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Karen van Bergen : Renaissance Woman

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Van Bergen..."her glass is always half-full"

Arun Sudhaman 05 May 2013

Once upon a time, Karen van Bergen lived in a palace. Specifically, the Palais Liechtenstein in Vienna, a 17th century building that now doubles as a residential establishment.

There are those who would argue that van Bergen’s current digs at Porter-Novelli New York, a once-distinguished agency that has fallen on less majestic times, represent something of a comedown. Van Bergen, who took over as global CEO of the firm at the start of this year, is not one of them. Despite some difficult recent history, which culminated in the dramatic departure of Porter Novelli’s entire C-suite, the Dutchwoman believes that she is poised to deliver a long-awaited renaissance at the Omnicom-owned firm.

As far as leadership skills go, van Bergen appears to be well qualified. When her friends arrived at the Palais, they would invariably ask whether the “Queen was at home” over the intercom system. There is nothing particularly regal about van Bergen’s manner, but her demeanour suggests someone who is perfectly happy making the big decisions.

Of those, plenty need to be made, after a period where Porter-Novelli often seemed paralysed by its own combination of royal intrigue and political inertia, chronicled in a Holmes Report feature last year. “She’s like the Usain Bolt of decision-making in PR leadership,” says one agency insider. “She’s really fast and has a driving force about her that the agency really needs. We’ve now got a CEO that can give us confidence again.”

This is not the first time that Porter-Novelli has proclaimed a new dawn. Can Van Bergen, one of a jarringly small group of women to run a global PR network - and certainly the first female European to do so - succeed where others have failed?

Those two traits are likely to colour perceptions. For all of their global aspirations, the big American firms have rarely seemed comfortable with a European in charge. It is, perhaps, a mark of progress that this - rather than van Bergen’s gender - is seen as a bigger barrier to success.

“I don’t feel that it’s challenging at all. I speak five languages - when I was at McDonald’s I helped develop new markets in Central and Eastern Europe,” van Bergen tells me at our first meeting in Porter Novelli’s London offices. “That international perspective, those are elements I can contribute to a global network.”

One person who agrees is Phillips global comms head and fellow Dutch national Andre Manning. It was Manning who opted to consolidate the company’s mammoth PR contract with OneVoice in 2009, a joint Omnicom agency team that was led by van Bergen until 2011.

“In general, US agencies can benefit a lot from having additional geographic experience and view of the world,” says Manning. “Karen brings international experience from both worlds - within a US agency and in Europe. A combination of being transatlantic as well as experience of emerging markets - that is a huge qualification.”

“When you run a global agency, you have to be a global citizen,” adds van Bergen. That she certainly is.

Dutch diplomat

Van Bergen grew up in the Dutch city of Gennep, near the German border. Like so many of her peers at the top of the industry, a career in PR was hardly pre-ordained, with Van Bergen initially harbouring hopes of becoming a diplomat.

“I asked for an internship at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” recollects van Bergen. “They never took interns but I basically wriggled my way in there.”

Even then, as a fresh college graduate, van Bergen appears to have had some difficulty taking no for an answer. It is a mindset, say her peers, that persists to this day, one that will not necessarily be unhelpful at Porter Novelli.

“Karen doesn’t hide her feelings and emotions,” explains Manning. “People might roll their eyes every now and then because people are not used to that. But I don’t think that will impact her way of operating in a negative way.”

The idea of a Dutch diplomat might strike some as an oxymoron, given the country’s famed ability to produce people who tell it like it is. Manning admits that this is something Americans may have to get used to, but notes that van Bergen’s level of transparency will prove refreshing.

“Of course, having that frankness that the Dutch are famous for, Karen can be very direct,” points out former Fleishman colleague Lucien Vallun, who succeeded van Bergen as head of the firm’s Central and Eastern European operations. “Her staff will benefit from that. Clients also benefit from a frankness but it’s obviously clothed in the right language and tone.”

“She will never be rude,” adds Vallun. “I’ve always been very aware of Karen’s views on just about anything. But she’s always prepared to hear another view.”

Ironically, given her nomadic career in PR, van Bergen dropped the idea of a diplomatic lifestyle because it might involve too much travel. Instead she found herself at Dutch PR firm Van Luyken. “I just came into this building and it was a fabulous place where everyone was young and energetic,” notes van Bergen. “It was dynamic and I’ve always followed my gut feeling.”

Van Bergen dismisses the charge that Porter Novelli is a tarnished brand as the normal workings of a cyclical industry. It is likely that her experience at Van Luyken gives her some insight into this kind of scenario. When she arrived, the Dutch firm was the premier player in the market, a position that it no longer holds.

“Every agency goes through good times and rough times and bounces back,” she points out. “And some don’t. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Bleeding ketchup

From Van Luyken, Van Bergen’s career went from strength to strength. By 1992 she was leading government relations for McDonald’s in Brussels, the start of a 14-year association with the fastfood giant that gave Van Bergen a ringside view of some of the toughest reputation challenges to face any company.

The McDonald’s career included senior roles in public affairs, communications and marketing, spanning a dizzying array of markets in Europe and Asia, culminating in a final stint as corporate affairs VP and chief of staff to the company’s president.

It is little wonder that van Bergen summarises her time with the American company with the remark: “When you cut me open, there will still be ketchup coming out of my veins.”  Yet, her tenure at McDonald’s warrants some exploration, coming as it did during a critical period for an American company that was navigating the thorny challenges of expansion into various European countries.

“McDonald’s will always be such a big part of my business life,” says van Bergen. “We opened up and talked about progress to sustainability, creating much more transparency and dialogue.”

Van Bergen’s depth of corporate service - she managed a three-year stint at Coca-Cola amid the McDonald’s years - indicate one thing with indelible clarity. While many have focused on her distinctiveness as a  female European, it is her client-side experience that probably provides the more useful contrast to the clubby ranks of network CEOs that have only ever worked in the agency business.

“It’s truly rare,” says the Porter-Novelli insider. “She has that mix of client and agency experience that so few senior people in this business have, which gives her a fearlessness with clients. This agency has needed some fearlessness.”

Those traits brought immediate benefits to Fleishman-Hillard, the firm that van Bergen departed McDonald’s for in 2007. “Having worked that long in-house, I do pretend to know what clients want - the pressures, the budget spend, the responsibilities you have to stakeholders and shareholders,” she asserts. “I don’t think the client pays us to say that everything is wonderful.”

Whatever van Bergen told Phillips appears to have worked out very well for all concerned. The OneVoice team that van Bergen led marked the first time that Fleishman had Ketchum had collaborated on a client of such size. “It’s an immense tribute to Karen that she was able to play that role while retaining the support of Fleishman and Ketchum,” says Vallun.

Manning, meanwhile, is in little doubt as to van Bergen’s impact on Phillips’ global communications approach, noting that the company previously maintained a relatively “modest” stance.

“She brought in some energy,” he explains. “Her willingness and energy to support the client and make us shine. Every CEO of a global agency should have that. You could easily get stuck making numbers - in the end you are the supporter on the ground for a company. You have to find the right balance between your own ideas versus what the client wants. She was able to park her own ambitions and grab them when her time was ready.”

That time came when van Bergen left Europe to join Omnicom sibling Porter Novelli in January 2012. For van Bergen, the opportunity to work as the firm’s MD in New York - a city she groups with London as the “centre of the comms universe” - was too good to resist.

One year later, she is the agency’s global CEO, eliciting little surprise from the people that know her well. “One of her ambitions was to move to New York to become CEO of one of the big global agencies,” says Manning, rather matter-of-factly. “I was not really surprised.”

“Karen was someone we thought would be a future leader within the organization from the get go,” adds Dale Adams, the Omnicom executive to whom van Bergen now reports. “It didn’t take me a lot of time to identify her, but it did take me a lot of time to appoint her. That was more because I wanted to give people within Porter Novelli a little bit more time to know her.”

That process was probably helped by last year’s HP review. Porter Novelli emerged as the main beneficiary of the tech company’s decision to restructure its PR roster, with van Bergen credited for netting Porter Novelli a much-needed windfall of global business. “That has given her real credibility internally,” says the agency insider. “She’s got the confidence and contacts and the agency has got the rest.”

Ruffling feathers

By naming van Bergen as CEO, you could argue that Porter Novelli has landed on its feet after a period of some turmoil. 2012’s dramatic exits, along with the departures of several other senior executives in recent years, have effectively cleared the decks - leaving in place an executive committee that is more resilient than most.

And van Bergen, unsurprisingly, has made talent her biggest priority since taking charge. “It is all we are,” she notes. “If we don’t take care of our talent we’ll never be able to do a good job. Everybody talks about talent, but walking the walk is totally different.”

So far, van Bergen has already revamped the firm’s promotion policy to general approval, and has embarked on the kind of whistle-stop global tour so beloved of new CEOs. There has been no dismantling of the firm’s senior leadership, with interim CEO Michael Ramah taking on a new position as chief client officer.

“Often, new people come in and all the old guard have to go,” says the agency insider. “But Michael [Ramah] has really complementary skills - he has all the history to the business. While Karen can evolve the agency into the next generation without having to drag the Porter Novelli heritage with her.”

Porter Novelli has not been short of repositioning strategies in recent years, one of which saw the firm proclaim a return to its roots as a social marketing firm. Despite professing a “fuzzy feeling” for the Porter Novelli brand, you sense that van Bergen has little patience for empty rhetoric, preferring instead to lead by example.   

“I doubt whether she will be ensconced behind her desk,” says Vallun. “Her enthusiasm is infectious. She will be out there, very visible, very active - if anybody can engender passion and energy, she can do that.”

A visit to Porter Novelli’s New York office suggests as much. van Bergen is not so much seen as heard, always on the move between meeting rooms, as if her sheer force of motion can drive the agency forward.

“Karen is not someone who can be described in one anecdote,” describes Manning. “It is her presence, her loud voice and laughter, heard not only in our own meeting rooms but also in every adjacent meeting room on our floor”.

“When she’s in the room, you know she’s in the room,” continues the Dutchman. “There is someone in the room with a view on things, enthusiasm and a positive drive to make things happen. Her glass is always half-full. She doesn’t lose too much time on endless discussions.”

Manning believes those traits invariably help rally people to van Bergen’s cause: “People like to work with her.”  They also explain her frankness when addressing the sensitive subject of gender imbalance at the top of the industry. van Bergen admits the situation is “amazing and appalling” and appears determined to lead a fundamental change, even if it means, as one agency source says, “ruffling feathers.”

“Like any other industry, white men choose white men,” says van Bergen. “We need to expose these injustices, because the industry cannot afford to lose out on women. Women tend to be very modest and need to show a lot more solidarity with each other. I will share my thoughts with everybody who asks me.”

And a few who don’t, no doubt. The truth is that Porter Novelli, like make agencies, can probably do with having its feathers ruffled a little bit. It seems fair to assume, for example, that van Bergen's international experience will help the firm finally develop a credible global presence, rather than the patchwork quilt that currently defines its international offering.

In this, her relationship with Omnicom is likely to prove pivotal. Much has been made of the previous regime’s inabilities in this regard, although Adams disagrees with that characterisation. What everyone does agree with, however, is that van Bergen is well-liked and respected within the corridors of power at the holding group. “We might go from naughty toddler to star pupil,” remarks the agency source.

If anything, the sheer scale of the task may prove the biggest problem, particularly for someone who, as Vallun puts it, “loves a challenge.”

“In her enthusiasm - the danger is she might take a lot on her plate and everybody only has 24 hours in the day,” warns Manning. “That is a risk, especially for the global CEO of an agency. You might be confronted with a lot of things to fix and she won’t easily say no.”

For Porter Novelli, that sounds like a problem worth having. van Bergen may not live in a European palace anymore, but she is unlikely to feel that the task of restoring Porter Novelli's faded grandeur is insurmountable. A telling sign comes when she notes that McDonald's defused its myriad PR issues by embracing its imperfections.

“A lot of companies, nowadays, tend to feel they need to be 100 percent perfect before they go out and tell their stories” she explains. “Their audiences are very aware that companies are a collection human beings - as long as there is a journey and objective and you are transparent, you don’t have to be perfect.”

Wise counsel. Advice, you imagine, that is equally applicable to van Bergen’s attempts to steer Porter Novelli into a more serene future.

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Tags : Profile, Karen Van Bergen, McDonalds

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