Edelman at 80 enjoys seeing PR out from advertising's shadow

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Dan edelman celebrated his 80th birthday this month and one of the things the founder of the sixth largest PR shop in the world is most thankful for is that he resisted the temptation of becoming an advertising man.

When the legendary Neison Harris of Toni Co. wanted Dan to pull back on his public relations duties and get more involved with the advertising side, Dan said he didn't want to spend his time shooting 30-second TV spots in Hollywood.

Instead, he put on a 70-city road show for the famed Toni twins ("Which twin has the Toni?" was the ad slogan) to promote the home permanent product.

A Lincoln Continental pulling a big trailer painted to look like a box of Toni went from city to city, and mayors and governors lined up to get their pictures in the papers kissing the Toni twins. One time Dan arranged for both vice presidential candidates, Alvin Barkley and Earl Warren, to kiss the twins. When the Associated Press sent out a composite of the pictures, showing the twins kissing the candidates side by side, newspapers across the country ran it on their front pages.

In those days, some 50 years ago, public relations mostly amounted to doing the chairman's business, such as writing speeches and putting together the annual report. PR didn't pay any attention to marketing, to selling products. And that's what Dan Edelman thought PR was all about.

In 1952, Dan told Neison Harris he wanted to leave Toni and go into business for himself. Neison told him to "get the hell out of here if you're going to leave"--but later that day invited Dan to his club and gave him a big piece of Toni's $500,000 PR account.

What Dan believes about PR today hasn't changed much from his days at Toni and at Musicraft Records, where he publicized jazz greats, such as Dizzy Gillespie and Mel Torme. One of his first accounts at his own shop was Sara Lee Corp., and the founder, the late Charlie Lubin, said at a testimonial dinner 30 years ago that his PR budget was worth 1,000 times more than his ad budget. (Of course, it helped that Dan arranged a story in The Wall Street Journal, after Sara Lee came out with a freezing process for its baked goods, headlined, "Sara Lee builds baking bonanza on heaping slices of quality.")

What Dan believed then and believes now is that public relations and PR agencies belong at the top of the table of organization, ahead of advertising and ad agencies. Ad agencies became "more powerful," he says, but he sees the tide turning when, for instance, stock analysts dissed the Publicis-Saatchi deal because only 20% of the combined business was marketing services, including PR, sales promotion and direct marketing. The other big combines, Dan pointed out, have closer to a 50-50 split.

Dan's operation is a counterpoint to the ad agency holding companies. It is, as he puts it, PR-centric. The holding company is Daniel J. Edelman Inc., and it encompasses Edelman PR Worldwide; PR 21, which handles new economy companies; Strategy One, a research firm; and its newest venture, and first foray into advertising, Callahan & Co., which specializes in advocacy advertising. An interactive operation has built more than 200 Web sites for clients.

Overall, Edelman has 42 offices (27 outside the U.S.) and estimated fees of $220 million this year.

Edelman is also the largest privately held PR firm, and the only private company in the top ten. Dan admits the notion of going public is "very tempting," but says the investment bankers told him last year the stock market only had eyes for high-tech offerings. "See you another time," they said.

Besides, he's got three children in the business--Richard, 46, who is CEO; John, 42, international human resources director; and Renee, 44, exec VP of PR 21. Richard, who works in the New York office (Dan, like my Dad, started his business in Chicago), has done a "remarkable job," Dan said.

I got the feeling that if his kids weren't around Dan's company would have taken the plunge into public waters, or sold out, a long time ago. "We're a team," he says of Richard, who he once was co-CEO with. "We talk a lot, exchange e-mails."

Dan might be 80 but he says "I'm here for the duration. I feel good about our company and about PR. We used to be press agentry and were looked down upon. But not anymore."

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