2019 PR AOY Bronze: Edelman brings in creative guns

How the shop is growing beyond its PR roots, with a greater focus on building on its data and creative capabilities.

Edelman Group Photo
This article originally appeared in the 2019 November/December issue of
 strategy.

For years, Edelman has been stocking the arsenal while making steady advancements on the creative battlefield. With the arrival of Judy John as its first global CCO in February, the PR firm is closer to having what it takes to become a creative powerhouse.

After having made the decision five years ago to expand beyond traditional PR offerings, the firm – named Bronze PR AOY for the second year in a row – now serves as the lead agency partner for many of its clients, according to Lisa Kimmel, president and CEO of Edelman Canada.

While it didn’t place in the main Agency of the Year category, Edelman was the only PR firm to be shortlisted. In fact, it’s the only communications shop to ever land as a finalist in the category that typically features creative agencies. Over the last year, it led entire advertising programs for clients ranging from Skittles to Sanofi Genzyme and CropLife Canada. Specifically, its work for Osteoporosis Canada has been gaining attention globally, with its creatively led “Bubl Fashion” winning a Bronze Pharma Lion in 2019 for drawing attention to what can often be an “invisible disease,” working with designer David Dixon to create a fashion line that incorporated bubble wrap.

“[CEO] Richard Edelman’s goal is to continue to elevate the quality of the creative product that we’re delivering to clients,” says Kimmel. “The fact that someone like Judy John was willing to come on board demonstrates the belief in our vision and this notion of earned at the core and social by design.”

John is the former CEO of Leo Burnett Canada and CCO of Leo Burnett North America. Now, at Edelman, she oversees a network of 600 creatives and strategists globally. Her hiring, Kimmel says, was about needing a cross-market leader to steer the agency’s already sizeable investments in its creative capabilities.

Globally, John’s influence has already been felt outside of the creative department.

In October, Edelman appointed Yannis Kotziagkiaouridis, the former global chief analytics officer at Wunderman Thompson, to the new role of global head of data and analytics. He is set to lead the firm’s 210-person global research and analytics consultancy, Edelman Intelligence. According to PR Week, Richard Edelman had been in talks with Kotziagkiaouridis about the role for two years. “I was like a gum under his shoe. I never gave up,” the global CEO said, adding that John’s appointment “was part of persuading him.”

The hiring of Kotziagkiaouridis signals that data and analytics are core to Edelman’s global strategy, Kimmel adds, noting that the Canadian division is further along in investing in those capabilities than other regions. Locally, Edelman’s data and analytics team consists of 15 staff. The firm began building the offering in February 2015, along with the hiring of Catherine Yuile, EVP of insights and analytics. In addition, EVP of digital and national practice lead, Dave Fleet now manages a team of 38 and the agency expects to hire someone to oversee a three-person planning group. Nirmala Bahall arrived in June 2018 as an SVP, managing six staff in paid and performance marketing.

On the creative side, CCO Andrew Simon has been leading the department (now at 18 employees) since 2015 and works closely with Leilah Ambrose, VP and creative director in Toronto, as well as VP and creative director Mike Shackle, who was hired in April to lead the offering in Vancouver.

Some other PR firms in Canada have similarly invested in a more integrated offering. But what differentiates Edelman, according to Kimmel, is that it was first out of the gate. She says the privately held firm began investing in talent before there was even a clear client need.

“I do believe that we’re still ahead of our competitors in terms of the depth of expertise that we have in each of those capabilities,” Kimmel says. “The reality is that we have senior leadership across all [disciplines] and have had the same people in place for [some time].”

PR AOY Cases

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When Taco Bell was set to reintroduce a Canadian-exclusive, Edelman made the most of a truly Canadian activation. The shop created the world’s first snow slide-thru to get Canadians excited about the return of the Cheetos Crunchwrap Slider. It then targeted platforms in the U.S. where Gen Zers follow food trends (Teen Vogue and Delish) and built buzz by playing up the FOMO card of being “only available in Canada.” Not only did Canadians fall in love with the product all over again, they also won bragging rights over their neighbours to the south.

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To reinforce the true diversity and breadth of real beauty, Dove created the #ShowUs public image bank. To get the word out, the firm partnered with influencers, one of whom appeared unretouched in an issue of Chatelaine.

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When the WestJet-Onex deal was announced, Edelman worked to quell concerns around the proposed acquisition. Front-line workers were given crafted FAQs to quickly address questions once the news hit. And calls were made to priority politicians to highlight the merits of the deal in order to spur approval.