PR giant Edelman shares its playbook for taking on ad agencies, with a 600-person advertising team and client wins like Ikea and Asics

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Edelman, after becoming the biggest public-relations firm, has
long boasted that it could snatch share from advertising

It says those ambitions are starting to bear fruit now that the
company has hired a slew of prominent advertising vets, like the
ex-Leo Burnett exec Judy John and the McCann vet Lee Maicon, and
built a 600-person creative and planning staff.

“We’re getting to a place where we’re a serious alternative,”
Richard Edelman, the firm’s CEO,
recently told Business Insider

Business Insider spoke with John, the company’s global chief
creative officer; Maicon, its global chief innovation and strategy
officer; and Mattias Ronge, Edelman’s chief creative officer for
Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. They laid out how the firm was
going after that business.

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The execs said Edelman was well-positioned to win accounts from
a traditional ad industry that’s been hobbled by downsizing.

According to John, holding companies have been prioritizing
technology over creative, and as a result, their creativity is

“If you’re using the old paid model, which only lives in the
lane where you create paid advertising in a traditional sense and
doesn’t have to be interesting, then you’re going to continue to
lose clients,” John said.

Edelman isn’t trying to make big-budget TV commercials that are
traditional agencies’ bread and butter, and it wouldn’t specify how
big the company believed ad services could become for the firm.

Instead, its goal is to apply creativity’s lessons to solve
companies’ PR and reputational problems. Their pitch is that
Edelman can not only come up with a big idea but also carry it out
using its PR expertise that a traditional ad agency would lack.

Recent examples of this kind of work include:

  • Edelman came up with a “For Your Consideration” campaign for
    the Dove Hair-backed short film “Hair Love” and designed things
    like mailers and social-media posts for it, while helping Dove push
    for a law to prohibit discrimination based on hair texture and
  • The firm helped Good Humor come up with a new ice-cream truck
    song to replace the racially tainted “Turkey in the Straw,” a
    campaign that was covered by Fast Company, NPR, and others.
  • And Edelman came up with Ikea’s “Buy Back Friday” campaign,
    where the retailer bought back furniture they sold to help
    customers save money and position Ikea as addressing climate

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“It might have come from a creative thought, but it’s a campaign
that involves earned strategy, purpose, and public affairs, digital
and social, and production,” Ronge said of the Ikea campaign.
“That’s where we can win against an ad agency. If you’re doing
something like Buy Back Friday, you need so many competencies you
won’t find at an ordinary ad agency.”

To continue its momentum, Richard Edelman said the agency was
launching a video-content studio, The Blue Room, and hiring about a
dozen employees to staff it, including editors, producers, and a
data analyst.

“We will be as fast as the news cycle,” he said.

Edelman has spent heavily on its creative arm

Edelman’s move into advertising comes as other PR firms like

Weber Shandwick
, and
have begun branching out to other services, further
blurring the lines between advertising, media, and other

As part of its push into creative, Edelman acquired the
Stockholm-based creative agency Deportivo and made big hires like
Jimmie Stone, formerly of McCann; Jon Flannery, formerly of DDB
Chicago; and Yannis Kotziagkiaouridis, its global chief data and
analytics officer who previously worked at Wunderman Thompson.

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John says Edelman can benefit as marketing budgets have shrunk
and clients want ideas that can influence culture, especially as
consumers actively avoid ads and care less about where the idea
comes from.

Edelman has been adding creative staff to its pitches and
hundreds of account teams. Maicon said the idea of these blended
teams was to make sure the campaigns and the content they create is
bolstered by PR so they get the attention of journalists and
consumers — a combination he says traditional ad agencies can’t

IKEA BuyBack Friday - Edelman

Competitors have reservations about Edelman’s ambitions

Naturally, creative-agency execs who represent Edelman’s
prospective competition are skeptical about its ambitions. Business
Insider reached out to five creative-agency execs, all of whom said
Edelman hadn’t been in any of the pitches they were invited to.

One creative CEO, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect
his industry relationships, said they respected Edelman as a
crisis-management firm but called its creative ambitions a

“This idea that a PR company can do what a creative or ad
company can do is, to quote our President-elect Joe Biden,
‘malarkey,'” the creative CEO said.

Others think Edelman shouldn’t be counted out so fast.

Greg Paull, a principal at R3 Worldwide, which runs ad-agency
account reviews, said his company included Edelman on a number of
global reviews.

“Edelman’s strengths are they have a strong global network to
help drive consistent execution,” Paull told Business Insider.
“They have also focused on a recruitment approach to bring in top
creative talent that can make work that travels.”

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PR giant Edelman shares its playbook for taking on ad
agencies, with a 600-person advertising team and client wins like
Ikea and Asics