About fifteen years ago, I met a solo practitioner at a networking event who handed me a business card that presented his title as “chief storyteller.”
I couldn’t take him seriously; I couldn’t imagine lobbying the vice president of marketing to hire a storyteller. We needed a more serious tone – pragmatic, data-driven and business-like. A strong lede or anecdotes? Sure, those are obvious requirements – but “Storytelling” was for Disney and fairytales; it had no place in business communications.
In the last few years, there’s been a few PR bloggers that have shifted my thinking. In particular, there’s been one that really stands out, because his content was so different. It had perspective unlike that we find so often in the echo-chamber. It wasn’t merely a regurgitation of already accepted beliefs, it was fresh and new thinking; I started following him and his work.
I’m not sure where I first found Lou Hoffman, though I suspect it was through a link in the curated content section of the O’Dwyer’s daily newsletter (to which I highly recommend subscribing). Regardless, over the last few years we’ve had countless exchanges and I’ve grown to truly admire Lou and pitched him on doing an Off Script interview for this series.
He agreed and what he came back with is exceptional insight and while long in form, it’s quick in reading and well worth a few minutes time investment. He’s changed my mind on the concept of storytelling and why it’s valuable in PR.
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Shouldn’t the service delivery to the client be the most important factor?
1. Tell me about your firm; how did you get started, how many employees you have, and most importantly how do you compete in a day-in-age where the competition stems from the giants within Omnicom or WPP above and the explosion of the solo-PR consultant below?
LH: In the spirit of Silicon Valley, I started the agency believing there was a better way. I don’t know what you experienced during your H&K days, but my early agency experiences weren’t so hot. Management made it clear that the No. 1 factor in evaluating my performance would be billable hours.
That didn’t sound right. Shouldn’t the service delivery to the client be the most important factor?
Still, at 25 I figured the bosses knew what they were doing, and I mushed forward. Later, right before I hit the big 3-0, I came to the conclusion that an agency model that put the client at the center of the universe was the way to go, and I opened my own shop. Of course, financial performance in any company including PR agencies is important. We’re just not slaves to the financials in how we behave and make decisions.
Fast forwarding to today, we have around 120 employees split across Asia, Europe and the United States. The idea of being a huge company was never the goal. I want to be the best in delivering world-class services that make a meaningful contribution to our clients’ businesses. After a stagnate spell, we’re back on a growth trajectory with a 30 percent increase in revenue last year and roughly the same projected for 2014. Our value proposition, which combines the sophistication of a large shop with the high touch of a boutique, resonates with many organizations.
With that said, I do see the need for us to gain additional mass so we can compete for larger assignments. We’re never going to be what I affectionately call a mega shop, but feel at 175 employees or so, we would be long-listed for more interesting opportunities that often come from the big brands.
…a commodity model doesn’t allow for the type of brainpower in which you’re counseling clients and delivering services for strategic advantage.
2. New models, such as Air PR and Press Friendly, are creating “marketplaces” for PR talent. How competitive do you think these services will be – and do they pose a serious challenge to the PR firm establishment?
LH: These types of solutions are typically relegated to the low end of the market where PR has been commoditized. There’s definitely demand at the low end, so the potential is there to be successful and make money.
Could they move up the food chain?
Because a commodity model doesn’t allow for the type of brainpower in which you’re counseling clients and delivering services for strategic advantage. We’re finding such assignments often extend into branding, content marketing, SEO and the list goes on. At the risk of plagiarizing, it’s complicated.
Look, there will always be a market for a value proposition in which the client gets a senior person, say 10+ years of experience, as their AE. Scaling this model is another matter.
Reinventing ourselves is a perpetual state.
3. You’ve built substantial business in the Asia-Pacific region – an area notoriously challenging for US-based companies to be successful. What prompted you to get into the region and how have you been able to grow the business?
LH: We anticipated back in the early ’90s that like all industries, the PR industry was bound to undergo serious consolidation. We concluded that the mega shops and their insatiable appetite for “big” would always be a factor. We also thought the boutiques and their handcrafted product would survive. It was the shops that sat between the two that were likely to be squished.
Nothing like the possibility of being squished to bring clarity to one’s mind. I think Marlon Brando said something to this effect in Apocalypse Now. Anyway, this led us to brainstorm on how we could carve out a distinctive position between these two market segments. In going through the exercise, we saw an opportunity to build a global PR company with a focus on tech and unencumbered by the typical legacy baggage – like individual office P/L – that weigh down the mega shops. BTW, several of today’s clients sit outside the tech sector, a story for another time.
Even in the early 1990s, Europe was already saturated, so I thought our brand would gain more oomph starting in Asia. We made the decision in 1994. It took two years to get up the courage to pull the trigger launching our first overseas office in 1996. I have to give a ton of credit to my wife, Heather. During the early days of building out our Asia Pacific operation, I spent a considerable amount of time overseas with Heather manning the home front. Without her belief and support, Asia Pacific would still be a theory.
As for the continued success. It always comes down to the people. A number of our senior leaders have been with the Agency for many years. In fact, a couple of folks, our head of North Asia, Shingo Nomura in Tokyo, and global of head of operations, Lydia Lau, have actually been with the agency more than 10 years. This type of continuity creates a foundation for long-term success.
Still, we recognize that the status quo is the enemy. Reinventing ourselves is a perpetual state.
…PR is in the best position to capitalize on this opportunity. While others do tag lines and pretty, we’re the content guys.
4. Storytelling seems to be your niche. For many in the executive suite, “storytelling” might conjure up images of youth sitting around a campfire roasting marshmallows; how do you get the C-Suite to take storytelling seriously?
LH: Before answering the question, some context is useful.
Virtually every type of buying decision includes search as a form of online due diligence. This puts a premium on content like we’ve never seen before.
Out of all the marketing communication disciplines, PR is in the best position to capitalize on this opportunity. While others do tag lines and pretty, we’re the content guys.
There’s just one not-so-tiny problem in saying this. I’ll bet more than 90 percent of the content generated by the PR function is dreadful, defining dreadful as completely missing the mark with the target audience. Often, the flaw lies with an inward focus. Sometimes, this comes from the bosses with sign-off power demanding copy that shouts me, me, me.
Which brings us back to winning over the executive suite.
We try to talk in their language. For media relations, we’ll select a couple of the target journalists and reverse-engineer their articles so that the executives can see with their own eyes why we need anecdotes, contrast and other storytelling techniques to sell journalists. For online content, the analytics are there that prove storytelling trumps vanilla stuff.
But there’s heavy lifting still to be done. PR needs to be willing to fight for storytelling.
After conducting our storytelling workshop over the years, we’re hearing back from participants who share that senior executives and sometimes even the corporate culture put the kibosh on storytelling. We see an opportunity to create a methodology to get an entire company on the storytelling bandwagon.
Rather than be subservient to clients, journalists and other influencers, blogging cultivates relationships of equals.
5. Tell us about your blogging experience; when did you start? What impact has it had on your business? Do PR people or firms have to have a blog in this day and age?
LH: If I had to pick one word to describe my blogging experience, it would be “humbling.” I know just because you build it doesn’t necessarily mean readers will come. But I had no idea that it would take three years before the Google Analytics needle started to move up and to the right.
If you gave me a second word, “invigorating” comes to mind. I love advocating and teaching under the communications umbrella. Rather than be subservient to clients, journalists and other influencers, blogging cultivates relationships of equals. One quick example – Earlier this month I wrote a post on a New York Times article. The NYT journalist who wrote the piece jumped into the fray, sharing his perspective in a posted comment.
I think the blog has been a game changer for our business as a form of internal education. We’re one of the few PR companies that walks the storytelling talk. While I’ve been evangelizing storytelling through a business prism for more than 10 years, it wasn’t until I started blogging back in 2008 that storytelling got baked into our mentality.
The platform also offers a way for me and the entire agency to experiment with zero risk. We view the blog as a virtual petri dish for communications. A good example involves our push into visual storytelling and coming up the curve in the use of illustration.
I know the blog can be an asset in new-business development, and it certainly attracts companies who buy our storytelling workshop. Yet, these benefits are secondary to the internal education and experimentation.
Last, I always wondered what my writing would look like if it didn’t go through the client meat grinder.
Now I know.
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Many thanks for this interview Lou and for the continued exchange on social media. Find more from Lou Hoffman on Twitter, Google+ and his blog Ishmael’s Corner. His agency is the Hoffman Agency and is headquartered in San Jose.
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