Memories of a Founding Father

Our country had Washington, Adams and Jefferson. My profession had Arthur Page, Ivy Lee and, most certainly, the recently deceased Harold Burson

I’m not a “Burson Person,” but I have two special memories of him nonetheless. The first concerns the amazing firm he built. The other recounts my memories of a remarkable two-hour lunch with the beloved Burson.

I first became aware of Burson-Marsteller’s existence a lifetime ago as a freshly minted account executive at Hill and Knowlton. From day one, I and the rest of the H&K juniors were continually reminded that we were the biggest and best PR firm in the world.  As my boss described it: H&K is Tiffany’s. Everything else is Filene’s Basement.

But that all changed one spring afternoon in 1980 when the entire New York staff was ordered to gather in a cavernous conference room.

After we’d settled in, our distraught CEO announced, “O’Dwyer’s has just released the rankings and we are no longer number one. Burson Marsteller is. That is unacceptable and it will change. We are implementing two immediate strategies: a brand refresh (yawn) and a decision to actively begin pursuing new business.”

The latter statement really hit home.

H&K had always prided itself on never soliciting clients, instead haughtily deciding if a prospect was “H&K worthy.” 

But after Burson blew by us, every new business prospect suddenly became H&K worthy. And within a year or two, H&K had begun its long downward spiral, while Harold & Co. rose to ever loftier highs. The decision by one firm to target and pursue companies it wanted to do business with versus another that pitched virtually anything that came in the door was a lesson that would stick with me in the years that followed.

My second anecdote involves the only time I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Burson and after I’d established my own agency.

One of our newer employees, who had recently left B-M to join Peppercomm, arranged a lunch for us with the legend.

When we entered the restaurant, Mr. Burson rose from the table, extended his hand and said, “I’ve really been looking forward to meeting Steve Cody for quite some time.” I was shocked that he even knew I existed. 

He continued: “I’ve been following Peppercomm’s success for quite some time now.” Not knowing what to say, I mumbled, “Gee, thanks Mr. Burson.” Naturally he asked me to call him Harold, but I felt like I was in the presence of a giant and couldn’t imagine calling him anything else.

Mr. Burson sensed my nervousness, leaned in and whispered, “I’m proud of everyone who succeeds at my firm and in our profession, but there’s a special place in my heart reserved for entrepreneurs. Only we know the exquisite highs and devastating lows of starting from scratch and lying awake nights worrying if we’ll be able to meet the next payroll or not.” I cannot tell you how much his words meant to me. 

Mr. Burson proceeded to answer every question I fired at him (including why he represented tobacco companies). “I believe every legitimate business deserves representation,” he said.

Then, typical of the gentleman he was, he wanted to hear more about Peppercomm and what we were doing differently. I mentioned that one of things we insisted upon was sitting in on a client sales executive’s “pitch.” I told him I felt it enabled us to hear the unfiltered voice of the customer rather than having it interpreted by marketing communications executives. 

He smiled, leaned back and said, “I always insisted on the very same thing. And we did it. But we don’t do it anymore and I’m not sure why.” I never expected that sort of candor

After two hours, we shook hands and promised to stay in touch (which, sadly, we didn’t). But as I left the restaurant that day, I remember saying to my Peppercomm colleague, “I feel as if I’ve just been schooled in the art of war by George Washington himself.”

There will never be another Harold Burson. But I’m privileged to have spent those 120 minutes at the foot of the master and will honor his passing with these memories and a reminder to apply their lessons in my own life.


5 thoughts on “Memories of a Founding Father

  1. Steve — this is a wonderful tribute. Harold was a master at recognizing talent and reaching out to share his experiences with complete candor and genuine graciousness. As he did with you. Your retelling of those days at Hill and Knowlton and the eclipse when Burson took the lead bring a chuckle after these many years. Thanks for reminding me.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this Steve. Harold was all about candor to be sure. I also think he was one of the best listeners ever. I wish I was…