity.

But I have to tell you that in the league table that emerges around who is the biggest or what is the size? I don't care. I don't care. That's the message. I don't care. What I do care greatly about is the quality of service that we can deliver to clients and the quality of experience that our people have working for this new firm. That's what matters. The rest is for other people to debate.

How will WPP evaluate the success of the merger?

CdB: Right around the time that we made the announcement, three things happened in succession. We made the announcement, we boarded a plane for London and attended Capital Markets Day, which I know you all covered and looked at in detail. And then we had the chance to chat with the board about it as well. I think from Mark [Read] to everyone that we've had the chance to get feedback from to us, clearly, one of the ways that people look at this is through a set of KPIs, like they look at every agency in the portfolio, are you delivering to the commitments that you've made? Because we depend on those commitments and, frankly, the investment from WPP to be able to deliver on the promise that we've essentially put forward.

That's one set of things, and that's private to us to decide whether we're delivering on that or not. I think the bigger judgment for how successful it is is its enduring quality as a brand and as an agency that delivers on this idea of being the best in the industry, the best in the world, the kind of place that becomes a destination for both clients and for talent. There are short-term things that the market tends to judge you by. And then there's the longer tail of the way the industry tends to look at the lasting value of something like this.

The idea is to build something that is great, something that is lasting and something that gives both our people and clients an enduring sense of what it is that we can deliver to them in the way of value. That's what matters. That's ultimately how we will be judged. And I think those are all fair parameters to put around whether this is successful or not. There's a lot of work ahead of us for this, and I think that history will prove whether this was something that was enduring or lasting, but all of the great CEOs that I've ever worked with in the past, that's the way that they tend to think too. It's that the value of the brand, the value of the thing that they were building should last beyond the people that were in the building when it was created in the first place. That's the way history tends to judge these things. So it may sound like a very outsized way of looking at it, but I think that's how history will ultimately judge whether it was successful or not.

AMDS: It definitely boils down to value creation. You can think about that in terms of our financial performance. You can think about that in terms of how we help clients create value and solve their highly material issues and opportunities. And then what type of reputational capital do we create for the company and for the industry and all the intangible value that comes with being respected and trusted and a destination for talent. So value creation writ large, and I think really with those three domains rolling up to that ultimate outcome.

How should external audiences evaluate the success of the merger and when will we know whether it worked?

CdB: Ultimately, that's up to you to decide. I mean, I'm not going to lay down what parameters PRovoke or any other industry watcher may apply to whether it was successful or not. I think to the extent that we are able to grow the business, grow our relationship and our trust with clients, create value for WPP shares and stakeholders, and to be able to see our people step into the promise of what it is that we're building, I'll feel quite good that we've delivered on the things that we said we were going to sign up to do.

AMDS: What's happened in my own career is, over the last dozen years in particular, I've been a part of some really, really big transactions. Going to Pfizer to work on the world's largest pharmaceutical merger between Pfizer and Wyeth, then going to DuPont and working on the world's largest industrial merger between DuPont and Dow, being involved in big breakups of conglomerates and the creation of new public companies, all of these transactions are meant to create step change value. You don't go through all that trouble and you don't take on all that risk if you don't have a big opportunity to create step change value. Ultimately, history judges them largely by the total shareholder return.

And we will have a similar yardstick in terms of how much value we create for WPP and its shareholders. But I would think about it even more broadly as total stakeholder return. How do we become an engine for value creation within WPP and within the industry? How do we create a different type of experience that helps light the way for what strategic communication has to be going forward? Which is, I think, the thing that's so thrilling for all of us because there's never been a time like this, to be in our discipline. Strategic communication is now at the very center of the entire value creation endeavor for our clients.

What experience would you say the two of you have across agency and corporate that you think will prove helpful in terms of merging two organizations of this size?

AMDS: Just building on what Corey said, when I joined Pfizer in 2009, it was expressly to lead the corporate affairs effort for the new innovation engine, bringing together the Pfizer R&D organization and the Wyeth R&D organization. That was a massive two year endeavor. It purely focused on integration strategy and creating that new value proposition of a science-driven Pfizer. That was the work that has led Pfizer to its current path — it was incredibly challenging, but rewarding work. Then, as the chief communicator at DuPont working on the massive multi-year merger with Dow, the combination of those portfolios and then a breakup into three new publicly traded companies was also a pretty unusual experience. Also very challenging but rewarding. I feel as though I'm, personally, on very familiar terrain and understand why we're doing this and what needs to happen as a result of this merger.

It was very interesting to me in the Dow DuPont environment, it was so disruptive. It was similar in that you had these two longstanding competitors in the market and it was almost unthinkable that they would merge. You would think that it would be very disruptive to employees. But in doing that work, we were able to improve the trust and confidence that employees had in the company and in the future all the way through that transaction. And even though there will be disruption, there will be challenge and tension, we can do this in such a way that we really support our people. I think that's what makes our partnership powerful and unusual is that we are different in terms of the industries we've been in, but we're very similar in terms of the nature of the experiences we've had.

CdB: It's so funny just listening to AnnaMaria talk through her client experiences — it is like having a mirror conversation with yourself in a way, whether it was 10 years at Waggener Edstrom or the last 15 — I can think of different transactions that happened in the Starbucks era, the Salesforce era. I mean, Slack was a part of the acquisition strategy when I was at Salesforce. Google went through a number of acquisitions while I was there. When you've gone through those experiences or helped to lead communication and value creation through those kinds of material events over the course of your communications career, one of the things that you learn from that, is the culture that sits at the core of what it is that you're building.

In any merger or acquisition, ultimately the test of how successful and what the longevity of that transaction can be is the strength of the culture that you build. What I said for many years as a client, is that internal communication was like half the job done with a quarter of the resources. I think that's what AnnaMaria and I bring — our lived experiences that we've gone through a number of these episodes, we've led communication, we've been quite rigorous about the way that we were thinking about value creation now, including having to report to the board on what the progress of these events were. The strengths that we have as communications professionals and being able to lead organizations through that — we now get to put to the test from a leadership perspective. Obviously it's a massive responsibility as a leader, but I'm really excited about the prospect of what is ahead. We're very early in this process, but I think we can see pretty clearly based on our experience, what the road ahead will look like and how we need to deliver on that.