Karen van Bergen is beginning her fourth month as the first CEO of the 6,000-person Omnicom Public Relations Group that oversees 10 primary PR agency brands — including FleishmanHillard, Ketchum and Porter Novelli. In this Career Capsule, Karen writes about how she discovered and fell in love with public relations.
By Karen van Bergen
As I came to the end of my time at university, I was interviewing for a job as a management trainee at a big FMCG company. At the time, the job market was very difficult and these select slots in the trainee program were highly sought after. It would basically guarantee you a steady job and career wherever you landed. But despite the job environment and pressure to find a job so I could start my post-university life, I just didn’t feel quite right about it. I went through rounds and rounds of interviews, and at one point was even asked, “Ms. van Bergen, why should I hire you when in a few years you’ll probably be married, get pregnant and leave?” (That didn’t help the case.) But after a long, arduous process I was fortunate to be offered one of the slots. My parents were thrilled. But my gut was telling me otherwise.
Around that same time, a friend of mine heard about a job at the biggest Dutch public relations/public affairs agency and set me up for an interview. The moment I stepped into the office I knew I had to work there. I had no clue what public relations was, but the atmosphere was so vibrant and filled with energy. It just felt right. So I declined the management trainee opportunity and took the job at the PR firm. A lot of people, including my parents, were aghast. But it was the right decision, and led me to where I am today.
I learned so much at that first job – it’s where I was introduced to public relations and public affairs and learned all the ins and outs of the profession. I learned even more in the years that followed, including the importance of culture, why we should embrace (smart) risk-taking and how to bring the spirit of entrepreneurship to your job. But the lesson that has stuck with me is the one that got me into public relations in the first place: trust your gut.
Here’s where my career has taken me so far (chronological order):
- Consultant, Van Luyken Public Relations/Public Affairs (2 years)
- Director, Brussels Office, Van Luyken Public Relations/Public Affairs (2 years)
- Independent Counselor (2 years)
- Director, Corporate Affairs Europe, Outboard Marine Corporation (2 years)
- Director, Government Relations Europe, McDonald’s Europe (4 years)
- Director, Marketing, Communications and Government Relations, McDonald’s Central Europe/Central Asia (3 years)
- Director, Corporate Affairs, Coca-Cola (2 years)
- Associate Vice President, Corporate Affairs, McDonald’s Europe (3 years)
- Senior Vice President and Regional Director, FleishmanHillard (1.5 years)
- Chief of Staff to the President/Vice President of Corporate Affairs, McDonald’s Europe (3 years)
- Global Leader for Philips One Voice and Senior Partner/Senior Vice President, FleishmanHillard (3 years)
- Managing Director, New York and Senior Partner, Porter Novelli (1 year)
- Chief Executive Officer and Senior Partner, Porter Novelli (3 years)
- Chief Executive Officer, Omnicom Public Relations Group (3 months)