Edelman Has a Message for Cannes Lions This Year: We Do Creative Work, Too

World's largest PR firm puts reputation on the line

The new campaign looks to sell clients on the value of acting "with certainty." Edelman
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For more than 65 years, some of the world’s largest and most influential businesses, personalities and governments have turned to Edelman to help shape public opinion in times of crisis and celebration alike.

Now, the company looks to change the way people see a very different kind of client: itself.

You might be justifiably skeptical. But a firm famous for drafting statements by Fortune 500 CEOs and helping brands navigate reputational minefields like Starbucks’ recent brush with racial inequality will use this year’s Cannes Lions Festival to let attendees know it can also serve their creative needs. President and CEO Richard Edelman told Adweek that his firm sees new opportunities at the intersection of earned media, social media and paid media—or, as industry stalwarts might call it, advertising.

Earning more paid media work

“There’s a different kind of idea that is important at this moment: an idea that is earned at the core and social by design,” said Edelman in a recent interview.

Now, consumers identify with “a company taking action” in ways often tied to social issues or corporate policies, like whether Starbucks allows only paying customers to sit in its stores.

Edelman argued that brand creative and corporate reputation are now “inextricably linked” in a not-so-new practice he classifies as communications marketing. In an ideal scenario, he said, CTOs would collaborate with CMOs on campaigns stretching across Edelman’s four quadrants: earned, owned, shared and paid media.

“We’ve restructured and reimagined ourselves for what we believe is a fundamental shift in marketing context, said Edelman, who doesn’t “want to reinvent an ad agency” but does arrive at Cannes this year armed with a virtual suitcase full of case studies to help sell that proposition.

The Edelman creative team summarized its own rebranding effort in the hero video below.

Titled “Act With Certainty,” the larger campaign highlights recent Edelman-led efforts like REI’s Cannes-winning “Opt Outside,” CVS’s anti-tobacco turn and Dove’s decision to hire more female directors for its “Real Beauty” series. In an appropriate twist, the firm placed its own print spots in trade publications like this one.

“We are a very different company in last three to four years than we have been,” said Mark Renshaw, the global chair of Edelman’s brand practice who arrived in 2016 after nearly two decades at Leo Burnett.

He cited a range of creative talents who have joined the firm, including Edelman D.C. svp, head of planning Jennifer Small (formerly with Innocean and McDonald’s), New York executive creative director Megan Skelly (ex-R/GA and 360i) and Singapore-based chief strategy officer Ranjit Jathanna (MullenLowe).

Beyond the new creative work, Edelman will also use its decades of experience in communications to launch a new consultancy practice led by Richard Wergan, former evp, global head of brand, communications, digital, events and sponsorships at tech giant Royal Phillips. But this won’t be the same sort of service provided by the Accentures and Deloittes of the world, Wergan said.

There’s an intrinsic need for senior comms advisory to CEOs and C-suites,” he told Adweek in explaining how the consultancy came about. “Communications is no longer just the responsibility of the comms team or the CMO; it’s omnipresent.” 

According to Wergan, Edelman’s offering will differ from traditional management consultancies in that its members “have not only held positions within client organizations, but have been in the theater of action,” handling issues like mergers and acquisitions and regulation compliance.

This new consulting division will “provide enterprise-wide core communications strategy,” he said, while helping the firm’s creative product “cut through consumer [and] audience indifference.”

The biggest global challenger brand

Richard Edelman told Adweek that “experiential, digital, entertainment and paid” now accounts for somewhere between 22 and 25 percent of his company in terms of both headcount and revenue.

As these services grew in recent years, the firm began attending Cannes and more awards shows outside the PR field in an attempt to entice would-be clients while winning Lions for its work promoting clients like Chipotle and Adobe.

Edelman acknowledged that some will criticize his firm’s repositioning efforts. He confirmed that its most direct competitors remain other large PR organizations like Weber Shandwick and Burson-Marsteller while adding that it’s also pitched against agencies like Leo Burnett, BBDO, Digitas and AKQA.

He argued that Edelman’s history in crisis communications gives the organization a greater sense of “fast-twitch marketing responsiveness” than the average creative agency, though the shops that have spent the last few years building faster, cheaper content production studios would almost certainly disagree. 

The larger point, Edelman said, is that consumers’ relationships with brands are expanding well beyond the traditional “purchase funnel”—and his firm’s primary job is to inform rather than sell. Returning to his favored topic of trust, he said that individuals increasingly look to these brands for representation as they lose faith in public institutions, stating that consumers vote with their wallets to imbue such companies with the same powers “they historically gave to their local mayor.” 

He hopes to use this trend to pluck both business and talent away from creative shops. When asked to address the perception that Edelman is a more genteel organization than the average agency equipped with office beer taps and open floor plans, Edelman said, “I don’t see a culture clash. I see a merging of rivers.”

The CEO also claimed that his company’s independent status has allowed it to “hire ahead of revenue” and avoid many of the financial challenges facing holding groups like WPP. “We’re not interested in consolidation,” he said. “We’re interested in innovating and being a challenger.” It’s an interesting pitch coming from the top global PR firm.

At any rate, Edelman positions this year’s Cannes festival as the official beginning of a new phase for the family firm.

When asked who will eventually take over the company, he said, “Will it be one of my kids? I hope so, but they will have to be the best candidate … and I intend to work for another 20 years, easy.”

@PatrickCoffee patrick.coffee@adweek.com Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.