Media Agency of the Year: PR, Edelman

Focus on international, digital puts world's largest PR agency at the center of the social buzz

Call it “Beetlemania.”

When Volkswagen unveiled the revamped 2012 Beetle last April, it marked just the second time in 60 years that the company had redesigned the iconic auto. The relaunch called for a promotion that resonated with the masses who’d always had a soft spot for the beloved Bug.

Public relations powerhouse Edelman, Adweek’s PR Agency of the Year, scored duties in the U.S. as lead PR firm on VW’s “Reveal” campaign, working within a larger VW partnership with MTV in Shanghai, Berlin and New York. As part of the assignment, Edelman Digital was named VW’s first American social agency of record—playing, as it turned out, a key role in the VW rollout. The brand became the most successful Promoted Tweet ever on Twitter, equating to 73 million impressions. An even more important result: a record 6,471 sales leads were generated the week of the launch, nearly 10 times greater than the average, reports the agency.

“We saw 58,000 mentions. That rivals the Super Bowl,” says Charlie Taylor, general manager of digital marketing at Volkswagen of America. “Buying that trending topic way exceeded our expectations. The biggest challenge is to effectively measure and equate that into business impact. Edelman helped us do that in defining volume and sentiment.”

Maria Poveromo, director of social media at client Adobe Systems, says Edelman “has helped us establish social policy and guidelines, and helped to build our Center of Excellence; they’ve done both strategy and implementation. It’s been great to see PR evolve into a two-way conversation. There’s a synergy with the content that is shaped on the PR side that transfers over to digital.”

In the current landgrab for social bragging rights, Edelman is distinguishing itself among the PR firms and traditional and digital agencies vying for the attention of marketers.

The agency has doubled the size of its Edelman Digital staff in the past two years, with the decade-old practice now employing around 600 people globally. It’s fronted by digital thought leaders including David Armano, Steve Rubel and Michael Brito. Last year, Edelman’s digital practice grew faster than any other part of its business, with revenue up 28 percent in the U.S. in the first nine months of the year versus the same time period in 2010, and accounting for nearly 15 percent of overall U.S. revenue, the company reports.

“We started in digital in the late ’90s with Web 1.0 and were doing things like building sites, but where we’ve found our niche was in the last three to four years in social,” says Richard Edelman, president and CEO of the agency founded by his father, Daniel J. Edelman. “We do everything from community management to specific marketing promotions. It’s the new engine for us.”

Edelman says that five years ago, 99 percent of the agency’s business relied on traditional media. It now accounts for about half. All Edelman staffers get training in digital and social media, and the agency has implemented a system based upon multicolored martial arts belts to measure their aptitude.

Last year, Edelman posted 17 percent growth in global revenue, billing $456 million through September. (The company projects full-year 2011 revenue of $615 million, a 16 percent increase over 2010.) Global expansion has also contributed to the growth of Edelman, now the largest PR shop in the world (it ranked sixth just a dozen years ago). Through September of last year, revenue outside the U.S. grew 30 percent year on year.

Richard Edelman reports that the agency landed 100 new clients worldwide last year, 75 in the U.S., losing just one major account: Burger King.

The acquisition of San Mateo, Calif.-based tech firm A&R six years ago has helped make technology a rapidly growing sector for the agency, with new business in 2011 from Advanced Micro Devices, Juniper Networks, and a global corporate citizenship assignment from Microsoft, an existing client. (Tech ties with corporate as Edelman’s second-largest area of practice after consumer PR.)

Corporate work was also a strong performer for Edelman in 2011, growing 25 percent through September. In that area, it added clients including Visa, SAP and the lately PR-challenged News Corp.

Edelman has expanded its corporate client relationships to include consumer marketing as well as corporate reputation. Last year, Hilton named Edelman its global agency of record with responsibility for all corporate, digital and experiential efforts. “That’s been the biggest opportunity for us,” says Matthew Harrington, president and CEO of Edelman U.S. “It’s where the relationship is really deep. For all of our clients, we need to ensure our practice is fully integrated.”

While traditional and digital agencies are targeting the social duties PR firms have taken the lead in, Edelman is going after the business of more traditional marketing firms.

In 2010, the agency started Ruth, a brand-integration boutique focused on direct marketing, TV, print, radio, collateral and pop-up shops. The offshoot, named for the wife of the company’s founder, was initially envisioned as a resource for midmarket clients but increasingly has encompassed the likes of eBay.

Still, it’s digital that is most transforming the agency. Edelman’s San Francisco office, which handles much of its digital business, led U.S. growth in 2011. Through September, revenue rose 23 percent year on year. The office handles Starbucks, Shutterfly and Microsoft.

Digital is at the heart of everything Edelman does, Harrington stresses. “Digital is no longer an optional sport—it’s present in all of our clients’ conversations with consumers. For clients, transmedia storytelling provides a good road map to ensuring your message is everywhere you need it to be.”

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