It was announced today that BCW and H&K are merging to form Burson, now arguably the largest communications agency on the planet. This kind of news can be nerve-wracking for employees who haven’t lived through a merger before, and my thoughts turn to them and how they must be feeling.
I went through the merger of H&K and Public Strategies back in 2010 – 2011. I was H&K’s global technology practice leader at the time, and the job market wasn’t amazing back then, either. I remember feeling excited at the possibilities and worried for my future at the same time. I’m sure many former H&K, Burson, and Cohn & Wolfe employees have perspectives to share on the agency mergers they’ve been through. And the one thing we all have in common is this — we survived it, we learned from it, and we grew as a result.
The truth is, agency mergers are commonplace, and they may become even more likely in the future. WPP and its global competitors have always been about growth. From that perspective this merger makes a lot of sense.
The question now is how they approach the integration of the two companies.
Publicly traded companies like WPP must balance the tension between optimizing for profit and optimizing for people. Quarterly near-term profits are tangible, vital and reported to investors. Optimizing for people is equally important and requires harder-to-quantify considerations, such as long-term client value, employee experience, and culture. The tension between profits and people is not specific to WPP. Any publicly traded company wrestles with this issue.
Fortunately, many smart leaders realize that focusing on culture and customer loyalty drives financial performance in the long run, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be an either-or choice. I hope that principle drives the integration strategy of the newly formed Burson.
They have strong momentum to build on in this regard. I’ve partnered with H&K off and on over the past seven years. From a distance, I’ve witnessed AnnaMaria DeSalva and her team turn the culture around at H&K. They recently put the “&” back into the H&K agency name, replacing the “+” sign that Public Strategies inserted after the 2010 merger, which many of us interpreted as a symbol of cultural change. I would love to see that change stick.
My point is this — an agency is only as good as its people. As I read the news of the merger, my immediate concerns are for the hardworking people at both H&K and BCW who may be wondering, “What does this mean for me?” With that in mind, here are a few tips that helped me manage my own anxieties—and those of my team—while we went through this.
Remember your own value I’ll say it again: An agency is only as good as its people. Yes, transformative technologies like Gen AI are on the rise and will impact staffing, but so far nobody has been able to effectively automate things like human creativity, critical thinking, emotional honesty, and trusted relationships. Don’t let the hype around these technologies undermine your sense of self-worth. Learn as much as you can about how to use these new technologies. Leverage them to enhance your marketability. But don’t let them define your value. Businesses will always need talented, tech-savvy people.
Focus on delivering results Great work gets noticed. Whether you end up staying in the same role, taking on a new role in the same company, or leaving the company, just keep doing awesome work. No matter what happens next, your track record will speak for itself. Don’t let fear prevent you from being the best version of yourself. Let go of what’s outside your control and focus on what’s within your control. You got this.
Maintain your trusted relationships Honesty and authenticity are critical during times of change. If you’re a manager, you may not know—or may not be able to share—exactly what the future holds with your teams. Figure out what you can say, and take the time to say it. If you’re on the other end of the conversation, be patient with the fact your managers either don’t know or can’t say everything about what happens next. Just be as honest as you can, find the truest thing you can say, and don’t let the uncertainty erode your trust in each other. My most meaningful relationships have lasted far beyond my employment at any one company.
Rely on your network You have an identity beyond your current employer. If you’re feeling nervous, it never hurts to re-establish connections with trusted friends and colleagues. If you’re up worried late at night, make it a constructive evening and reach out to the people you enjoyed working with and who know what you can do. If you end up staying right where you are, it’s a nice confidence boost to be reminded that you are a rock star. If you end up moving on, you’ll have a jump start on networking. Reach out to the people who know you best.
Have faith in your future Your value has far less to do with where you work than what you’ve learned. You can—and in all likelihood, will—have a fulfilling and successful career in more than one position. Don’t limit your goal to simply hanging onto your current job. Make it about finding the most fulfilling step forward. If you’re in a good spot, learning valuable skills, adding value, and happy, chances are you’ll stay right where you are. If you’re not, then a change of pace might not be a bad idea for both you and your employer.
I learned all this the hard way. Before I left H&K and Blanc & Otus, I couldn’t imagine a life outside of a big agency. That’s probably because my job felt so all-consuming. But since then, I’ve seen a multitude of different ways talented communicators can build a great career. So many independent agencies, networks of freelancers, and solo practitioners are thriving today simply because they do great work at a great price and serve a vital market niche. While the world will always need big agencies, they are but one option among many for talented communications professionals and the clients they serve.
It keeps coming back to this one core truth: people are the value in our industry, not just the technology they use or the organizations who employ them. In other words, you’re the value. Remember that the next time you’re worried about your future.
Joshua Reynolds is the Founder and CEO of Rob Roy Consulting, Inc.