Holding company WPP is merging its two largest communications agencies, BCW and Hill & Knowlton, to form Burson.
BCW global CEO Corey duBrowa will serve as global chief executive of the newly formed agency, which will be operational from July 1. AnnaMaria DeSalva, Hill & Knowlton’s global chairman and CEO, will become Burson’s global chairman.
DuBrowa and DeSalva will both oversee agency strategy, client service, employee experience and culture.
Burson’s leadership team will “comprise a cohort of top-tier former chief communications officers and other experienced agency senior executives from both companies,” WPP said in a statement.
The holding company said more appointments will be announced throughout 2024.
“Our goal in bringing the agencies together is to build a stronger organization and minimize impact on jobs to the greatest extent possible,” spokespeople from BCW and Hill & Knowlton said, when asked about layoffs resulting from the merger.
Burson will have more than 6,000 employees in 43 markets worldwide. The combination of the two firms would make Burson the largest PR agency in the world by revenue, according to PRWeek’s Agency Business Report 2023, adding H&K's $455 million in 2022 revenue to BCW's $812 million to create a $1.27 billion-in-revenue network, relegating Edelman to the No. 2 position globally.
Spokespeople from BCW and Hill & Knowlton declined to share any details about the combined agency’s revenue or size.“We are in the midst of one of the most complex operating environments in recent history, where clients need agency partners that deliver insights, expert strategic counsel, technology solutions and an unrivaled talent base at scale,” said duBrowa via email. “By coming together as Burson, we’re creating this much-needed, higher value offering for clients, supported by our AI-first innovation pipeline and grounded in the guiding principles established by Harold Burson: that actions are stronger than words, and that clients deserve honesty, transparency, integrity and excellence.”
She added that this is an opportunity “to create a new and innovative brand rooted in our shared, category-defining legacy; together, we will become a premier partner for business leaders focused on commercial growth, risk management and reputational capital.”
Asked about client conflicts, spokespeople from BCW and Hill & Knowlton told PRWeek that as the agencies are merged to form Burson, Hill & Knowlton will continue as a distinct brand within Burson, serving a select group of clients globally through strategic communications, advisory and public affairs services, including clients where there may be conflicts.
AxiCom, Curation, Direct Impact, GCI Health, Goodfuse, HZ, Prime Policy Group and Uncapped, which sit under BCW Group, will continue to operate as brands within Burson. The same goes for the brands that sit under Hill & Knowlton, such as 3K, Blanc & Otus, Dewey Square Group, Ideal and JeffreyGroup, said spokespeople from BCW and Hill & Knowlton.
A look back at BCW and Hill & Knowlton
The combined agency's name honors the late Harold Burson, who founded Burson-Marsteller in 1953 through a partnership with ad executive Bill Marsteller. In 1979, Burson sold the firm to ad agency Young & Rubicam, which was in turn bought by WPP in 2000. Burson-Marsteller was merged with Cohn & Wolfe into BCW in early 2018. Harold Burson was 98 years old when he died in 2020.
Donna Imperato, former Cohn & Wolfe CEO, served as chief executive from the merger until she retired in 2023 and was replaced by duBrowa. Don Baer was Burson-Marsteller's CEO prior to the combination.
Hill & Knowlton, meanwhile, was founded in 1927 by John Hill, who was described in his obituary by The New York Times as "a confidant of corporate mighties." Jack Martin founded the public affairs firm Public Strategies Inc. in Austin in 1988. WPP acquired Public Strategies in 2006, which was merged with Hill & Knowlton in 2010.
Late last year, Hill+Knowlton Strategies rebranded to its original name of Hill & Knowlton.
Hill & Knowlton has seen several major leadership changes in recent months. Claire Li was named CEO for Greater China in September; Geraldine Schroeder was appointed CEO of Germany in October; and Craig Buchholz was named U.S. CEO in July, replacing Richard Millar, who led the agency’s U.S. market since 2019. At the time, Hill & Knowlton said Millar was continuing in his role as the firm’s global president. It was unclear how these roles will change with the merger.
In September 2022, Hill & Knowlton acquired Latin America-focused agency JeffreyGroup and expanded its own Brazil-based firm, Ideal, internationally. 3K Agentur für Kommunikation, a healthcare specialist PR agency based in Frankfurt, Germany, also became part of Hill & Knowlton’s global network.
WPP’s PR division was “impacted by client caution” in Q3 2023, as like-for-like revenue dipped 0.9% in the period. The company, which also houses FGS Global and Ogilvy, said Hill & Knowlton and BCW both saw like-for-like declines during the quarter.