Thursday, January 17, 2013

Daniel J. Edelman, 1920-2013: A Brief Reflection

The public relations, communications, marketing and advertising communities know that Dan Edelman, founder and chairman of the world’s largest PR firm, died on Tuesday. Many articles have already been written about Dan’s incredible story and accomplishments. I was among the lucky ones to have worked with the man called an icon, a legend and a pioneer.

It was his son who brought us together in 1995. Richard sat me down for a talk at one of his favorite haunts – the Harvard Club in New York City – when I was being recruited to the firm. (Credit goes to our mutual friend, Jason Rubin, for suggesting that we get together.) Dan’s entrepreneurial spirit flourished in Richard. He said, “I don’t have a job description for you. All I know is that we’re growing fast and I need to get the right people into the boat with me. I’ll give you an assistant, an office and the resources to build some business and a team. What do you say?”

Looking back, it was as if Richard was reading from Jim Collins’ Good to Great before the book was written. I accepted the offer, got to work and soon had major biopharmaceutical clients on both coasts.  It was rewarding work and made even more so by the terrific group of professionals recruited to join the efforts.

The success of the team propelled me onto the radar of other top executives. And by the end of that year, Pam Talbot (COO) and Bob Kornecki (regional president), asked me to take over the Chicago-based healthcare practice. With a great team in New York, and with young children and a new house, I turned them down politely. The next month brought another offer and another refusal. The cycle was repeated for a third time the following month.

After that last discussion, though, the phone rang. It was Dan. He said, “I heard you turned us down again.”

“Dan,” I replied, “I’m really flattered by the offer but things are going really well here.”

“Well, this is what you need to do,” he asserted. “And, I’ve set up an appointment for you next week with a Northshore [suburban Chicago] realtor.”

Of course, I agreed to the trip.

Before I flew out to Chicago, Dan came to New York. During an elevator ride we shared, he announced to the random assemblage of staffers that I was moving to Chicago. No one ever accused Dan of not knowing what he wanted, being shy or indirect.

I commuted to Chicago every week for over four months so that my children could finish the school year. Bob Kornecki was a terrific boss; he couldn’t have been more accommodating and helped to make the transition a tremendously positive experience. Richard gave me wide latitude to build a team from scratch in New York. Bob provided the same freedom to rebuild the team and client list in Chicago.

Dan would call me into his 63rd floor office on a routine basis for updates. (And, in between, I received the occasional “Dan-o-gram” – a memo with his thoughts, ideas, praise or critique.) During one meeting he told me of a potential opportunity that came his way through a friend of a friend of a friend. Dan asked me to go out to a high-tech facility in the suburbs, meet with the CEO and determine how the agency can help him meet his goals.

I left my boots in the office on a winter’s day, since the car service ride would be door-to-door. I arrived at the office park and was soon taken on a tour of the facilities by the CEO. We talked, stopped to inspect some of the medical devices and spoke with a few workers. He led me to his office, where we’d drill down into some specific issues. But before this next phase of the meeting started in earnest, he excused himself for a few minutes.

As a former scientist, I love to observe and get a good dose of information to help formulate questions and ideas. Left alone in the office, I swung my chair around to see what the man surrounded himself with – the books and tchotchkes he chose to display, and the pictures on the walls. I drew in a deep breath and my muscles tensed when I sighted the giant poster of Adolf Hitler. “Next time we’ll get it right,” it said in big, bold letters.

It was time to leave.

The CEO returned to his office and I decided not to confront him in that setting. Instead, I told him I was called back to the office. I wasn’t due to be picked up for an hour, so I went outside in the snow and slush, and walked around to another building while dialing for the car service.

Back in Dan’s office – feet regaining sensation – I reported on the experience. He questioned me, said this fellow and his business came highly recommended, and asked if I was really sure about the neo-Nazi materials. I reassured him of the facts, said there was no way that I would work him or ask anyone else to get involved, and that I didn’t want to see the reputation of his firm sullied by such an association.

It was the end of the discussion. The case was closed. Dan didn’t ask me to reevaluate. He didn’t ask anyone else to check my story. He didn’t call his friend to investigate. My word was all he needed. It was trust.

I’ll never forget Dan the businessman, Dan the PR innovator or Dan the person. He helped to shape the profession and the lives of professionals. I’m grateful to have been in his orbit and saddened by his passing. I attended yesterday’s memorial service – full of tears and laughter – and had a brief moment with Richard. I’d like to say again that my deepest sympathies are with Ruth, Richard, John, Renee and the entire Edelman family.

Between blog posts I invite you to follow me on Twitter @pauloestreicher.

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