The death of Daniel Edelman has made this a sad week for public relations, but as we mourn a true pioneer it is also an opportunity to celebrate his many achievements and contributions to building the profession.
Dan died on Tuesday at the age of 92, and since then there has been an outpouring of tributes from peers, employees and former employees, industry observers, the media, and, tellingly, competitors.
Harold Burson told PRWeek Dan was a “real pioneer in marketing communications.” Al Golin said: “He accomplished so much and grew the business and stayed independent, which is very unusual in this industry.” While David Finn added: “I admired his vision as the industry grew and flourished. He leaves behind a great legacy.”
The story of Edelman is the story of an industry, and it is told very well by Franz Wisner in the recently released book Edelman and the Rise of Public Relations. Edelman went through the growing pains that will be familiar to agency leaders of all types, but he went through them first and he remained resolutely independent along the way.
Dealing with losing accounts and failing offices, keeping the boat afloat after groups of staff move on and form their own agencies, coping through economic downturns, expanding organically and through acquisition – all these and many more were trailblazed by Edelman as he set about building what would become the largest PR firm in the world.
The only time Dan relinquished any part of his operation was a 5% stake to Interpublic Group when Edelman acquired the holding company's California-based ad firm Dailey & Associates. But the arrangement grated and Dan was able to buy back control 18 months later due to a cleverly inserted clause in the original contract.
Global expansion was also affected by growing pains, as partnerships with the likes of Japan's ad giant Hakuhodo didn't pan out as anticipated. Dan couldn't throw money at the problem like the global holding companies, but through a mixture of judicious organic expansion and carefully selected acquisitions the empire began to take shape.
This left a solid foundation on which son Richard could build once he took over the running of the company in 1997. But the massive expansion that has occurred since then still did not come without significant challenges. These included an accounting snafu, negative client satisfaction and internal staff surveys, the ups and downs of the dotcom boom and bust, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City.
All these episodes tested the company's resolve to remain independent rather than heading for safer waters within the bosom of a large advertising holding company.
Landmark clients such as Walmart and GE followed, and the rest is part of the history that is still being written as Edelman rockets towards its target of becoming the first $1 billion agency in the industry.
Writing history as you go has been the hallmark of the agency, epitomized by Dan and carried on through his son Richard. It wasn't always a smooth ride, and the relentless drive to move forward meant some good people were shed on the way.
But the overriding qualities of creativity, independence, hard work, ethics, and attention to detail displayed by Dan Edelman and infused in the agency he founded 60 years ago are fine examples for any PR pro to follow – whether they are well into their career or just starting out.