Paul Holmes 17 Jan 2013 // 10:17AM GMT
In his introduction to the book Edelman and the Rise of Public Relations—which arrived on my desk the morning after I learned of Dan Edelman’s passing—Richard Edelman says of his father, “There will never be another Dan Edelman.” I think that’s right, and from an industry perspective it may be the saddest thing about his passing. There have been and there will be other entrepreneurs in the public relations business. Some of them may even build PR agencies that one day become larger than Edelman (which today ranks as the largest in the world). But in the same way that the automotive industry will never see another Henry Ford, that the fast food business will never see another Ray Kroc, PR will never see another Dan Edelman. Along with a handful of contemporaries—Harold Burson, Carl Byoir, John Hill, Al Golin, Al Fleishman and Bob Hillard, David Finn—Dan invented the modern public relations firm. But while most of the firms these individuals created are structurally similar (in terms of international offices, practice areas, sector focus), they were culturally quite distinctive—and none was more distinctive than Edelman. Edelman’s distinctiveness derived directly from Dan’s personality, which reached every corner of the organization, even as it expanded from Chicago to New York, across the US, into Europe and eventually in Asia. No matter how far from the center, how low on the totem pole, no Edelman account exec could hide from the occasional “Danogram,” a memo that could contain unexpected praise (Dan seemed to know everything that went on in his organization) or—just as likely—a question about why the firm wasn’t making more money off a particular account, office, or practice. Despite its growth, Edelman maintained the culture that reflected its founder's personality: it was scrappy—perhaps because the firm was based in Chicago and had a mild “second city” complex, but more likely because Dan loved to win, at whatever he did. It was entrepreneurial, sometimes to a fault—a meritocracy that allowed the truly talented to flourish. It was highly creative, willing to take chances, prepared to risk the occasional strike-out as it swung for the fences, and as a result it hit more homeruns for clients than any of its competitors. Above all, it had a pioneering mindset. Just as Dan saw the potential of television—his “Toni Twins” roadshow is one of the legendary public relations campaigns—at a time when the majority of his peers were focused exclusively on print, the firm he created was the first of the giant agencies to understand how dramatically digital and social media would change the communications landscape. One big reason why the firm maintained that culture—even as a new generation of management smoothed some its rougher edges—is that it remained independent, fiercely so. There can be no doubt that selling to holding companies, most of them dominated by ad agencies, made most of Edelman’s rivals less interesting. And as the holding company agencies began to look more similar to one another, Edelman stood out even more—and grew even faster. Edelman maintained its independence because Dan believed—as I do—that PR was “a higher calling” than advertising, that PR, with its unique focus on dialogue and engagement and relationship-building, should be the lead discipline in marketing and communications. And so while other firms were selling to ad agencies and their parents, Edelman was launching its own ad agency—and its own research capability, its own digital studio, its own experiential agency, creating a PR led integrated agency that could (should) serve as a model for the entire industry. I said earlier that there have been and will be other entrepreneurs in the PR business, that some of them may build agencies bigger than Edelman. But the truth is, I don’t think many of them will. Because I suspect very few of them expect to be running—or even involved with—their own agencies a decade from now, never mind 50 or 60 years from now. They’re more likely to sell out to an ad agency, a holding company, or a private equity firm than they are to build something of the scale or quality of an Edelman. That’s one reason there will never be another Dan Edelman. And why his passing is such a loss for the industry to which he dedicated his life.