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What does the WPP BCW, Hill and Knowlton merger mean for India: Analysis

 WPP has announced the merger of its two largest communications agencies, Hill & Knowlton and BCW, to be named Burson after the legendary late Harold Burson, a pioneer and founding figure of modern public relations and strategic communications.

 The newly formed Burson will have more than 6,000 employees in 43 markets worldwide.

This move is part of the overall simplification drive led by WPP CEO, Mark Read. The latest merger announcement follows the merger of advertising firms Wunderman Thompson and VMLY&R in October 2023, to create the world's largest creative advertising agency.

With the merger, the agency is expected to become the largest PR firm globally, as per PR Week's 2023 Agency rankings crossing Edelman.

 WPP spokespersons' did not answer a question on the expected combined size of the new Burson entity.

What it means for India

Burson will roll out globally on July 1st, 2024, including in India. 

WPP spokespersons' told PRmoment India that, "BCW will not exist as a brand after July 1, 2024. The name of the flagship new agency will be Burson which honors the late Harold Burson, a pioneer and founding figure of modern public relations and strategic communications. Other agency brands, including Hill & Knowlton, GCI Health and AxiCom, will remain operating within Burson."

When asked about job losses due to the merger, WPP spokespersons' said, "The agencies are being brought together to build a stronger organization to best serve clients in a time when strategic stakeholder communications has never been more critical. 

Our goal is to minimize the impact on jobs to the greatest extent possible."

Market observers told PRmoment India that the combined Burson entity could climb to the number 2 agency spot in India, size estimates range from 120 crores to 130 crores. However, it will still be considerably behind India's largest and only independent firm in the top 3, Adfactors PR. The other three agencies that make up the top five in India are MSL, Edelman, and Avian WE.

Consolidation of the Indian PR Market

The Indian PR market has seen consolidation post-Covid. 2023 saw  Havas Red acquire PR Pundit, SPAG was acquired by FINN Partners in 2022. 

Rishi Seth, former co-founder of Six Degrees which later merged with Cohn and Wolfe and former chief client officer for APAC, BCW said that the consolidation in the Indian market is being led by two major factors, " The need to invest in technology specially AI. The other is the fact that the cost of talent in India is outstripping revenue. You have to pay a premium for good talent and the retainers are not rising at the same pace."

Nitin Mantri, regional executive managing director (APAC) at WE Communications and Group CEO at Avian WE, agrees that the imperative for operational efficiency, coupled with the necessity to invest in technology, is driving the current wave of consolidation.

Mantri, who previously served as the president of ICCO & PRCAI
, outlined that the next wave of consolidation is likely to stem from "acquisitions in specialist capability areas or in key sectors like technology, health, and consumer. Additionally, with the emergence of more independent firms in India, we are likely to witness larger agencies consolidating by acquiring a second brand”.

Commenting on the implications of the merger for the PR industry in India, Mantri said there are concerns that creating very large agencies will reduce the creativity and flexibility on offer for clients.

"While operationally it will benefit and help in cost rationalisation, it could affect the agency's ability to respond promptly to clients. Although a large agency structure may be suitable for some organisations, most clients today prefer working with leaner firms that can respond with agility to their requirements."

WPP past mergers for PR

In 2018  Burson-Marsteller and Cohn & Wolfe merged to to form BCW (Burson Cohn & Wolfe), one of the world’s largest, global communications firms. In India, the BCW India Group was formed when Genesis BCW and Six Degrees BCW were integrated under one business group in the market in January 2020.

Sources said it's not clear at the moment whether Genesis and Six Degrees brand names will be incorporated in the Burson brand as is the case currently with BCW.

Global Burson Leadership 

Corey duBrowa, currently global CEO of BCW, has been named global CEO of Burson and AnnaMaria DeSalva, currently, global chairman and CEO of Hill & Knowlton, has been named global chairman of Burson. Together, they will oversee agency strategy, client service, employee experience and culture. 

A WPP statement said, "The combination creates immediate scale in sectors driving today’s most consequential innovation and economic growth, including healthcare and technology."

“Harold Burson believed strongly that actions are stronger than words, and he established honesty, transparency, integrity and excellence as the guiding principles of his business,” said duBrowa. “Those principles are the foundational ideals of Burson, upon which we will set the bar for modern communications through our AI-first innovation pipeline. Together as Burson, we will bring insights, expert strategic counsel and technology solutions into a higher value offering for our clients to help them innovate and lead in today’s complex operating environment.”

“The combination of Hill & Knowlton and BCW is highly synergistic, creating a premier partner for business leaders who are focused on commercial growth, risk management, and reputational capital,” said DeSalva. “Our body of work increasingly demonstrates that strategic communication, elevated by creativity, is a primary force for sustainable value creation. By accelerating our transformation through this combination, we will enable the investments in talent and technology that advance communications leadership when it has never mattered more.”

Burson’s leadership team will comprise a cohort of top-tier former chief communications officers and other experienced agency senior executives from both companies who bring deep expertise and knowledge of what business leaders need to succeed. Appointments will be announced throughout 2024 as the integration progresses.

The statement by WPP also clarified that "Hill & Knowlton brings significant business momentum, talent and innovation into the new Burson entity. The brand will operate within Burson serving a select group of clients globally through strategic communications, advisory and public affairs services."

GCI Health and AxiCom will continue to operate as brands within Burson, offering specialised healthcare and technology communications expertise, respectively, at scale.

Mark Read, CEO of WPP, said: “Hill & Knowlton and BCW are two high-performing businesses with complementary strengths, shared ambitions and many shared clients. I am delighted to see the Burson brand brought back to unite them. The new agency will be the standard bearer as the most modern, strategic, technology-driven, full-service communications offer in the industry.”

The new agency will support a client roster that includes more than half of the Fortune 100 across corporate and public affairs, healthcare, technology and brand marketing.

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