6 A.M.

On Turning Sixty



The following speech was delivered to Edelman’s senior leaders earlier this week.

I turn 60 years old on June 15. It is a stunning realization that I can no longer think of myself as The Kid. I have always had an inexhaustible energy supply that causes some to term me the Energizer Bunny.

I had a normal upbringing in Chicago; I was a good student, decent athlete and had enough motivation to do well in a small school. All of that changed when I was sent away to prep school after a poor showing at my Bar Mitzvah, reversing the memorized sections to the horror of my quite religious grandfather.

I had to work hard, harder than I ever imagined, to get up when I got knocked down, to find my way to being a teen entrepreneur running a high school literary magazine that went to 100 schools.

Then came Harvard College and Harvard Business School, where again I had to learn discipline, from losing weight from this skinny frame to qualify for lightweight crew to making the cut at the business school after my accounting professor told me that there was no way I should have come straight from college. I like proving doubters wrong.

I took my father’s invitation to join Edelman in the summer of 1978. Well, actually it was not an open ended question. He was considering an offer from DDB Advertising, to be acquired as part of its expansion into a broader array of services. He wanted to remain independent; my joining the firm was a perfect reason to break off the talks while maintaining a good relationship that had led to business referrals.

So much for the planned six-week European tour as payback for two years of hard labor at Harvard Business School. Ah yes, the family business… pain before pleasure, always.

I started as an account executive in Chicago on Quaker Oats and ContiCommodity. I moved to New York within the first year, ostensibly for a short stint. I was given the responsibility for the New York office as interim manager at age 26 while my father looked for a true general manager; that day never came as we won Fuji Photo Film, a few Unilever brands, J&J and Wyeth.

This led to a broader remit five years later to include the Washington office, then later to running Edelman Europe for three years in the early 90s. Dan made me co-CEO in 1996 then CEO in 1997.

What do I remember most about the past 36 years? It is the work, the joy of pitching and winning new business, the counseling of clients and the important media placements, working alongside the best people in the business.

I have been on the front lines of so many crises, from the first large hazardous waste site at Love Canal in upstate New York to the recent controversy at Penn State University to the flooding of downtown Chicago through an errant pile-driving exercise.

I have worked on giant mergers, such as the combination of Viacom, Blockbuster and Paramount or the largest combination in professional services between Ernst & Whinney and Arthur Young & Co. I led the team on the biggest-ever over-the-counter switch in pharmaceuticals for Advil.

I was part of the Edelman team that helped the HP personal computer division attain number one market position. I worked on Fuji Photo Film’s 1984 Olympic sponsorship with Sports Illustrated photographer Walter Iooss Jr. shooting U.S. athletes programs for the Games. I have worked with several governments on economic development, including Mexico, Israel and Egypt. I helped to secure a segment on “60 Minutes” for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which despite trepidation from some came out well as correspondent Mike Wallace bonded with the Church president.

My favorite special event was a mid-January flight of a motorized hang glider from the Great Lawn in Central Park over the skyline, equipped with a microphone to promote the launch of men’s cologne Blue Stratos in 1983.

I had several important mentors. John Scanlon, the father of crisis management, taught me the value of strong relationships, of personal trust with senior media executives. Dick Aurelio, my first boss in New York, made me a strong writer by ripping up weak copy and forcing clean thinking. Mike Morley, my colleague for 25 years, gave me an appreciation for the concept of global and local, that great ideas can come from the periphery not just from the center. The great Michael Deaver showed me the value of a central organizing precept for a campaign and the importance of showing as well as telling a story.

Of course, my father was my constant critic and biggest fan, insisting that I keep the highest ethical standard while critiquing my creative work.

I have had four very close peer relationships. Pam Talbot was my alter ego for 25 years, the spiritual heir to my father in consumer marketing, a genius creative and superb manager. Leslie Dach brought our Corporate and Public Affairs practices to a new level by winning GE and Walmart, while insisting that we diversify into research and paid media. The late Charles Fremes was our spiritual anchor, the bridge between the U.S. and international offices, a stickler for quality and integrity. Jody Quinn was my partner in building the New York office and a colleague for the past 36 years.

And now I have the pleasure of watching those I have mentored come to the fore as leaders of the firm. Matt Harrington was a recent Denison College graduate who came via his cousin Becky, a friend from college. As soon as his interview was concluded, we sent him out to do the earnings release for Israeli company Scitex; we were a little short-handed that day. He has proven a most worthy and brilliant COO, simply the latest step in a career that has taken him to the UK, California, the New York office and head of U.S. operations.

Alan VanderMolen has taken charge of the practices and overseen the dramatic rise of our sister firm Zeno Group, after having transformed our Asian business. David Brain took a patchwork of local operations and forged a strong European entity, before going to Asia and tripling our revenues.

Lisa Sepulveda worked as an account executive with me on Advil, rising steadily to run consumer in the New York office, then came home from a few years away to brilliantly oversee our global clients. I helped to lure Gail Becker away from client Time Warner to run the Los Angeles office, which became the largest in the market, then pushed her to take on the West Coast and both Canada and Latin America. Now she is in charge of MATTER and our all-important partnership strategy.

I met Jackie Cooper for the first time when I was running Edelman Europe. She has gone on to help us build the UK’s second largest firm and to push us to creative leadership.

Vic Malanga joined us from public accounting just in time to help us sort out a somewhat painful financial IT implementation and has been an invaluable partner in finance. Russell Dubner joined just out of college to work on the Mexican Investment Board; we have worked together for the past 21 years as he now goes on to run the U.S. business for Edelman.

Here are my personal commitments as I head to that inevitable date with destiny on June 15. I want to keep trying new things. Who knew that selfies on a ladder could start a trend at the firm? If you have no shame to start with, it is all so much easier.

I am going to continue to challenge myself physically. I work out with a former fireman who relentlessly pushes me for 45 minutes through wind sprints, pull ups, traveling push-ups and other forms of aggressive physical training. I want to travel, to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Fitz Roy.

I am doing yoga so I don’t become stiff from airplane travel. And I hope to keep playing my arch-rival Dave Elenowitz in tennis; we are now entering our 23rd year of fierce competition. I want to be the chairman of a non-profit board. I have done the marketing and development committee assignments. I want to do more with my interest in history. I intend to visit more battlefields (most recent was Ypres); my goal is to get to the Western sites of the Civil War such as Vicksburg and Chickamauga in the next year.

Our family intends to keep Edelman a private and independent firm. I am going to groom my children for leadership. They join Renee and John as both owners and managers. I have taken them on business trips so they can observe and establish their own relationships. I want them to have opportunities consistent with their ability and experience.

It is a tribute to my parents that all of us are sitting here today. My dad had the courage to leave a good job at the Toni Company to begin the firm in 1952.

My mom joined the team officially on being married in September, 1953 but was already picking out furniture and lamps when they were dating. They were quite a team… Dan the dynamic businessman, hustling around at Young President Organization meetings to collect business cards, leading new business pitches solo for major prospects such as Wines of California, fearlessly opening offices around the world from the UK to China where he bought a firm in the year after the Tiananmen incident.

Ruth the tireless networker, holding press parties for 300 at her apartment while her young children crawled underfoot, grabbing the arm of dignitaries such as Henry Kissinger to make sure that they made the acquaintance of “that brilliant husband of mine” all the while holding down the home front to make sure that the children earned nothing but A’s in school to assure an Ivy League future.

Their values of decency, humility, high standards, honesty, community service, trust in colleagues and hard work are imbued in me and in each of you at Edelman.

I followed a great man into this job and have tried to fill his shoes. I have had a difficult year, with the death of my mother, the sale of the family apartment and disposition of belongings.

I want each of you to consider the words of Peggy Noonan, columnist for The Wall Street Journal, on what it takes to be a great leader. “You have to stand for something. You have to suffer for it. You have to be brave. You have to stand by your beliefs as long as you know they are right; you have to speak and write the truth. Explaining what you believe involves trusting people to hear and consider; it assumes they will respond fairly and even with their highest selves. In this way you develop a relationship with people, an ongoing conversation between your articulations and their private thoughts.” That is how Dan operated and now how I run the firm.

I joined Edelman when we had $6 million in revenue and five offices. We have achieved something quite miraculous, rising from the sixth place among PR firms to the largest, growing to over $700 million, giving birth to a sister firm and bringing digital to a place of prominence in the industry. Given the new competitive context and our broader scope, it feels as if the game is new and refreshing and vibrant, that I am at the beginning again.

So there you have it from a man who goes grudgingly into his next decade, straining to remain young, with the same fire and impatience in the office and in the rest of my life. I am grateful every day for the opportunity to be your CEO, a job I continue to love. I am here for the duration.

As William Yeats wrote, “Think where man’s glory most begins and ends. And say my glory was I had such friends.” Thank you.

Richard Edelman is president and CEO.

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