Edelman - a soloist salvo

He is a slim and healthy 44 year old. He drinks milk, water and orange juice. But if you didn't know him better, you'd think Richard Edelman drinks twenty cups of coffee a day. His sentences - fast, clipped - percolate with new ideas, tangential allusions, newspaper quotes and statistics.

He is a slim and healthy 44 year old. He drinks milk, water and orange juice. But if you didn't know him better, you'd think Richard Edelman drinks twenty cups of coffee a day. His sentences - fast, clipped - percolate with new ideas, tangential allusions, newspaper quotes and statistics.

Sometimes it's hard to keep up. Here he is talking about 'the resonance' of being independent. 'We're saying the world has changed fundamentally, with the dispersion and integration of media (CNBC, MSNBC) and the need for single source journalism, and because the consumer is more cynical, and not keen on advertising.

'I read in The New York Times,' he says, interrupting himself. 'In 1965, you could reach 86% of women in the 18-49 year-old bracket with three 30 second commercials. Today, it would require at least 97 ads.'

'I compare advertising agencies to Leviathan,' he continues, this time with a metaphor. It lasts only a moment before another one is introduced: 'The only way to make advertising work is to run a simple piece many times.

It's like car manufacturing. Whereas PR agencies do customized jobs. They're a high cost producer that doesn't produce. Primetime news is down. We can do a custom car in a squillionth of the time. That's what we're saying.'

Fierce competition
Don't think for a moment, however, that Edelman is simply selling the virtues of PR vs advertising. For the second thing you should know about the chief executive of Edelman Worldwide is that he is fiercely competitive.

The point he is making here is that independence is not merely unique, but puts it at a positive advantage amongst the top 10 PR agencies.

'Since we're not part of a giant advertising agency group, we can say that we don't 'do' advertising. That people can come to us without being pitched for more money than they really need to spend.'

But Edelman doesn't restrict his competitive spirit to mere parental ties. Comparing the company's multi-practice approach with that of his biggest rival, he criticizes its 'cultural imperialism'.

'Burson Marsteller is like McDonalds. Its approach is totally US-centric. We acquire agencies locally. We want to serve local clients, and we believe the only way to do that is to know the local press and local customs. Burson Marsteller serves its clients with what is, in effect, media buying. Our way makes people more fractious, but it also empowers them.'

Doesn't this create a potential free-for-all that could damage Edelman's global brand? Edelman believes the solution is a system of 'processes', currently either under development, or already in practice.

For example, Crisis Preparation and Response (CPR), launched in March 1998, is a global crisis management tool that is placed on the company intranet, ready to be adapted by local practices and placed on the Internet when a crisis occurs.

Flexible development
Processes, then, offer the best of both worlds, according to Edelman, and can be developed from anywhere within the business. Other 'processes' have been developed for reputation management, convergence marketing (for newly deregulated industries), brandcare, business advantage marketing (for business-to-business marketing); while another one, to be launched in January, will provide an employee communications 'process' to manage the change channel.

For such an impulsive character, these 'processes' seem too institutionalized by half. Isn't it great people that make great strategy? Edelman agrees, but adds: 'You cannot have a business where everyone's an iconoclast. I would love to have all the best people, but that's impossible. It's better to have good people and good systems.'

But it's through the Internet, perhaps more than anything else, that Edelman sees both the future advantage of PR over advertising - and the future advantage of independence. 'The advertising agencies see their future in it. We do too. But they want it for sales and commerce. The new media business at Omnicom resides in a specialist unit.

'We don't see the Web like that at all. The Net is a fact-based media. PR uses it as an information exchange. Our firm is based around facts and content creation, using credited third parties. People don't want e-commerce and web coupons. That's why we're the only PR firm that has developed 50 web sites for clients.'

Web technologies
Edelman is a hive of new Internet technologies: the latest is e-Map, a proprietary measurement program that competes with third party vendors such as Carma. Launching in January is Grassroots Action Network, a web-based product that puts communities of interest in touch with each other; while the Edelman Edge, a global media database that records and charts conversations with individual journalists, rolls into Europe at the same time.

Clearly, independent thinking is producing some fresh services and options.

And its multi-market, multi-practice PR business is obviously working.

'In 1995, we had six accounts worth $1m or more. In 1998, we now have 27. Sales have grown from $99.8 million in 1996 to $146 million this year.'

Yet as so many agencies get bought up, it's impossible to ignore the possibility that Edelman will one day be sold - if the price is right.

Edelman dismisses it. 'All of them have called. It's not a matter of them not offering enough. We don't see our future as part of an agency.'

So how does this square with sister Rene's comments in The New York Times, when she welcomed an initiative by the AAAA allowing PR agencies to join its hallowed circle? 'I'm glad to share the top spot,' says Edelman. 'I don't mind being side by side with advertising. What I don't want is to be the tail on the dog.

And perhaps the tail will soon be wagging the dog. 'It's not beyond the ken,' he reveals, 'that we will buy a corporate or public affairs advertising agency. Nothing mass market. Our relationship is with opinion leaders, people who are shaping behavior. Whatever it takes to influence people, we've got to have that.'

Richard Edelman
President and CEO, Edelman Worldwide

1978 Account Executive, Edelman Chicago

1979 Account Executive, Edelman New York

1981 General Manager, Edelman New York

1988 President, East Coast, Edelman US

1992 President, Edelman Europe

1994 Co-CEO, Edelman Worldwide

1996 CEO, Edelman Worldwide.

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