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Burson-Marsteller is not the largest PR firm in the EMEA region, but its 27 owned offices give it broad regional coverage, and it has strength in all the right places.

Holmes Report


Globally, Burson-Marsteller is having arguably the best year of any major firm, and while Europe has been slower to emerge from recession than other regions, it is clearly playing its part. The top line for 2010 will either be flat or up a percentage point or two in the EMEA region, although an increase in strategic and consultancy work compared to commodity business has led to a nice improvement in the bottom line. New clients included AstraZeneca (a Brussels assignment focused on reimbursement issues), Deutsche Telekom (two projects that soon developed into a retainer relationship), GE (energy policy work), Norges Bank (for a major stakeholder audit and repositioning), Alitalia, Bayer, First Solar, Novartis, Starwood and the European Container Glass Federation.
Burson-Marsteller is not the largest PR firm in the EMEA region, but its 27 owned offices give it broad regional coverage, and it has strength in all the right places. In Brussels, BM is probably the market leader, benefiting in 2010 from continued stability at a time when many competitors were in transition. The London office experienced a change in leadership, but continued its recent improvement, with fee income up by 10 percent. It now serves as the hub for several of the agency’s largest clients, including de Beers, Shell and Sony Ericsson. The German office—last year’s Consultancy of the Year in that market—continued to grow its client roster, retaining Lufthansa and picking up new business from McDonald’s, Swiss AEG and Deutsche Telekom. The French office (perhaps the strongest of the U.S. multinationals in the market) turned in a sixth consecutive year of growth. Italy added new senior staff and has an impressive client roster that includes Barilla, Kraft, J&J and MasterCard. Burson also has 100 people in the Nordic region (plus a strong affiliate in Finland), with the Danish office—which also serves as the headquarters of the firm’s change communications practice—turning in a particularly strong performance over the past 12 months, and new leadership making a difference in both Norway and Sweden.
North American chief executive Pat Ford celebrated 20 years with Burson-Marsteller in 2009 and has spent three years heading the firm’s North American operations, during which time the firm has done a good job of re-establishing itself as one of the market leaders. The New York, Washington, and San Francisco offices are the strongest in the 13-office U.S. network, all of the leaders in their respective cities, while the Texas operation (Austin, Dallas, Houston) has been growing at a healthy pace; and Boston, opened in 2006, has been making a solid contribution. Burson-Marsteller’s largest Asia-Pacific operations are in India and China. In the former, the acquisition of Genesis, which now operates as Genesis Burson-Marsteller, established B-M overnight as a market leader in both size and sophistication. In the latter, the firm has offices in four cities supplemented by a strong Hong Kong operation that serves as the hub for much of Burson’s regional public affairs business. Edelman veteran Bob Pickard in midyear took over the regional leadership role. He brings strong regional experience and embarked on a hiring spree designed to strengthen local markets.
Burson-Marsteller has always had a full-service offer in the EMEA region, but it has historically been best known for its corporate communications and public affairs work. But in 2008, the firm formally launched 11 EMEA-wide practices: specialist groups focused on brand marketing (areas where the firm is investing once again as it recognizes the more central role PR plays in brand building today), change communications, corporate communications, corporate responsibility, crisis, media, and public affairs; sector-specific groups serving the energy—an area in which BM has established itself as a regional leader over the past couple of years—healthcare, and technology industries; and a digital practice that has been the focus of much of the firm’s energy over the past 12 months.
A strong regional leadership team is headed by Jeremy Galbraith, who seems to have been in his CEO role for longer than three years, and includes chief operating officer Roman Geiser, managing director of strategy Katarina Wallin Bureau and strong leadership in key markets. The departure of Jonathan Jordan as head of the U.K. operation surprised some observers, given the firm’s turnaround over the past couple of years, but the firm moved swiftly to replace him with Mark Carter, who came over from the London office of Penn Schoen & Berland and will give a boost to the firm’s new “evidence-based” approach in the region. There was a new CEO in Switzerland, too, with Urs Rellstab joining from Swiss business association economiesuisse as Geiser continued to take on new regional responsibilities. Other additions included Juan Astorqui, a former CEO of BM Spain, who returned as chairman after a stint in-house with Caja Madrid; Giovanni Salza from AirOne as deputy market leader in Italy; and a trio of senior advisors: former Shell communications chief Bjorn Edlund, former European Parliament deputy secretary-general David Harley, and senior Conservative MP Andrew MacKay.
Investment in professional development over the past 12 months has focused on ensuring that every employee around the region is fully conversant in the “evidence-based” approach; on expanding the Winning Way training that focuses on the firm’s new business process; and on continuing to enhance digital literacy. About 25 percent of the firm’s people travelled to one or more live training course—led by senior professionals from within the agency—and the firm also stepped up its online training efforts. That investment was matched by a continued commitment to inter-office team building, with more than 25 employees spending time in other offices as part of a significant secondment programme. Finally, the firm also continued its One Week for Kids community outreach effort, with each office selecting local children’s charities to support with donations and volunteerism.
The introduction of Burson-Marsteller’s “evidence-based” communications methodology was met with a shrug by competitors, many of whom claimed—with some justification—that they have been basing their work on solid research for at least the past decade. But the fact is that many clients continue to regard both the research and evaluation offerings of PR agencies with scepticism, and Burson—with Penn Schoen Berland founder and prominent Democratic pollster Mark Penn at the helm—has more credibility in this regard than most others, and in the EMEA region the evidence-based approach has helped the agency go into new business pitches with empirical data (derived from a variety of research techniques) that equip them with a unique insight into the client’s issues.
A broad cross-section of Burson’s work showcased the power of its new evidence-based approach. In Denmark, for example, the firm worked with Copenhagen airport to persuade local regulators that the airport was not a monopoly but in fact in fierce competition with other regional destinations. In Switzerland, BM helped Swiss Air connect with its online fan base during the ash cloud crisis. In the U.K., the team helped SAP raise awareness of its carbon tracking software as business customers sought to comply with new emissions standards, and helped elevate Danone’s Activia into the number one spot among yogurt brands with an integrated marketing effort that shifted the focus from health claims to taste. In Germany, the firm created an anti-littering campaign film that quickly went viral. In France, helped biscuit-maker Lu promote its partnership with farmers as part of a broader sustainability effort around the International Year of Biodiversity. And from Brussels, BM worked with the European Centre for Disease Control & Prevention across 27 EU states to promote European Antibiotic Awareness Day and other critical health initiatives.
The past couple of years have seen a significant increase in the amount of original research, analysis and insight emanating from Burson-Marsteller offices across Europe. One particularly impressive new survey focused on corporate purpose and presented compelling evidence that a strong purpose can have a significant impact on corporate reputation and even financial performance—suggesting that up to 17 percent of financial results can be attributed to purpose and how it is communicated. The firm also conducted a timely Brand Vulnerability Index survey, identifying brands most at risk from NGO action, a media study looking at the impact of changes in economics and technology are impacting the relationship between journalists and PR people, and a third Arab Youth Survey, focused on the aspirations of the younger generation across major Middle Eastern markets.
Galbraith and his team are convinced that the firm’s evidence-based methodology is sufficiently substantial to offer it a real competitive advantage in the region, and the early indications are that it is resonating with clients and making a difference in terms of the firm’s strategic and creative product. With strong regional management, a solid network in major markets (and significant growth markets), and some impressive thought leadership initiatives, Burson-Marsteller could be on the cusp of its best run in Europe since its 80s heyday.
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