CEOs are Innovators: Richard Edelman

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  • This is the success story of a son endeavouring to build his father’s empire.

    After Richard Edelman graduated from Harvard Business School in 1978, he planned to go to work at an unlikely place for a young man - Playtex.

    A call from his father Dan, however, dramatically changed Richard’s career path. Dan had been in talks to sell the family’s PR firm, Edelman, but asked Richard to join in hopes of keeping the company in the family. “It was clear that this choice would not only affect my life, but my father’s as well,” Richard writes on his blog.

    Richard had always imagined making it on his own outside the family business, but he realized that following in his father’s footsteps could provide him the chance to be seen as an equal in his father’s eye. He ultimately joined Edelman and Dan rejected the acquisition offer.

    Together father and son grew the business from one worth $6 million to one that today employs 5,000 people and earns over $735 million annually. In 2012, after Richard had guided Edelman as CEO for 16 years, Dan, then 92 and ill, shared some parting words with Richard. “You have done an excellent job,” he said.  

    Richard has turned Edelman into the top PR firm in the world because of his knack for storytelling —starting with his own brand. He has created a .CEO Domain, RichardEdelman.CEO, that leads viewers back to his landing page on Edelman’s corporate website. Richard has invested deeply in his personal corporate page.

    Since 2004 he has published a weekly blog that provides his thoughts and analysis on the communications marketing industry. In one particular insightful entry, he explains how companies can recast how their communications and marketing teams think.  

    “Communications must operate with the rigor and analytics of marketing and marketing must operate with the storytelling mindset and marketplace reality of communications,” he writes. "The end result," adds Edelman, "is the ability to change the path of a corporation while also improving society."

    Edelman is advocating for changing his industry’s calling from “marketing communications” to “communications marketing.” He believes the tiny phrasing tweak can dramatically alter how companies tell brand stories. “This simple act of reversing two commonly used words reflects a new environment where classic, image-driven marketing is giving way to a new focus on long-term relationships,” Edelman writes on his company’s blog.

    Edelman envisions that corporate communications and marketing teams will soon become equal partners who tell brand stories beyond a single ad campaign, because the traditional advertising model is evolving. To date, advertising accounts for around two-thirds of the spending by Edelman clients, with 25% going to social media and 10% for public relations.

    “I predict that in the next decade, those percentages may well be reversed, as earned and social take precedence over paid,” writes Edelman. "Successful brands will provide a leading product and a societal benefit."

    Edelman client CVS is already navigating this new frontier. The company has stopped selling cigarettes at its drugstores, despite knowing that it would forgo $2 billion in annual sales. While CVS will initially lose money by shunning cigarettes, the company’s decision fits squarely into the larger anti-smoking societal movement.

    As for Richard, he plans to hand the family business to his children one day, though that is unlikely to happen anytime soon. “Given the new competitive context and our broader scope, it feels as if the game is new and refreshing and vibrant, that I am at the beginning again,” he writes.

  • Matt McCue

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