On Tuesday, I will celebrate my 40th anniversary at Edelman. When I joined the Chicago office as an account executive working on Conticommodity Services, I was 23 years old. Edelman was a $6 million firm with offices in six cities, ranking behind Hill & Knowlton, Burson-Marsteller, Carl Byoir, Manning Selvage & Lee, Ruder Finn and Infoplan. We were a marketing PR firm, with clients such as KFC, Wines of California, Sara Lee and Gillette. My father, Dan, was in his prime, editing the important pitches, in touch with every major client, pushing for third-party endorsements, such as actress Zsa Zsa Gabor appearing on “The Today Show,” saying in her inimitable Austrian accent, “I was weaned on wine. And the California wine is the best.”
It is worth retelling the story of how I came to work at the firm. I had been a summer intern at Esmark, in the meat packing division, Swift & Company, between years of business school. I did well enough to be recommended to the sister division, Playtex, which had a famous marketer, Joel Smilow, as CEO, to go there as assistant product manager after graduation. But that April, my father called me at school to say that he had been approached by DDB (then Doyle Dane Bernbach) Advertising about being acquired. He wanted to turn down the offer but needed a reason to do so. He asked that I come to Edelman for a year to see whether I would like it. After some serious salary negotiations (five minutes) we agreed that I would be paid $25,000. I told him I wanted to have a vacation and start in September. So far so good.
Then on May 15, he called me again and said that I needed to start as soon as I graduated because we had won a new client and I was the only one who understood commodity futures trading (I had written my senior thesis on that subject). So bye bye to the European vacation with my girlfriend, hello family business.
After seven months in Chicago, my father suggested that I move to New York to learn the public affairs business from former New York City Deputy Mayor Dick Aurelio. I led a charmed life with Aurelio for 18 months, getting to work on the first important hazardous waste dispute at Love Canal in upstate New York, the Nestle Infant Formula boycott, the Pan American Airways acquisition of National Airlines, and my first client, Conticommodity, during the Hunt Brothers’ unsuccessful effort to corner the silver market. Then Aurelio left to join Warner Cable. My father appointed two successors, who lasted a total of a year. Then he turned to me, age 27, and said that I should take over as interim manager while he looked around the market.
That was my big break. I had a wonderful partner in Jody Quinn. We had no fear. Our programs were daring and clients admired the kiddie corps’ can-do spirit. We won Fuji Photo Film, which had become the sponsor of the 1984 Summer Olympics, with the brilliant Shooting for the Gold campaign with Sports Illustrated photographer Walter Iooss, taking pictures of American athletes training and competing in the Games. We built a business in pharmaceuticals, headed by Richard Rothstein from Drug Topics magazine. There were hysterical moments. When client Ayerst Laboratories introduced a new capsule format for its heart drug Inderal that would help patients taking multiple drugs to distinguish this all-important one, we had a reporter call the company headquarters for comment. The corporate secretary tasked with press relations said that the shape change was “just one of those things,” a quote that made the “CBS Evening News” (not to worry, the rest of the coverage was superb). For Blue Stratos men’s cologne, we had a motorized hang glider take off from the Great Lawn in Central Park and buzz the St. Moritz Hotel where we held the launch press event. I started doing cold calls on potential clients; one of those led to an assignment for Lever Brothers on Surf Detergent and Snuggle Fabric Softener. Our most famous campaign was the OTC switch of Advil, where we beat out Bristol-Myers Nuprin, in part through the selection of aging fireballer Nolan Ryan, who became a hero to weekend warriors.
After 10 years as manager in New York, I was named president of Edelman Europe, which was comprised of operations in the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain. Shortly after I got the job, the UK office lost half of its revenue through the privatization of British steel and British dairy. I would stay in Europe for two weeks at a time, then run back for the weekend with my family with toys from Germany or dresses from France. There were moments of incredible joy, such as the French office daring to work with AIDS activists to drop a pink sheath over the obelisk at Place de la Concorde for client Benetton on Global AIDS day. Or the brilliant World’s Biggest Offer for British Airways to revive trans-Atlantic air travel with free flights to the UK from all hubs. There was loneliness as well, wandering around European cities on the weekend, waiting for the week to begin, wondering whether an American could really turn around a European business. It happened, not all at once, but by attracting talents such as Marie Rouet, Martina Heuer, Abel Hadden and Rosanna D’Antona.
In 1995, it was time to go back to the U.S., to be COO to my father, to focus on the U.S. business outside of Chicago. But it was in Chicago that I had the greatest adventure, during a trip to visit my parents with my family for Passover. The dredging company, Great Lakes Dredge and Dock, doing reconstruction work in the Chicago River, mistakenly drilled into a long-ago abandoned rail tunnel. Water cascaded into the hole, then from the tunnel, then overwhelmed the sewers and flooded the downtown area. We were called in a panic by the private equity owner, Blackstone, then newly formed and about to be hit with a catastrophic lawsuit. I was in charge of the war room, to prepare the company CEO for a Saturday morning press briefing. One of our young account executives had the idea to check with the cable TV department of the city because in film that he saw on television of the damaged tunnel, he was sure that he saw cable wires. A quick visit to City Hall provided the proof; the City had known of the existence of the tunnel, or at least the cable regulators did. At the press conference, the CEO apologized but then held up the two maps, one with a tunnel, the other without. A mortified Mayor Daley had to withdraw the lawsuit and face the ire of the city’s media.
In 1997, my father gave me the reins. I remember the event at the Casino Club with all of our managers from the network. I read “The Village Blacksmith” by Longfellow, one of my favorite poems. When I got to the part about the village smith toiling away with sweat dripping from his face, I began to cry. I asked our Chicago leader to finish for me. I realized that my father had become my best friend in the 20 years that we had worked together. I knew that I had big shoes to fill. And it was not exactly a perfect start. I hired a new CFO, who wanted to install a professional financial system. As I ran around seeing clients and winning business, I trusted her to implement the system. The upshot was a catastrophe where we were unable to issue bills for three months, had unpaid supplier expenses and a bewildered staff. We revised the program and changed the CFO. In any other company, that could have been the end of my CEO tenure. My father’s response: Don’t ever do something like that again.
For the past 20 years, we have grown the firm. We went into new markets such as Korea and India, Canada and Mexico, most of all China. We were pioneers in social digital. We have become the leaders in crisis management. I am incredibly proud of the work our teams and I have done on clients such as Penn State, Dartmouth, United, Wells Fargo, Samsung and DMI. We have reimagined our service offering as communications marketing, so that we can be the creative lead, not simply amplify advertising creative. I am grateful to our clients such as Unilever, Samsung, HP, Microsoft, Starbucks, DMI, Adobe, AZ and many others, for believing in us.
So it has been an exhilarating ride. I never imagined that Edelman could rise to the No. 1 spot in PR or that sister firm Zeno would be mid-sized agency of the year for four of the last five years. I am deeply indebted to the people of Edelman and Zeno who have made this dream possible. I want to give special thanks to former Edelman people who invested in my development and were my colleagues for years: Pam Talbot, Mike Morley, David Davis, Leslie Dach, Mike Deaver, John Scanlon, Dick Aurelio, Paulette Barrett. And to those who have worked with me, loyally and with determination: Matt Harrington, Jody Quinn, Lisa Sepulveda, Ben Boyd, Nancy Ruschienski, Barby Siegel, Katie Burke, Vic Malanga, Russell Dubner, Jackie Cooper, David Brain, Rob Rehg, Kevin Cook, you are the best teammates one could imagine. Most of all, I want to hold up one finger to the sky as I round the bases, to my parents, Dan and Ruth, who made me strong and confident, were hard on me, but encouraged me to believe that anything is possible with hard work and decency. The greatest gift they made to all of us is our independence and family ownership, which I intend to pass along to my three children, with the help of my brother John and my sister Renee. I am a lucky man, with a wonderful wife and a life that I intend to live fully.
This article was originally published on www.edelman.com.