In the summer of 1997, my father and I met in Chicago. I was completing my first year as CEO of Edelman. Dan was the chairman. He was a bit restless, accustomed to being the decision-maker and leader. We talked about Burson’s acquisition of Cohn & Wolfe, or the pairing of Weber Shandwick with Golin Harris, as a model for us to emulate, a sister firm that could manage conflicts and have a different point of view. Dan was quite animated by the idea of starting a new firm for the 21st Century, as he had done in 1952 with four people in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart around marketing PR. We continued the discussion in the coming months and decided to build instead of buy. We settled on a name, PR21, and waited for the right opportunity.

That time came in the form of client conflict. We had built a relationship with Ericsson Mobility on a global basis and had a long-standing connection with Motorola and the Robert Galvin family in Chicago. Similarly, we had an intractable challenge in representing Boehringer Ingelheim and Genentech in a single drug category. We decided to start PR21 with Motorola and Boehringer Ingelheim as charter clients in Chicago and New York, to compete in consumer marketing, healthcare, new media, and technology. The Edelman teams on those clients migrated to PR21. Dan went to the first pitch, to Whirlpool, in Benton Harbor, MI, shepherding the document and creative, assuring the client that he would personally supervise the work, a winning combination. Will Sullivan signed on as our first CEO, Bob Taylor as the first CFO.

PR21 took off like a shot in the midst of the first internet boom. My sister Renee brought in several dot-com star clients such as GeoCities and Time Inc. New Media. In late 2001, PR21 became agency of record for Oracle. We did an acquisition of the Rowland agency in London to begin the global expansion, bringing more consumer brand expertise. Then came the dot-com implosion; what went up went down just as quickly. The firm retrenched, rebuilding around Oracle, Whirlpool, and pharmaceutical assignments. It was a decade of going sideways.

We had a succession of CEOs. Then came Barby Siegel, a former Edelman colleague who had gone off to run the brand business for Ogilvy. I saw her in Tokyo at a Trust Barometer event. I persuaded her to take the job; my father closed the deal with a personal call, telling her that she could help realize his dream to build the next great global firm. And build she has…a 14x increase in the size of the business, Global Agency of the Year, U.S. Agency of the Year, PR Week Hall of Fame, Shortys, Digiday awards, and Cannes Lions. Zeno’s client list is the envy of the industry, with Lenovo, Hyatt, Kraft Heinz, State Farm, Regeneron, P&G, The Coca-Cola Company, and the United States Olympic Paralympic Committee and more. The work is spectacular, always grounded in Zeno’s creative spirit. Barby sports a Fearless bracelet to remind all comers that she and the agency are ready for all eventualities.

The heart and soul of the operation is Grant Deady, the agency’s Chief Culture Officer and leader of its impressive operation in Chicago. Grant has been at Zeno from the beginning. He has forged a culture of kindness and community, of shared responsibility and excellence. Two weeks ago, I attended Grant’s 25th anniversary celebration at Zeno Chicago, where the love of his colleagues was manifested in humorous video salutes, tearful tributes, and the best cake ever.

In hindsight, this story makes all the sense in the world, to have a sister agency that could be paired with Edelman. What business strategy often overlooks is the impact of individuals, from my sister and Grant Deady at the beginning of the tale to the Barby era, which began in 2011 and continues today. And to the difference of being a family company, it is the ability to hang in there when things are tough and believe in the idea driven by the stubbornness of the entrepreneur who had a dream to create something big, again.


Richard Edelman is CEO.