Reading ‘Edelman and the Rise of Public Relations’ as the owner of a growing PR agency

I’ve had Franz Wisner’s book ‘Edelman and the Rise of Public Relations‘ – one-part ode to founder Daniel Edelman and the company he’s built, one-part internal comms exercise – sat on my desk for a month or more now.

I read it before Christmas, and in the absence of much else written online about the book, have been meaning to expand on it, and make sense of what I gleaned from it, as the owner of a growing agency.

The self-published book was written in 2012 to coincide with the 60th anniversary of Edelman.

It charts the professional and, where it overlaps – and as with so many business owners, overlap it does – personal life of founder Dan Edelman. Dan died just a month after the book was released, aged 92, having built the biggest PR agency in the world.


Note: the book is available on Scribd here, linked to from Edelman’s history page.

I found it there, then used a PDF-to-book site to print a bound A5 copy.

Here’s a short video from the launch of the book in Chicago, including interviews with some of the people involved in its production.

Since reading this book, I’ve developed something of an agency crush on Edelman.

To give you an idea of scope, Edelman employs more than 5,000 people in 65 offices around the world. The agency claims 2,000 clients and a global turnover of $875m in 2016, which, with a bit of QUICK MATHS (Christ, that inclusion will age badly), makes each client worth, on average, $437,500 per year, or $36,458.33 a month.

Yes, yes, I know I’m simplifying massively and ignoring retained versus project etc.

This fascinating oral history, involving dozens of key people throughout the agency’s growth, goes to some pains to highlight the humble Chicagoan beginnings of both Dan and the agency, but it stands as so much more than something to throw the way of young and bright-eyed Edelman staffers.

It’s a blueprint, if you look close enough, and there’s so much to learn (especially in the earlier chapters – at 3 years in, I can’t pretend to be anywhere near far enough along in the life of the agency to see us in the Edelman you read about post-international expansion!).

I’ll try to dip back into the book every year or so, it’d be interesting – to me at least – to see if I take anything different from it each read.

Here are my 5 takeaways after reading Edelman and the Rise of Public Relations

  1. This is all the career advice PR people should ever need

Just 13 pages in, and having read how ‘modern marketing public relations’ was born from young Dan’s idea for and execution of a road-show orientated campaign based around the ‘Toni Twins’ (People piece here from 1975 explains more), I was struck by the first chapter’s closing box-out, offering advice to aspiring PRs:


2. It’s a marathon, not a sprint

Edelman; then called Daniel J. Edelman and Associates, spent 8 years building out of its Chicago base, before opening four new offices in the 60s; it’s first in New York (1960), then Los Angeles (1965), London (1967) and Washington D.C. (1969).

It didn’t happen overnight, is the important lesson.

It’s easy, both as an agency owner and given the constant exposure to the successes and ceaseless humble-braggery of marketers (myself included), to imagine yourself only in the context of everybody else around you, and I put a lot of pressure on myself to achieve as quickly as possible.

(On which, I’m not sure how much track there can be left – before long, we’ll see a bloody PR Week feature on a 6 year old running a multi-million pound turnover agency out of the ball pit in a soft play area).

Being a competitive sort, I will continue to keep pushing the agency in the direction of growth with one eye on everybody else, but it’s heartening to see the biggest scaled over time.

3. New York (and London) are not the centre of the PR universe

Chicago is and was by no means a small city – with a population of around 3.5m in 1950 versus New York’s 7.9m, but I saw a parallel between Edelman starting there and me starting Radioactive in Gloucestershire – a county with around 900,000 inhabitants, versus London’s 8.8m.

That the world’s biggest agency started off in a city that wasn’t the assumed business capital is inspiring – despite the fact that, as a Manhattan-born man, his parents Selig and Selma urged him to open up shop in New York City.

Apparently, ‘Windy City journalists had the reputation for being more open to public relations’ than their NYC counterparts, despite the education potential clients needed as to why they might need or benefit from PR.

Worth pointing out is that the firm’s first client, Toni, paid Edelman a princely $1,500 a month*, SLIGHTLY more than your average startup agency might expect to pick up from their first client in 2018 money.

As I’ve said to my team – why can’t the next great agency be based in Gloucester – especially given today’s connectivity – and why can’t it be us?

*Worth just less than $14,000 per month today, apparently, while the average annual wage in the States in 1952 was $2,973

4. The value of independence

Not that anybody’s offered yet, but, having worked with my fair share of startups and fast-growth companies that have been acquired, I started the agency with a potential sale in the back of my mind. I’ve since had a bit of a rethink, helped by Edelman’s stance.

Edelman was not without its suitors, wooed many times for potential acquisition. But it was not, and doesn’t appear to ever be, in the cards.

In 1984, Dan purchased the PR arm of Dailey & Associates, a California-based ad firm with offices in LA and San Francisco. The deal required Dan to part with 5% of Edelman to Dailey & Associates’ parent, Interpublic Group of Companies (IPG). The deal was a good one in that it bolstered Edelman’s reach and roster, but Dan ‘struggled with the partial ownership agreement’, and bought the 5% back after a year and a half.

The book, with its emphasis on independence and family ownership, has made me question the benefits of selling, especially given service businesses like PR rarely compete with other more scalable business models in terms of valuation multiples.

I like being in control, and despite wishing I’d started with a co-founder up to around 18 months in, feel much more comfortable with sole ownership now, and the freedom that and the fact I have no investors to answer to brings.

Never say never, but, again, it’s heartening to see a company stick to its core principles and grow to the monster it undoubtedly is, while 100% independent. In 2011, fifty nine years after it was founded, Edelman became the largest PR firm in the world. When reporting this, Jack O’Dwyer declared that ‘independence won’, and that Edelman was ‘the only big firm that stayed true to its craft and didn’t sell out’.

Stick a few zeros on a cheque and my head might be turned, but I’m certainly inspired by Edelman’s sticking to its guns.

5. Remember why you started in the first place

One thing that shines through is that Edelman is very much an agency that focused on campaign work and ‘outstanding client service’ initially, and grew out from there, retaining that emphasis on good campaign activity.

At a time when the organisational leaders in the PR industry are cheerleading a strategic and management-orientated approach – on which, I have a LOT to say – I feel like my agency, with its focus on a happy team doing great work with (and not for) happy clients has a lot more in common with Edelman than I might have initially expected.

If we don’t lose that, who knows where we’ll end up?