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Industry heroes: Richard Edelman

Not only is Richard Edelman an industry stalwart, he is also as a regular family man – humble, sincere and genuinely interested in his colleagues – writes the Zeno Asia-Pacific CEO Margaret Key

I consider myself very fortunate to have worked with some amazingly talented colleagues across the globe. From Seoul and Hong Kong to Tokyo my career has taken me across different markets, positions and consultancies. All have indelibly shaped me, professionally and personally.

But when thinking of someone that has had a lasting impact and influence, one person that clearly stands out is Richard Edelman, the chairman of DJE Holdings and president and CEO of Edelman.

Edelman, the ‘industry stalwart’

Richard’s name is recognised far and wide. He is seen as one of the most vocal, pioneering and successful innovators who set the bar high for his firm and for our wider profession.

When the new buzzword was digital, Edelman jumped headfirst into the revolution. At a time when women in leadership roles were rare, he questioned the status quo; he worked side-by-side with his female colleagues and treated them as partners, often elevating them to very senior roles within the firm.

I started at the Edelman Seoul office when it was one of the worst performing offices in Asia, before over time it grew and expanded to become one of the best in the global network. Richard travelled each year to Asia, stopped each time in Seoul and always – incredibly – remembered the staff and clients.

He met those same clients with each return. This commitment was rare for the market and had an incredible impact in terms of driving a global network sensibility among staff. It helped shape a different view of the CEO in Asia, where the leader is typically far removed and overly protected.

I remember during one of Richard’s visits, I got a chance to do my first one-to-one with him. We were sitting side-by-side in the back of a taxi – over a two-hour ride to the airport. Intimidating it certainly was and I prepared business figures, client insights and trends to pepper through our conversation.

We did speak of clients and my work, but the talk was centred on family; his three daughters, my journey from South Carolina to South Korea and his avid interest in history. When we got out of the car, Richard pulled out his suitcase. It was worn, weathered and branded with a gaping hole at the bottom.

Speaking the the WEF in Davos, Switzerland

I pretended not to notice and then he said: “I don’t like the fancy things. Same suitcase. Same old beat up car.” It was there and then that I learned to appreciate my CEO as not only an industry stalwart, but also as a regular family man – humble, sincere and genuinely interested in his colleagues.

I eventually moved on from Edelman but over the years, I have always carried a very special regard for the firm and the company’s very special culture. Like other Edelman alumni, I have remained in contact with Richard.

It was only recently, again during a visit to Korea, that we talked and this time about a potential return. He quickly introduced me to Zeno’s CEO Barby Siegel, a trailblazer for our industry, the DJE Group and for working women in general. In just one conversation with her, I was hooked because of her passion, vision and her people-first philosophy.  

In the few short months that I have been part of the Zeno family, the energy is palpable. The agency is poised for continued growth and evolution, and much of this can be attributed to the fact Richard has always given Zeno the freedom to “fly fearless”.

I have learned many things from Richard and one of the most pronounced is his successful transformation of DJE Holdings – both Edelman and Zeno – while never sacrificing the firm’s values as a family-run business. I feel like I have returned home.

Key has returned to the Edelman family because of Richard

Margaret Key is the Asia-Pacific chief executive officer of Zeno Group, an Edelman agency

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