Arun Sudhaman 17 May 2013 // 3:36PM GMT
Burson-Marsteller's decision to unveil an Asia-Pacific leadership team that does not feature a direct replacement for departed CEO Bob Pickard was interesting, coming as it did in the same week that Porter Novelli restored the EMEA leadership role that had lain dormant since 2009. In Porter Novelli's case, Sally Ward was elevated to EMEA president, after three years spent stabilizing a UK operation that had threatened to unravel. In truth, the absence of a European leader at Porter Novelli had not been especially noticeable, which is probably due to two things: (1) The agency's relatively small (owned) European footprint and, (2) the focus on local offices that have been grappling with some tough economic conditions. (As a rather glib aside I might also note that Porter Novelli appeared relatively untroubled by the lack of a global CEO last year, although Michael Ramah held interim leadership duties after Gary Stockman's departure, bringing to mind the view that Belgium appeared to work better during its record 541-day stint without a national government). As EMEA president, Ward will now be expected to help bring more cohesion to Porter's regional presence, ensuring the firm does a better job of sharing best practice, culture and tools. She will also be charged with leading acquisition efforts as the firm looks to add more flags to its EMEA map. The net effect, crucially, is to try and ensure that Porter can credibly contend for multi-market and global business. Burson, meanwhile, has decided that it can do without a CEO in Asia-Pacific, where the firm continues to operate one of the largest regional networks of any PR agency. Pat Ford, the Burson veteran who is now Asia-Pacific chairman, was too canny to say that the agency has dispensed with the CEO role altogether. Yet it is clear that, so far at least, the firm's lengthy search for Pickard's successor has been fruitless. Instead, Ford has opted for a two-pronged approach, one component of which is his own presence as chairman. The second is his decision to elevate four market heads to a sort of 'small council', that will help him oversee the region. There are, undoubtedly, some benefits to this approach. Asia-Pacific, at the risk of sounding trite, is a pretty diverse place, and the differing markets represented by the leadership team will hopefully ensure a more heterogenous approach to decision-making, while also providing the quartet in question with more in the way of concrete input. The buck, of course, has to stop somewhere. Ford says that he will remain in the region indefinitely and, as chairman, his role takes on added prominence in the absence of a CEO. While I would not necessarily say that the CEO position is indispensable, it does provide a natural focal point for an agency, which can prove highly useful when it comes to business development; staff recruitment and retention; and intellectual leadership - all of the reasons, effectively, behind Ward's elevation at Porter Novelli. Which is not to suggest that Ford cannot ably handle all of those things. Yet it is worth noting that Burson's decision is at odds with most of the other big PR firms. The notable exception is WPP sibling Hill + Knowlton, which earlier this year moved China out of the Asia-Pacific unit so it could report directly to the US, and has implemented a similar sub-regional structure in EMEA. Whether Ford's approach works or not remains to be seen. Burson, like any firm, has some specific issues it must address in the region, not least, as Ford himself admitted, kickstarting growth at a China operation that was once the envy of all. Yet, after 24 years with Burson, Ford probably knows his firm better than most; even if the new structure proves to be nothing more than a stopgap, it may suggest a potential alternative to the typical methods by which PR agencies have managed their geographic networks.