Spending time in Singapore at the start of the month to celebrate our 20-year anniversary of operating in Asia included a few interviews with journalists.
Here’s the unfiltered version of a Q&A that touches on topics ranging from the future of communications to our differentiation.
Q. Happy 20th Anniversary on your operation in Asia! Can you give us a background about founding The Hoffman Agency, as well as tell us about Hoffman’s presence globally and in Asia?
In the spirit of Silicon Valley, we thought there was a better way.
The original idea behind The Hoffman Agency came from the pressure in my previous agency to generate billable time. It seemed like management viewed billable time as a higher priority than helping clients build their public profiles. As I talked to colleagues at other agencies, they were experiencing the same thing. This got me thinking about a different approach. Specifically, it seemed to me that if you secured good clients — defining “good clients” as a decent story to tell, budget aligns with expectations and mutual respect — and established the No. 1 mission for account teams as delivering great work that made a difference for clients, the financial component would automatically come along for the ride.
Every PR consultancy claims to be client-centric. Yet, their behaviour and decisions say otherwise. For example, unlike the conventional consultancy model, we have never measured our account professionals based on billability. Of course, we pay attention to our financials and strive to be profitable like any other company. But we’re measuring our account professionals on variables that clients care about.
This client-centric mentality has served us well. With that said, observing all the consolidation in the communications industry in the 1990s, I recognized we needed to be more strategic about our growth. Winning a new client, hiring more talented people, rinse and repeat does not constitute a strategy. My first trip to Asia in 1994 for a client press tour changed everything and ultimately helped us shape a long-term strategy. There really wasn’t a tech-focused PR consultancy in Asia with on-the-ground reach in the major markets. We pursued this opportunity, opening our first Asian office in Singapore in 1996. We positioned ourselves as an alternative to the mega shops offering the best of both worlds — regional reach, but with a tech focus. Of course, it took a few more years to build out our infrastructure in Asia to support our proposition.
Today, our Asian operation consists of offices in Singapore, Hong Kong, Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai and Tokyo. In combination with offices in Europe and the U.S., we’re one of the few independent communication consultancies with a global infrastructure.
It allows us to deliver campaigns that have the sophistication and creativity of larger agencies, but with a high touch typically associated with a boutique shop.
Drilling down to the next level, we’re the only global communications consultancy born in the West in which over 50 percent of revenue is generated in Asia and over 50 percent of staff sit in Asia. The impact goes beyond Asia. It drives a true global mentality across the entire agency.
Q. What do you think differentiates Hoffman from competitors?
A. Our differentiation comes in a few forms.
As an independent agency, we’ve established unconventional components that we believe better serve the client. I mentioned earlier that we don’t measure our account practitioners based on billable hours. As another example, we emphasize a global P/L and a regional P/L as opposed to the conventional PR consultancy model of striving to optimize P/L at the individual office level. For client campaigns that encompass multiple markets, this is a big deal. Leveraging content, thinking and even resources across markets is much easier in our structure because our office GMs aren’t obsessing how this impacts their individual offices. It comes back to being client-centric.
Our holistic approach to communications also differentiates us. By bringing together traditional PR tactics, owned media and even paid media, we can tune campaigns that support the CMO’s objectives, not just secure media coverage. Step back for a moment and consider the one thing that every target audience does regardless of industry. They conduct due diligence online. All companies should be thinking about their online presence and how to increase the probability that relevant category searches lead to their sites. Thanks to our search engine optimization (SEO) team, we can not only do this, but do it in a way that is integrated with traditional PR.
Our expertise in storytelling and developing content that resonates with the target audience is another differentiator. I recognize every communications consultancy with a pulse touts storytelling, but we’ve created a storytelling methodology that reflects the fact that business communications often doesn’t allow for a full-blown story. When I say full-blown, I mean a narrative with a start, an end and something that goes awry and needs to be fixed in between. Instead, we apply what we term “storytelling techniques” that can lift even B2B content.
Last, our company culture differentiates us. Our people care. They care about each other. They care about clients. They care about making a difference. It’s hard to quantify this characteristic, but it comes across to clients.
Q. What’s next for Hoffman? What sectors and markets are you looking to for growth opportunities?
A. Chaos in any industry creates opportunities, and there’s plenty of chaos in the communications industry.
The beauty of a tech pedigree is that our expertise naturally moves to other sectors. If you can be creative with a campaign around software for supply chain management, that same mentality goes into hyper mode working on a consumer program. That’s why you’ve seen and will continue to see us support clients from a range of sectors as well as tech.
It’s less about the sector and more about what the client needs from a communications consultancy. I view one of our core competencies as translating complexity into effective communications. If we don’t have domain expertise in a specific market segment, we know how to come up to speed quickly.
So back to your question, I think multi-market assignments, our version of integrated communications underpinned by SEO and a unique expertise in IoT will drive much of our growth looking out over the next two to three years.
I also believe there’s an opportunity to move up the food chain and offer McKinsey-like consulting with a communications frame. Consider all the companies with global aspirations. As they expand to other markets, communications typically gets bolted on as needed, resulting in a Frankenstein communications infrastructure a few years later. We’re in a position to help these companies rethink their communications infrastructure — both in-house resources and agencies — on a global basis.
I think we’ll see these types of management consulting engagements in the coming years.
From a geographic perspective, Southeast Asia is now on our radar. There could be logic in expanding our footprint in that direction down the road.
Q. Being in the business for over 30 years, what are some major changes you’ve seen in the media and communications landscape?
A. Obviously, the internet and digital communications have been THE disruptive force in communications.
Let’s start with what constitutes media. What about Google News? What about Facebook? One could make an argument that the channels of distribution for journalism — like Google News and Facebook — have more power than those actually writing and publishing the stories.
And the definition of influence has been turned inside out. When I started my career, it was easy to identify the influencers. They were the journalists who enjoyed a built-in audience and the industry analysts who would bless a company or product with validation.
Now thanks to the ease of gaining a digital pulpit, anyone can exert influence … literally. Five years ago I interviewed a fellow named Max Swisher who published a blog called “Good Morning Geek.”Companies ranging from HP to Dolby invited Max to their press events. This doesn’t sound unusual until I share with you that Max was 12 years old at the time. 12 years old! Everyone thought the demise of so many publications would hurt the communications profession. Actually, it’s been the opposite. Now, the challenge for the communications profession is figuring out how to prioritize influencers for a given client. Even what constitutes influence is still a work in a progress. I think we can all agree that having thousands of Twitter followers does not automatically constitute influence.
As touched on earlier, the fact that everyone goes online to gather information and figure things out is another game changer. All of the sudden, writing is back in style. Someone needs to create this content. Plus you want this process of online discovery to work to your advantage, which brings us back to SEO. One more point on this area. People want information that’s insightful or educates or entertains or a combination of the three. Increasingly, they don’t care where the information comes from — a dynamic that encourages the blending of earned, owned and paid media in single campaigns.
Q. What trends, issues and developments are you keeping an eye on in the next few years?
A. Mobile consumption is one.
I don’t think it’s happened in a major way yet, but I believe communication campaigns will eventually need to adjust to the continual rise of mobile device usage. Advertising agencies understand this, creating paid campaigns for mobile devices. PR consultancies are less inclined to take mobile into account, although it’s prompted us to put more emphasis on visual storytelling.
I also think while the PR profession intellectually understands that the internet has commoditized news releases, there remains an unhealthy dependence on news releases. I know people have been predicting the death of the news release for years. Still, it seems inevitable that at some point the news release will morph into a story resource, a few lines of copy and links to deeper information.
Big picture, the analytics rigor we see from our advertising brethren will become more pronounced in PR.
Q. Most memorable campaign or project you’ve been involved in?
A. It’s tough to pick the most memorable campaign, but I can share the campaign that had the greatest impact on my philosophy and how to approach to communications.
Going back to 1992 when HP was still in the disk drive business, I was part of a team that launched the industry’s first miniature disk drive called Kittyhawk.In spending time with the engineers in Boise, Idaho, I learned so many cool and wacky back stories to the product that prompted me to take a different approach to the announcement. Beyond the news release, we created eight or so different sub stories supported by clever anecdotes like the screws in the product were so small that they couldn’t be seen by the naked eye so HP depended on the micromachining from a watchmaker to manufacture the disk drive. This allowed the HP spokesperson to mix and match sub stories in communicating the news.
The approach generated rock-star attention.
It cemented my belief that the best storytelling wins.