Richard Edelman, chief executive of the eponymous PR agency founded
by his father 48 years ago, did not intend to follow his father into
When he graduated from Harvard Business School, he had lined up a job as
a marketeer for Playtex. ’I thought I would be a big company marketing
type. I was all set to go to (Playtex headquarters in) Stanford,
Connecticut, and meet beautiful girls,’ he recalls. But his father
somehow managed to persuade the 23-year-old Edelman Junior to abandon
bras in favour of commodities futures - promoting a client the agency
had just won.
Almost 30 years on, the son is in charge of the agency which, in the
last few weeks, has been hit by the departures of key staff including
its financial PR heads in Europe, the US and Asia-Pacific, while the
father casts a watchful eye from above, as company chairman. Dan
Edelman’s role is open to debate - Richard claims the 79-year-old is
’hands on’, while the buck stops with him. But outside observers say Dan
still controls the agency purse-strings.
It was Dan who rocked the PR agency boat in the US earlier this year by
suggesting at an industry function that his firm - the world’s largest
independent global PR agency - might be up for sale. But Richard Edelman
is adamant this was misinterpreted: ’We’re not selling out,’ he says.
’We’ve not seen any benefits derived from being owned by an advertising
agency. We don’t relish going in as the tail on the advertising dog and
we don’t need the money in order to compete. We’re in a business that
orients to the CEO suite - advertising deals with the board directors. I
like our position a lot.’
This aggressive defence of independence is, in part, justified - Edelman
PR Worldwide’s expected growth for the year ending last June is 17 per
cent. Its 38 wholly-owned offices account for a global fee income of
pounds 106 million, including US-based second-string agency PR21, which
has notched up a fee income of about pounds 3.4 million and clients
including Motorola and CNN’s web site since its launch last year. But
the agency’s financial conservatism - arguably a result of private
ownership - is also seen by some observers as the root cause of its
failure to get beyond its traditional US marketing communications and
corporate PR base.
Financial PR is the firm’s most visible achilles heel. Compounding - or
perhaps resulting from - this weakness, the past six months have seen
the departures of Edelman’s European, US and Asia-Pacific financial PR
heads in rapid succession. Former European financial head Kirsty
Macmaster made her reasons for quitting clear - lack of financial
But this higher-than-average senior staff turnover in recent years has
not been limited to financial PR. Three European presidents have passed
through the agency in four years and the same number of London MDs have
revolved through Edelman’s Haymarket doors in the last five years.
Edelman himself shows a modicum of concern at the departure of his last
two European presidents, Joachim Klewes and Remy Ossard, rationalising
their exit a touch dismissively by saying ’they are fine people but they
just don’t suit my style’. He is less tolerant of Macmaster. ’Kirsty had
a team of six people. I told her we weren’t going to hire six people on
top to make 12 when we didn’t have a great business to support her, but
I’m not going to say anything more, as I’m a gentleman,’ he says.
This is characteristic Edelman. He is undoubtedly bright, personable and
constantly buzzing with ideas and inspiration - his latest obsession is
with the ’dot com’ companies and e-publicity, about which he bubbles
over with enthusiasm. But those who have worked with him say he can turn
brash when things don’t go his way.
’If he slowed down, thought about good manners and tried to achieve half
as much, he’d achieve twice as much,’ says one insider.
But slowing down does not seem to be on Edelman’s agenda. When not
jetting around the world, he is playing tennis with his father, bouncing
on the trampoline in his Manhattan backyard with his three daughters or
swotting up on his Hebrew for 11-year-old Margot’s pending batmitzvah.
Remembering the ’nervous wreck’ he was reduced to at his own barmitzvah,
he says: ’I’m damned if I’m going to be embarrassed.’
1993: President, Edelman Europe
1995: President and co-CEO, Edelman PR Worldwide
1997: CEO, Edelman PR Worldwide.