Peers salute Dan Edelman for dedication, independence

NEW YORK: Daniel J. Edelman was fondly remembered by his peers in the PR industry on Tuesday for his innovative nature and dedication. The Edelman founder died Tuesday morning of heart failure at age 92.

NEW YORK: Daniel J. Edelman was fondly remembered by his peers in the PR industry on Tuesday for his innovative nature and dedication. The Edelman founder died Tuesday morning of heart failure at age 92.

Burson-Marsteller founder and Chairman Harold Burson said that Edelman, whom he knew for more than five decades, was a “real pioneer in marketing communications.”

Edelman's Chicago-based firm, which is now the largest in the PR industry, was one of the first to leverage TV and talk shows because of Edelman's creativity in promoting products, he added. Edelman also took advantage of holidays for clients, launching initiatives such as Butterball's “hotline” around Thanksgiving or debuting alcoholic beverage efforts close to Christmas.

Burson recalled that 25 or 30 years ago, well before the age of smartphones, he called Edelman's office and his assistant said he was traveling. Ten minutes later, Edelman called him back. When Burson asked how he knew about the call, Edelman said he checks with the office three or four times a day while away.

“He just loved his business,” Burson said. “He was one of the most prodigious workers I've ever known.”

A number of fellow PR agency founders also praised Edelman's legacy. Al Golin, who established GolinHarris in 1956, said he valued Edelman's friendship over the decades.

“He accomplished so much and of course he grew the business and stayed independent, which is very unusual in this industry,” he said. “I'm sure he resisted some very large amounts of capital that he could have had, but I think he was very serious about staying independent, and I salute him for that.”

Ruder Finn founder David Finn said in a statement: “Dan Edelman was a colleague and friend from the earliest days of the founding of the PR industry. I admired his vision as the industry grew and flourished. He leaves behind a great legacy.”

Edelman founded his eponymous firm in 1952, just a few years after he served in World War II in a psychological warfare unit analyzing German propaganda. He also briefly worked as a news writer for CBS and PR director for hair products-maker Toni Company before founding his own agency. He remained CEO until 1996, when his son Richard Edelman took over the top job at the agency.

Paulette Barrett, who had two stints at the firm in the late 1970s and 1980s in the roles of acting GM of New York and GM and EVP, respectively, said Edelman was a master of details about his clients.

“If he came with you to a meeting, he would walk out with more notes than anybody else in the meeting,” she recalled.

In addition to learning to carry a notebook with her every day, Barrett said Edelman taught her the basic but important lesson of always paying attention to clients.

“I learned everything I would subsequently apply in all of my years in the PR business by watching him and working with him in those early years,” she explained.

Another former Edelman executive, Judith Rich, who worked at the agency from 1965 to 1985 and went from assistant account executive to EVP and national creative director, said she used lessons learned from Edelman throughout her career.

Even after she left Edelman to work at Ketchum, Wendy's founder Dave Thomas was thrilled that Rich had worked with Colonel Sanders from Kentucky Fried Chicken while at Edelman.

Last month, Rich attended the firm's 60th anniversary celebration in Chicago, where attendees received a plaque with the words “It's great to be the biggest, but I always wanted to be the best.” She said the phrase fits Edelman perfectly because he always pushed people for the “big idea.”

Pam Talbot, who worked at Edelman for more than 35 years, most recently as CEO of Edelman West before leaving in 2008, spent her entire career at the firm.

She said Edelman's strength was marketing communications because he put the focus on the product rather than the corporate story, and he got consumers involved.

“[Edelman] always believed that public relations was just as important as advertising,” she explained, “and he stuck by his guns all those years when advertising was so preeminent over public relations.”

His passion for PR made the staff more aggressive about the industry and what it could do through communications, she added.

Edelman was also ahead of his time when it came to global expansion, said Talbot. He went to China early and told everyone that it would be a “critical part” of the business' future.

“There is no question that he was a driven entrepreneur, but he always had a keen emotional insight into what would make people respond to and relate to an issue, a product, and a corporation, and that's a very special thing,” she said. “He was a really great mentor.” 

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