Arun Sudhaman 03 Apr 2023 // 8:42AM GMT
David Wolf played a pivotal role as China's public relations market opened up, connecting and mentoring a generation of corporate communications executives and bringing a crucial level of insight and empathy to the country's emergence on the international stage. He died on Monday 27 March at the age of 59 after a brief battle with cancer.
Wolf's insatiable curiousity, optimistic attitude and empathetic understanding of business challenges ensured that he was a widely admired counselor when it came to complex PR issues, of which there were many as China's communications landscape transformed during the two decades he spent in the country. Those same qualities also reflected his personal leadership style and impact during a highly fertile period for China executives that believed in the power of engagement and collaboration as the best way to navigate the country's dynamic rise as an economic power.
A passion for international relations underpinned Wolf's career, starting with his undergraduate studies at the University of California, which included a summer immersion program in Mandarin. In 1995, Wolf was hired to help the TV Shopping Network launch in China, before he soon became general manager of the company's operations in the country.
By 2000, after a stint with boutique consultancy Claydon-Geischer Associates, Wolf founded the China technology practice at Burson-Marsteller, which was on its way to becoming the country's dominant international PR firm. The same could be said for Burson's regional operations, in which Wolf also played a major role as Asia-Pacific technology practice leader, building a formidable offering that was notable for its depth of talent.
"David was the complete package," said former Burson-Marsteller Asia-Pacific CEO Bill Rylance. "An enormous intellect anchored by humility, empathy, warmth, humour, and a fathomless generosity of spirit. This rare and exceptional blend of attributes was painted on a large canvas, a massive masterpiece of humanity. And yet, when I think of David, all I see is that big beaming smile that was his default expression. It put everyone at ease; disarming, charming and genuine. It epitomised him, and it was contagious."
"David was a friend, a mentor and an outsized personality in every way," added Intel corporate communications director Will Moss, who worked at Burson-Marsteller China during the period in question. "He connected a generation of comms professionals in China in the early 2000s and helped many of us to succeed and grow in an amazing time and place."
Wolf struck out on his own in 2005, forming Wolf Group Asia (WGA) and emerging as an indispensable blogger as China's social media scene flowered in the run-up to the 2012 Beijing Olympics. That same year, WGA was named Boutique Consultancy of the Year by this publication — reflecting Wolf's status as a sage advisor and guide for such clients as Motorola, Google, NVIDIA, Qualcomm and Intel, all of whom benefited from his pioneering ability to navigate the complexities of China's business environment.
"He was one of the best professionals I had the honor to know and work with in China," said former Ogilvy PR China leader Scott Kronick. "He was always very generous with his advice and he was always insightful."
A prescient commentator across business and politics, Wolf was regularly sought out for his acumen when it came to the cultural and business divide that still characterises China's relationship with the wider world. As far back as 2012, for example, he was advising Huawei of how to handle a US 'fear of China'. Unsurprisingly, given his lifelong love of writing, Wolf authored two books on the topic. His 2015 title Public Relations in China: Building and Defending Your Brand in the PRC served as the basis for a podcast in which he examined an increasingly difficult environment for foreign companies in China.
By then, Wolf had sold his consultancy to Allison+Partners and returned to California to serve as a corporate affairs partner, focusing — as one might imagine — on the firm's growing China operations and cross-border opportunities with the US.
"In addition to his incredible intellect and value as a trusted C-suite advisor to our clients, David played a critical role as Allison+Partners’ unofficial ‘professor and sage’. He mentored dozens of colleagues, past and present, helping guide their careers and personal growth. David took a gentle, deeply thoughtful approach to counseling clients and connecting with colleagues. His tremendous wit made him so approachable and charismatic," said Scott Allison, founder, CEO, and chairman of Allison+Partners. "We’re very grateful for the time David spent with our company, and he will be greatly missed."
Wolf ended up spending a decade with Allison+Partners, launching its global China practice and an advisory offering. In 2021, he took early retirement to devote more time to his eclectic range of passions, from scouting, to military history, to hiking and railway travel.
"David’s legacy is the many people he touched with his humor, insatiable hunger for knowledge and his enthusiastic generosity in sharing what he knew," says Waypoint Partners' David Schneider, who first met Wolf in 2001 before later recruiting him to Allison. "He had an outsized impact on many careers in China, for people at all levels, providing an education and gentle encouragement to colleagues that populated a generation with bright inquisitive minds.
"Beyond his industry impact, David will best be remembered as a husband, father and friend," adds Schneider. "In the 20+ years I knew David, he was always ready for a conversation regarding any topic from the latest global crisis to his love of history to the varying merits of science fiction writers."
Wolf is survived by his wife Sonny and son Aaron. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to either the Boy Scouts of America, Ventura County Council or to the Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps.