ANALYSIS PROFILE: Finn: for 50 years, raising PR to an art form. PR folk are known for tooting their own horn. But when you count JFK and John D. Rockefeller III among your clients, you probably don’t need to Larry Dobrow sits down with David Finn

To spend an afternoon with David Finn is to bask in the warmth of a once-in-a-generation mind. It is to listen to his recollections about family, history and the humanities, and to emerge with a clear understanding of what has made him one of PR’s most enduring and successful practitioners.

To spend an afternoon with David Finn is to bask in the warmth of a once-in-a-generation mind. It is to listen to his recollections about family, history and the humanities, and to emerge with a clear understanding of what has made him one of PR’s most enduring and successful practitioners.

To spend an afternoon with David Finn is to bask in the warmth of a

once-in-a-generation mind. It is to listen to his recollections about

family, history and the humanities, and to emerge with a clear

understanding of what has made him one of PR’s most enduring and

successful practitioners.



It is, indeed, to enjoy the best of what the profession has to offer,

even if a mere fraction of what you discuss has anything to do with

public relations.



If such praise sounds like hyperbole, consider this: since opening Ruder

Finn (as Ruder & Finn) with best friend and eventual brother-in-law Bill

Ruder in September 1948, David Finn has found the time to write or

contribute his photographs to more than 70 books, serve as an adjunct

professor of PR at New York University, exhibit his paintings and

photographs at one-man shows in the US and Europe and become a Fellow of

the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Advisory

Council for the National Endowment for the Humanities. Oh yeah - he also

built his PR firm into a dollars 53.4 million business, according to

PRWeek’s 1999 figures.



’As a businessman, I’m an artist,’ Finn says. When asked how he has made

time for his many pursuits, Finn does the unthinkable for the head of a

PR agency: he quotes Proust. ’He wrote, ’time is elastic.’ You find the

time to do what you want to do. It’s a matter of determination and

will.’



In some ways, Finn seems a relic from an earlier era. In conversation,

Finn throws out names like John D. Rockefeller III and President John F.

Kennedy (both former Ruder Finn clients) the way younger agency chiefs

reference Gates or Bezos. Books and photographs spill from the walls of

his office; a computer sits alone in a corner, as if an

afterthought.



He is almost certainly the only person in PR whose office coffee table

is populated by books he’s written.



Finn has not strayed far, philosophically or geographically, from the

firm’s roots: ’We started in the linen closet of the Lombardi Hotel on

East 56th St. here in New York,’ only steps away from the firm’s current

57th St. headquarters.



But he does not appear to have lost touch with the current PR climate or

the agency that bears his stamp. At 78, Finn’s routine includes four

days at the office, during which he still advises clients (Four Seasons

Hotels, Novartis) and takes an active role in agency management. He

passes his Fridays writing at home in New Rochelle, NY and spends

weekend days in his darkroom and weekend nights painting.





Fifty years spent building a firm



From the outset, Finn had a unique concept of what a PR agency should

be. During the firm’s nascent days, Finn and Ruder spent six months

working on a presentation that attempted to show the connection between

art and industry. ’People asked us, ’How are you going to sell a client

on this?’ Truthfully, we didn’t know much about business.’ Among Ruder &

Finn’s early clients were entertainers (the first was Perry Como, who

thanked the pair with a full-page ad in Billboard magazine);

corporations, associations, non-profits and governments quickly

followed.



Finn insisted that the growing firm have a strong ethical underpinning -

hence the creation of an ethics committee 40 years ago. The committee,

usually advised by an outside theologian or an academic, meets every six

weeks and is open to all members of the Ruder Finn family. While Finn

refuses to critique the ethics efforts of other agencies, he concedes,

’I think we’re more involved in self-exploration than most. We’re an

effective agency, but also a thoughtful agency.’ And in a profession

teeming with cynical minds, nobody doubts the sincerity of Finn’s

mission. ’Frankly, I think what they do is a waste of time,’ says the

CEO of another top-20 agency. ’But I admire them, and David in

particular, for staying true to their ideals.’



Finn might also be credited with developing the modern concept of a PR

network. Only years into R&F’s existence, the partners created a ’field

network’ of affiliates in about 50 cities. ’We’d call up three people in

Detroit and ask them for the names of the three best PR firms. If a firm

appeared on two or three lists, we called them up and said, ’Hey, join

our network.’ Then we announced that we had an exclusive network.’



Tactics such as these caught the attention of many of the profession’s

early giants. Finn fondly recalls being taken out to lunch by Carl Byoir

(’He said, ’We need more guys like you’’). Finn and Ruder also sat in on

monthly ’Shop Talk Club’ meetings of the heads of the largest PR

agencies in the business. The get-togethers, which were attended by

industry giants like John Hill and Farley Manning, served as a casual

forum for friends and competitors to discuss the issues confronting

them. ’It was kind of like what the Council of Public Relations Firms is

doing today, but on a smaller scale.’ Finn notes that a few of the

profession’s most vaunted names - Harold Burson, Dan Edelman and Al

Fleischman - weren’t yet big enough (in terms of agency size) to

’qualify’ for attendance at the meetings.



Rife with such talent as Gershon Kekst and Dick Weiner, as well as

clients ranging from the US government (President Kennedy hired the firm

to rally public support for the 1960 nuclear test ban treaty) to the

Academy Awards, R&F was the largest PR firm in the world by the late

1960s. However, there were several personal and professional bumps in

the road. An intra-agency personal issue spurred Ruder’s departure and

the breakup of his marriage with Finn’s sister, Helen (Ruder kept his

office and remains a member of the board, and the two are still close

friends). Then there was the ill-fated merger with Harshe Rotman & Druck

in 1980, which left the firm in dire financial straits.





Today’s Ruder Finn: a family affair



But out of the difficulties of that era rose the Ruder Finn of

today.



Finn’s four children soon took an active role in charting the firm’s

course, eventually buying up about 80% of the company’s stock. Today all

four are members of the Ruder Finn management committee, and two of

Finn’s grandchildren have joined the firm as well. ’I like to think

there will be a third generation,’ he says.



That third generation will almost certainly learn the craft of PR at a

firm not owned by a global communications behemoth. As opposed to the

heads of other independent agencies, Finn flatly and unequivocally

states his belief that Ruder Finn should remain independent. ’I want to

remain a company that is good for its people,’ he says, implying that

ownership by a multinational could compromise Ruder Finn’s unique

artistic and philosophical bent.



So how do current clients react when they arrive at a low-key strategy

meeting to see David Finn sitting at the table, sleeves rolled up and

ready to impart his advice? ’They appreciate it, I think,’ he says, with

the small curl of a smile inching onto his face. ’After all, I’m

supposed to have some judgment and wisdom at this point in my life.’





DAVID FINN - Founder, chairman/CEO, Ruder Finn



1948: Founds Ruder & Finn with Bill Ruder.



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