How will the Burson-Marsteller and Cohn & Wolfe merger pan out in India?

Suddenly, as the month of February was ending, a news flashed on Business Wire, before any of the two large PR news networks could break it – WPP had decided to merge two of its brands – the world #6 Burson-Marsteller and the world #12 Cohn & Wolfe. This news certainly has a considerable impact in India. Here are the seven talking points from how this will pan out in India!

  1. If there are two women Sir Martin Sorrell vouches for in the world of Public Relations, it is Donna Imperato and Prema Sagar. I remember spending two minutes with the WPP chief in an elevator in Miami after a fire-side chat he had with the former where he mentioned to me with fondness about the latter. It will be interesting to see how Prema Sagar and Donna Imperato will flesh out the India piece of this global merger in the weeks ahead.
  2. The earn-out period of Cohn & Wolfe’s acquisition of Six Degrees is ongoing. All eyes will be on Rishi Seth and Zacharia James in the months ahead to see how the global leadership of the new entity fits them into the wonderful jigsaw that has just been created. Rishi Seth did a short stint at Genesis Public Relations many years ago and will now have to work closely with Prema Sagar once again. This will be an interesting equation.
  3. Prema Sagar was the first India Chair for Cohn & Wolfe before she decided to part ways and bring in PPR as the conflict brand and let Cohn & Wolfe chart its own path through an acquisition. This relationship is once again coming full circle in an albeit different avatar though with the Marsteller name being dropped in the process in the renaming of the entity. One will have to see if the Genesis name is also dropped close to 12 years after what was then the first acquisition of an Indian firm in 2005.
  4. Overnight, the combined entity of Genesis BM and Cohn & Wolfe Six Degrees will become the second 100-crore firm based on back of the envelope estimates of the two being in the vicinity of Rs 85 crore and Rs 15 crore respectively. This will still be half the size of the Number 1 Indian firm. Interestingly, in India GBM manages Microsoft and CWSD manages Google. There will be other conflicts that will need to be handled along the way.
  5. There will be a solid overlapping leadership when both the firms are combined in India. How well this is managed will go a long way in ensuring the transition. Recently, Deepshikha Dharmaraj, a GBM veteran of 23 years was promoted as Chief Business Growth Officer. Similarly, last year Karan Punia was elevated as CEO of Cohn & Wolfe in India. How all these leaders will be accommodated in the new formation only time will tell.
  6. Lastly, there is a third major PR brand from the house of WPP, which globally was almost double the size of Cohn & Wolfe and slightly smaller than BM. I’m referring to H+K Strategies. Had Sir Martin Sorrell added this firm to the merger we would have had something like BCK [Burson, Cohn & Knowlton ;-)] and it would have become the first $1 billion PR firm. But that maybe for another day as Jack Martin would not let it happen easily. The Indian arm (formerly called IPAN) is being watched closely.
  7. Lastly, one should commend the fact that there is finally a woman at the helm of a Top 3 firm globally and hats off to Donna Imperato who was a former BM staffer heading its consumer practice before she moved on to the consultancy that she transformed from a boutique to a global Top 12 firm. In India the numero uno woman in PR is Prema Sagar and globally we have Prima Donna.
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Amith Prabhu
Amith Prabhu is the Founder of the PRomise Foundation which organises PRAXIS, India’s annual summit of reputation management professionals.

He is also the Founding Dean of the School of Communications & Reputation (SCoRe).

He can be reached at @amithpr on twitter.

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