Richard Edelman: My Father Let Me Make My Own Mistakes

Richard Edelman with his father Daniel.

Richard Edelman with his father Daniel.

It was the spring of 1978 and I was in my last semester at Harvard Business School. I planned to work for Playtex as an associate brand manager on tampons after graduation. Then my dad called to say that he had an offer from a large ad agency to acquire the PR firm he had started in 1952. He didn’t want to sell, but he wanted a good reason to say no. So during that call, we agreed that I would work for Edelman for a year to see if I liked the fit. And here I am 37 years later, CEO of a company that is now the industry leader.

My father graduated from Columbia Journalism School and then went to work at a local newspaper. He was drafted into the United States Army during World War II where he worked in psychological warfare, interpreting Nazi propaganda. He returned to the U.S. from Europe and began working at CBS News, writing copy for the morning radio broadcasts and getting host Arthur Godfrey out of bed and in front of the microphone. He asked for a transfer to another division so he could end his nocturnal work pattern and was assigned to promote records from Mel Torme and Ella Fitzgerald. His big break came when packing press kits on a Saturday for a record promotion for the Toni Home Permanent Co. when the CEO offered him a job on the spot. He went in-house and within the first year created the media tour, sending seven sets of identical twins (“Which twin has the Toni?” was the campaign’s slogan) around the U.S. to appear on talk shows, thereby setting a new standard for marketing public relations.

When I joined the family business, our clients were mostly on the marketing side, from Morris the Nine Lives Cat to KFC’s Colonel Sanders. Edelman diversified into public affairs in the late ’60s with important programs for the Concorde SST, gaining landing rights at JFK Airport in New York, and in the late ’70s generating public approval for the building of the very stark Vietnam Veterans war Memorial in Washington, D.C., from a design by the very young architect Maya Lin. I started in Chicago headquarters as an account executive, working on Quaker Oats 100% Natural Cereal and Continental Grain’s commodity brokerage business. Within six months, I was transferred to the New York office, which was a small outpost specializing in media placement.

My father coached me on how to cold-call companies I wanted in our portfolio, how to network at public events, to cultivate senior journalists at important outlets and how to run a profitable P&L.

When the general manager of the New York office resigned in 1981, and two subsequent replacements failed, my father handed me the job as a temporary assignment. Within three years, the office grew from 12 to 50 people, with important new clients. My father and I talked every day. He coached me on how to cold-call companies I wanted in our portfolio, how to network at public events, to cultivate senior journalists at important outlets and how to run a profitable P&L. But, more or less, he allowed me to make my own mistakes.

I remember some priceless interactions. My dad had helped to win the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints account. It was the first visit to New York by the church’s then-president Gordon Hinckley. I organized a lunch for media and included a producer for 60 Minutes. But Mike Wallace, the finest investigative journalist of his day, tagged along. When my dad saw Wallace, he summoned me outside and berated me, saying that if we lost the account because of a bad story, I would be the goat of the company. As it turns out, Wallace and Hinckley bonded at lunch, leading to a magnificent story on 60 Minutes on the church’s evolution.

In 1997, my father appointed me CEO, but acted as player-coach, keeping busy on long-term clients such as KFC and international travel brands. And when I hired a new CFO who promptly installed a new financial system that failed to send out bills properly, causing us to use nearly our entire credit line, he kept his nerve and backed me as I brought in a replacement who righted the ship. He did the same when I brought in a new head of international operations, who promptly feuded with just about everyone. My father was stoic; everybody makes mistakes on hires, just do better next time.

We defied industry trends by remaining independent even as all of our large competitors sold out to holding companies such as WPP. We were frequently wooed and afterward my mother, father and I would shake our heads and say no, as we would rather go it on our own. As we grew into the industry’s largest firm, my father issued a famous memo, stating: “It is great to be the largest firm, but we must always strive to be the best firm.”

In July 2012, I was in Chicago to celebrate dad’s 92nd birthday. After dinner, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “It is time for you to take over now. I mean really take over.” I responded that I thought that I had been running things for the past 15 years. He said that our people trusted me now and that I had done an excellent job. I left it there. When he fell ill a month later and passed away early in 2013, I returned to that interaction again and again, as if he knew what would happen and how much I would treasure that moment.

I hope to have a similar moment with my daughters, who will one day succeed me. Two of them are in the business, the eldest in San Francisco, the middle one in New York City, while the youngest is still in college. I have told them that they will be owners, but they will have to earn their way to top management. I am letting others oversee their development, so that they can make their own mistakes, get knocked down and get up. I’ve taken them on trips to Europe and Asia so that they begin to understand the job of the CEO. I do want them to love the business, to serve the clients and provide a growth opportunity to those who work at the firm. That would be the best way to guarantee the legacy of my father.

Richard Edelman is the president and CEO of Edelman, a leading communications marketing firm.

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Richard Edelman: My Father Let Me Make My Own Mistakes