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HP’s decision to cut along the dotted line and create two companies signals the end of an era.

We supported HP’s communications efforts from 1988 to 2002 when the Compaq merger resulted in a game of musical chairs with the PR agencies … and left us standing. To this day, the experience rates as one of the most painful in my professional life.

The loss involved more than just revenue. We had grown up with HP by landing a sliver of the HP business in 1988 – the application support division (ASD) and specifically the transfer of minicomputer documentation from paper to this crazy invention called CD ROM – which kept growing and growing.

And we kept learning and learning.

Up to that point, my business experience consisted of rising to shift leader at Straw Hat Pizza during my college days. Say what you will about the Carly drama and Dilbert-like bloat that came toward the end of our tenure, HP was a damn good role model. For those prepping for a game of HP Trivial Pursuits, the R&D manager for that documentation on CD ROM project was none other than Ann Livermore who later came in second to Carly in the quest for the CEO reins.

I got my first exposure to problem solving when HP’s corporate communications function informed the ASD general manager, Marc Hoff, that he wasn’t allowed to hire me since “I wasn’t sanctioned by corporate.” It’s safe to conclude that the PR stewards at HP weren’t keen to welcome a one-person PR agency which had opened for business two months prior.

“No problem,” replied Hoff. He promptly had his assistant rescope the engagement characterizing me out as a CD ROM consultant who would support communications as opposed to a PR consultant supporting a CD ROM application.

And we were off and running (sorry about the photo below; not easy to find a shot from 20 plus years ago).

HP CD ROM - PR storytelling

One of my all-time favorite quotes was uttered during an HP LaserRom press tour in New York when a journalist asked the HP developer why HP didn’t program the CD ROM application in Windows: “Have you ever tried to write Windows code? It’s like chewing bricks.”

Two years later our HP business consisted of the company’s  entire support business known by the “clever” acronym of WCSO (worldwide customer support organization). The relationship with WCSO definitely shaped our mentality and what I consider to be a healthy zeal to help our clients get more than their fair share of attention. Keep in mind the media gravitated toward HP’s cash cow – the printer business — and to a lesser extent the enterprise servers. We had to scratch and claw to generate interest in the decidedly untrendy area at the time, customer support and services.

Others at HP noticed our work, which led to additional opportunities with storage, software and later servers. In fact, we won a prestigious Silver Anvil for our work launching HP’s miniature disk drive (1.3-inches) in 1993.

 HP’s miniature disk drive

More importantly, we started to seriously hone our business storytelling chops. We brought out the humanity in the Kitty Hawk narrative, piecing together how the team worked out of a dingy trailer away from the HP campus (in Boise) so they could toil without distractions. This was also the time I got the anecdote religion, gaining mileage from snippets on the manufacturing process and showcasing Citizen using its watch-making expertise to drive screws in the disk drive so small they couldn’t be seen by the naked eye.

All the goodness from the HP relationship — revenue, brand cachet and learning — came together in 1996 when we made the decision to build a global footprint. There’s a reason that the mega shops dominate the global PR playing field. It’s very expensive to create a global infrastructure one brick at a time. Thanks to the HP business, we had been accruing a war chest with the idea of tapping it when the right opportunity came along. Two of our vice presidents at the time, Susan Baldwin and Rachel Imison, deserve credit for managing the HP business and making sure the trains ran on a time.

Fast forwarding to today, we’re a 120-person communications consultancy with offices dotting Asia, Europe and the United States that outperforms the big guys.

The 14 years supporting HP made this possible.

Still, saying I wish HP good luck and I wish HP good luck doesn’t have a great ring to it.


Comments

  • Mike Wendelin

    Lou,

    Now that is “The rest of the story.” Congrats on building the agency with the power-of-one!

    All the best,

    Mike

    Reply
    • hoffman

      Thanks Mike. Good hearing from you. You’ll be pleased to know the NOMADS rescue in the Pacific and the coke can as an anecdote have become a standard part of my storytelling workshops.

      Reply
  • Brian Schwartz

    Thanks, Lou. This story conjures up so many memories. You could write pages and pages about those days if you wanted. The experience shaped the careers of many good people.

    For me, it created a tremendous amount of learning — both through success and failure. I am grateful for it all.

    Reply
    • hoffman

      Hi Brian,

      You’re right. That 14-year relationship with HP absolutely generated enough fodder to fill a book. I feel the same as you, that it had a big part of shaping my thought process.

      Reply

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