Steve Barrett
Jul 4, 2024

Richard Edelman reflects on Cannes and regrouping after a tough year

Fresh off numerous Lions wins, the iconic agency CEO is confident ‘the market has moved toward PR firms.’

The Edelman team acceping the Titanium Lion for The Move to -15ºC at the 2024 Cannes Lions. (Photo credit: Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity / press portal)
The Edelman team acceping the Titanium Lion for The Move to -15ºC at the 2024 Cannes Lions. (Photo credit: Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity / press portal)

Whether he is being pursued down La Croisette in Cannes by placard-wielding demonstrators from the Clean Creatives lobby group, launching his agency’s high-profile Trust Barometer report at the World Economic Forum in the snowy Swiss mountains of Davos, being ambushed by student protesters at a panel event at NYU or picking up a Titanium Lion trophy in Le Palais and on the red carpet at Cannes, Richard Edelman, leader of the world’s largest PR firm, is rarely out of the spotlight.

As the relentlessly energetic CEO turns 70 and enters his eighth decade, there is no sign of him losing his Energizer Bunny characteristics and slowing down.

He cut a slightly frustrated figure in the early part of the week at his 10th Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity as Golin, Ogilvy PR and Weber Shandwick dominated with The Misheard Version, Michael CeraVe and Pop-Tarts’ Edible Mascot activations, respectively.

But a super-strong finish brought the smile back to Edelman’s face: As his global chief creative officer Judy John said to him as they walked on stage to pick up an award, “Richard, isn’t this addictive?” he turned and looked at the audience and replied, “Yep, it sure is!”  

Titanium and Gold Lion Sustainable Development Goals for Edelman’s The Move to -15ºC work on DP World, plus two more Golds for Dove Code My Crown and IKEA Second-Hand Tax, in addition to a shared Gold for Heineken’s Bar Experience with Le Pub, are fueling the CEO’s enthusiasm for another 12 months in the heat of the battle.

Edelman also came first in the Independent Agency for Good category and second in the global Independent Agency of the Year and Creative Network categories, up against the best creative, media, digital and other PR firms.

Whereas he describes previously walking out of Le Palais after the PR Lions “absolutely fuming and frustrated” that none of the PR firms had won, including in their own category, this year Edelman chalked up 40 recognitions and 16 trophies.

“The market has moved toward the PR firms,” says Edelman on the podcast. “The PR firms — whether it’s Weber, ourselves or Golin — don’t win by happenstance — we win because the world is more complicated; it’s politicized; it requires actions, not just purpose campaigns that are about communication.”

Edelman’s winning activations for DP World, IKEA, Heineken and Dove were purposeful in nature, whereas Specsavers, CeraVe and Pop-Tarts were much more on the fun and humor tip that was prevalent at Cannes this year — though Edelman was quick to point out his firm does that kind of work, too, citing an Elton John pop-up for eBay on Canal Street in New York this week as an example.

He calls this the “action method” that will drive Purpose 2.0 and results in measurable benefits such as DP World saving 17.7 million tons of carbon and 7% of energy costs. Edelman explains that it’s a new mix of creatives and liberal art types merging their skills with engineers to produce innovative insights that drive business efficiency and achieve environmental goals as a byproduct.

He believes brands can use such techniques to be affirmative and find issues that unite people on both sides of the political divide and work across the board, such as women’s sports with Dove and second-hand tax for IKEA.

To achieve this, Edelman notes you need people on your teams and in your company that have different political views, including conservative views, and come from different backgrounds, including corporate and public affairs.

He doesn’t think it’s a one-hit wonder for the PR industry. He says Edelman, Weber and Golin separated themselves from the others in the level of investment in creative and commitment to ideas. He notes that one in four of Edelman’s people are creatives, digital and strategists and that investment is paying off now.

However, two of Edelman’s most talented creatives and the brains behind activations including DP World, Mayo McHack for Hellmann’s and Eternal Run for Asics, Stefan and Mattias Ronge, formerly EMEA co-chief creative officers, branched out on their own under the Earned Identity banner. Jordan Atlas, Edelman’s LA-based global executive creative director, also left this week.

Edelman said he told the Ronge brothers on the red carpet in Cannes, “You changed us, and you trained a lot of great people who are going to succeed you.” He notes that Edelman changed them, too, evolving them from publicity ideas to ideas with big meaning: “You don’t replace geniuses, but you hope they trained the next generation of leaders.”

Edelman struggled last year, with revenue down 3.7% globally and a shocking 9.1% in the U.S. As the firm’s financial year closed on June 30, Edelman predicted his agency would achieve 1-2% growth globally and in the U.S. He added that it will not decline in 2024, though there will still be a small drop in the U.S. The second half of the year looks better because healthcare and tech, 45% of Edelman’s business, have rallied and the pipeline looks much better than last fall.

As for ensuring that Edelman’s success at Cannes was not a one-hit wonder, work has already started on next year’s entries.

“There’s definitely something about feeling you belong on the big stage and are motivated to find interesting campaigns and seed them in the population early in the year, and come into Cannes with momentum,” says Edelman.

The PR Week podcast with guest Richard Edelman is the first of four episodes this month featuring the leaders of the most successful PR firms in Cannes this year. 


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