What Drives You

PR exec Richard Edelman: The best thing we did was to not sell out to a big advertising holding group

Over the years, communications marketing group Edelman has received takeover offers from other companies. Yet despite the allure of a potential merger or acquisition, the global firm has chosen to stay independent — a decision that its CEO considers a wise move.

“The best thing [we did] is not to sell out to one of the big advertising holding companies, because we were able to diversify, and also hang on during recessions and not make any money, and invest in the next leg of growth,” Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman, told CNBC’s Karen Tso on an episode of “What Drives You.”

In 1952, a few years before Richard was born, the public relations firm that he now heads was launched in Chicago by his father Daniel Edelman. Fast-forward to 2018 and the group remains an independent, family-owned business that has collaborated with a whole host of companies including LEGO, Unilever, Heineken and Dove.

In fact, it was a world that Richard was immersed into from a very young age.

Speaking to CNBC at this year’s Cannes Lions festival in the south of France, Edelman said that his father “wasn’t shy about bringing clients home,” giving Richard the opportunity to meet the likes of Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Colonel Harland Sanders and Orville Redenbacher, famous for his eponymous popcorn brand.

Richard Edelman speaks onstage at the Cannes Lions Festival 2018 
Francois G. Durand | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images
Richard Edelman speaks onstage at the Cannes Lions Festival 2018 

While Edelman was surrounded by his father’s business during the course of his upbringing, it wasn’t his initial plan to work for the family firm after he finished his studies at Harvard University and Harvard Business School.

“I was all set to go work in product marketing in Playtex,” he said. “My dad had an offer to be acquired by DDB advertising and he didn't really want to sell the company.

“So he said: ‘Please come work here for a year and if you don't like it, you're in an MBA (a masters degree in business administration), you can go somewhere else.’ And here I am 40 years later, can you believe?”

Together, father and son managed to keep the business in the family, turning down offers from big advertising holding firms along the way.

Despite the slew of acquisitions seen over the years, when it comes to staying independent, Edelman chooses to “just say no,” even if a big paycheck is on the table.

“What matters most to us is the work, and quality, and some old-fashioned words I suppose,” he said, adding that he’s used to being his own boss and allowing himself to change his mind and “doing what you do when you’re an entrepreneur — figuring it out.”

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