The godfather of PR

Harold Burson (source: haroldburson.com)
Harold Burson (source: haroldburson.com)

An article by Robert Minton-Taylor.

Last month’s PR Week carried a glowing profile of Harold Burson, co-founder of the iconic public relations and advertising agency Burson-Marsteller.

But what impact did he have on Burson-Marsteller (or B-M as it is affectionately known by its alumni)?

Harold Burson was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1921, but his parents came from Leeds, West Yorkshire, and Harold maintains that his heritage “gave me an international outlook that remained with me through the years”.

In its heyday B-M was a global PR giant with few equals. A powerhouse of creativity and talent. In many countries it operated in it was either the No.1 or No.2 agency. Its dominance in the 1970s when I joined was supreme.

What made B-M so special? I sincerely believe that a company’s greatness is defined by its CEO. Harold was a superb manager of people as evidenced in the occasional handwritten postcard-sized notes he would despatch to staff from his New York HQ congratulating them on an account win, an important birthday, anniversary or in my case my wedding to my wife, Caroline. [Why not emails? The worldwide web had yet to be invented].

When you joined B-M you joined the ‘family’. Its liberal Jewish heritage meant that it cared for you and so long as you worked hard and nurtured the talent that worked with you it rewarded you handsomely. Not so much in financial remuneration – although the pay and benefits were good – but in the way that it cared for your career.

I remember Harold as a modest, courteous man of slight build who looks more like a genial accountant. But his looks are deceptive. Being rolled out to do a “show and tell” presentation of your client account handling work was a daunting task. Harold was quick in grasping the merits and gaps in what you thought was a carefully crafted and well-rehearsed public relations campaign.

Training was a highlight at the agency. There was barely a week that went by when you weren’t being sent on a course to improve your business, people handling and account servicing skills. It was only when moved to Yorkshire in 1994 for a better quality of life for my family that I realised how good B-M’s training was.

Indeed I am still using the techniques I learnt at B-M to inform my teaching at Leeds Business School some two decades later!

B-M jealously guarded its talent. The agency had an uncanny knack of hiring individuals who came from a wide variety of disciplines, cultural and ethnic backgrounds – ex actresses, pharmacists, geographers, journalists etc. It made for an eclectic mix of talent. The kind of talent I guess you’d find in companies like Google today.

Its graduate entry programme, for which I was a mentor, was considered to be second to none. So good was the agency at nurturing talent that it has spawned a whole wave of ex-Burson PR agency start-ups. Harold created a unique Burson culture that still unites former employees like me.

A 19-year old I recruited to B-M in 1981 later became the deputy chief executive of the London office of the famed Hill & Knowlton agency. Karen Moyse (nee Barrow), now CEO of KineticFuture, a leadership training agency, showed that the agency was good at spotting rising stars.

Going to a B-M reunion nowadays is like walking into a room of PR stars at the Hollywood Oscars. You have to pinch yourself to realise you have stumbled across what appears to be the entire content of PR luminaries from Debrett’s “People of Today” and “Who’s Who”.

What other agency would you have the opportunity to work for the Jewish International Agency and SABIC, the Saudi Arabian oil and petrochemicals giant and the next month be working for the former King of Greece and the king in waiting in the UK, HRH Prince of Wales?

Who was M?

The ‘M’ of B-M was the advertising man Bill Marsteller. His legendary status for me was sealed as the greatest wordsmith and advertising man of his generation. His regular memos to staff exhorting them on the proper use of the English language and how to manage employees and clients were truly legendry. If you get a chance to get hold copies of his tomes “Creative management: A guide for common sense management” and “The wonderful world of words: Memoranda and speeches of Bill Marsteller, 1951-1972” they are well worth reading.

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