Archive for July, 2009

Revisiting the All-important Anecdote

The latest issue of BusinessWeek ran a piece called “The Leaner Baby Boomer Economy

In short, the story looks at how major brands like Starwood Hotels and Mercedes are responding to baby boomers cutting back on their discretionary spending.

Like all compelling storytelling, the writer David Welch makes good use of anecdotes.

For example, he highlights clothing designer Vera Wang with the following insight:

“In one instance, Wang made a high-end dress using fabric that costs $5 a yard instead of $12 but used the fabric in several layers to give the garment a richer look.”

Is Wang worried that her customers will learn that she’s using a cheaper fabric?


Because she has confidence in the end product and a value proposition that aligns with today’s consumer climate.

In the world of technology, companies often hesitate to share this type of information, rationalizing that it would hurt their business if known to the competition. But Wang isn’t worried about divulging proprietary company information because she recognizes the real secret lies in the how (execution), not in the what (multi-layer approach with the fabric).

A second anecdote and my personal favorite comes from Mercedes:

“Mercedes has quietly recruited 500 people aged 20 to 32 for a focus group it calls Generation Benz. Mercedes researchers are seeking their views on the economy, car ads, model designs, and more. The automaker sent 20 Generation Benzers into dealerships wearing flip-flops and other casual attire to see how much attention they received. Four of the 20 were ignored. The results, says Steve Cannon, vice-president for marketing, served as a wake-up call to Mercedes dealers.”

At first blush, this information could be interpreted as a negative hit on Mercedes; i.e., if you’re not dressed “right” you get ignored in Mercedes dealerships.

Instead, Mercedes shows transparency in learning from its mistakes which in turn makes for a good story. Plus the car maker recognizes that a) no company is perfect, so sharing a “blemish” is OK, and b) the bigger message, “we listen” comes through.

As shared in an earlier post The Enigma of Business Journalism, The Economist we analyzed the tech-related articles in The Economist, covering the April through November 2008 issues. Seventeen percent of the content fell under the anecdotal umbrella.

Kudos to the Mercedes PR department which I suspect proactively dug out the Generation Benzers anecdotes and made them available to the reporter. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Welch covers the auto industry so he interacts with Mercedes on a regular basis.

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An NPR Perspective on Storytelling

I stumbled across a compelling three-and-a-half-minute video with NPR’s Scott Simon sharing his perspective on how to tell a story (video below).

It’s captivating, as reflected in the 43,000+ views.

Before going further, let’s acknowledge that Scott Simon’s voice by itself is captivating. He could explain a recipe for nouveau meatloaf and I’d listen. Plus, anyone who writes about baseball and Jackie Robinson gets a good-egg vote.

With that said, I like what he had to say about storytelling:

  • A story should make a point, which is different from a lesson, moral or punch line.
  • The beginning should be crisp.
  • Give people vivid detail. This is what enables others to repeat the story.
  • Maintain a conversational tone.
  • Have fun. Enjoy the sense of discovery that comes from storytelling.

The idea of crafting a story in breathable chunks also makes sense (although I can’t say the metaphor of a swim across the English Channel worked for me).

You can find his storytelling in motion on NPR at “Simon Says.”

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It’s Been 21 Years, But Who’s Counting?

OK, let’s start with the confession.

It’s been a number of weeks since I last blogged and this post doesn’t exactly fall under the “art of storytelling” umbrella.

But my reflections on hitting our 21-year anniversary strive to tell a story, so here goes:

Nothing like a milestone number to prompt a walk down memory lane.

I suppose every person who has launched a new company believes there’s a better way.

In our case, that better way came from previous PR agency experiences in which the numbers – also known by the word “billability” – seemed to be the all-consuming force.

The Hoffman Agency was launched with a simple notion:

Hire terrific PR practitioners.

Win good clients (defining “good” as offering a differentiated product/service, mutual respect and expectations that align with budget).

Then put the two together, charging the account teams with one mission: deliver results-driven PR programs that contribute to the client’s business objectives.

In taking such an approach, it seemed that the financial performance would follow behind. It just wouldn’t be the lead pin.

We opened our doors with that premise and one client, Meridian Data, in December 1987.

Shortly after, a conversation took place that would forever change the trajectory of the Agency. In my previous agency life, I had supported Philips and Sony in bringing this crazy idea of storing digital information on a 4.72-inch plastic disc known as CD-ROM to the public’s attention. When the general manager of HP’s application service division asked Esther Dyson of EDventure fame if she knew any PR agencies with CD-ROM expertise, Ms. Dyson was kind enough to pass along our name.

By our second month of operation, the Agency had landed its second client, HP. Needless to say, the HP name brought prestige and credibility to the fledgling operation and we were off and running.

And run we did. (Believe this is the point where we queue up the music from the famous “Run, Forrest, run” scenes in the movie “Forrest Gump.”)

For a number of years we executed on a plan that wasn’t exactly strategic: Add new clients at a rate that enabled us to continue to deliver the goods to current clients and thereby develop account team continuity. Hire A+ talent. And retain those folks through a culture tuned for people passionate about the practice of PR and serving clients.

By the early 1990’s, consolidation in the PR industry was making its way through the technology sector. It caused us to reflect on our own future. Specifically, should we acquiesce to an overture from the mega-shops or chart our own course? And we knew that if we were going to go our own way, we had darn better have a strategy to sustain differentiation and ultimately growth over the long haul.

That strategy came in the form of building a new-era global PR agency while keeping our maniacal focus on technology (defining technology broadly to include telecommunications, consumer electronics and what has become known as new media). By new-era, we meant a global agency not weighed down with legacy infrastructure, but an operation in which thinking, content and resources flowed easily across geographic borders.

The quest for these characteristics started in 1996 when we opened the doors of our first overseas office in Singapore.

Fast forward to today. We’ve indeed become a new-era global agency with offices across the United States, Europe and Asia Pacific.

We’ve handled and continue to handle big names such as HP, Amazon, Google, Dolby and Sony.

We’ve also contributed to the success of companies who aren’t household names but who offer work that’s just as satisfying.

Furthermore, almost 40 percent of our revenue comes from multi-country programs and half of our revenue comes from outside the U.S. corridors.

This evolution of business has caused us to think of ourselves as more of a Silicon Valley company than an American company. While Silicon Valley isn’t a nationality, we as a company identify with the characteristics associated with the Valley: passion to be the best, intelligent risk-taking, self-reflective, egalitarian, action-oriented, etc.

Of course, none of this happens without the right people.

The Agency has been blessed with incredible people who have taken the company to heights I couldn’t have imagined back in 1987.

And to borrow from Sinatra, we’ve done it our way, demonstrating that extraordinary client service, a care for the individual and financial performance can cohabitate.

I present the State of the Agency to our staff every six months, always ending with the same three words:

Enjoy the journey.

I’ve not only enjoyed the journey (although the recent months have left something to be desired), but I believe the best is yet to come.