We can’t wait for Asian culture to change to stand up to clients, says PR agency founder

Lou HoffmanPR agencies in Asia cannot afford to wait for the culture of servility to clients to change, the founder of one of the region’s most well-entrenched independent agencies has said.

Talking to Mumbrella from his network’s Singapore office last week, Lou Hoffman, founder of The Hoffman Agency, which has just celebrated 20 years in Asia, said that his agency wanted to get to the stage where they could say “don’t pick us” in pitches if clients were unwilling to work with a PR firm with a strong point of view about communications.

“I do think there is that cultural challenge [to pushing back against clients] – this respect. Especially when someone is paying you money for a product or service. That’s real,” he said.

“Because it is culturally embedded, it will take some time to change. The best thing that agencies can do – which we’ve talked about internally – is give account people the tools to be effective in navigating this with finesse.”

The Hoffman Agency, a tech specialist that counts Google as its longest-held client, aims to get its balance sheet strong enough to be able to “draw lines in the sand easier”, Hoffman noted.

“We need to get strong enough that we can [challenge clients]. Because I don’t think we can wait for the culture of Asia to change. In our own little world, we can change it ourselves,” he said.

“It’s about healthy discussion to get to a better end product. And in the new business setting, to be able to look them in the eye and say, don’t pick us.”

Hoffman said that one weakness of public relations is supposedly a skill the sector excels at – storytelling.

Telling stories around the subject is what PR agencies should be training clients to do instead of honing a corporate message, he said.

“PR people talk about idea that the world is gravitating towards content, and I’m on board with that. But where I digress from the party line is people saying the PR profession is great at storytelling. You know what, it’s not.”

“If I audited all the content created by the PR profession around the world, I don’t think it would grade very well. And it wouldn’t grade out at storytelling. Even something as basic – and something journalists deploy all the time – as the anecdote.”

“Look at good stories from journalists, particularly in long-form, and so much of their stuff anecdotal,” he said, not long after having told a colourful anecdote about when the Hoffman Agency launched in Asia 20 years ago.

“There is a disconnect. PR claims we’re great storytellers. I think because we pitch stories to journalists, we’ve got a good sense of narrative. I think we’ve got a built-in advantage, but there’s still work to be done to take advantage of that asset,” he said.

Hoffman was asked what he made of the common trait among PR agencies in Asia to ask journalists for a list of questions before an interview, and what that said about the maturity of the industry in this region.

“I’m not trying to take away accountability, not just from our office but the PR function in Asia. But if you look at this issue, and at the root cause, it starts with the client,” he said.

“One of the key things about getting a better product from communications starts with them, and understanding what constitutes getting a better product as opposed to this need to control,” said Hoffman.

“There are companies all over the world that want control. It’s not just an Asia thing. Look at Apple. I don’t know if there’s a more paranoid, control-oriented company in the world.”

“It’s fair to say that the communications function is still evolving out here, it’s further along in other parts of the world. So you see certain things happen here that are just part of growing pains.”

The notion that companies staying on message is a sign that PR has done a good job is not true anymore, Hoffman contended.

“I would agree that 10-15 years ago. But I don’t agree with it now,” he said.

“Look at what’s happened with news and news releases over the last 10-15 years. They have been totally commoditised to the point that unless it’s something major, journalists really don’t care.

“What journalists are looking for are one-off stories; stories they can call their own.”

“My argument is that to stay on message is bad. Where we are in today’s world, it’s bad,” he said.

“At my old agency, I had mentors who showed me the ropes. I would watch them pummel executives to submission in terms of staying on message, and even then I thought, this just isn’t very interesting.”


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