ANALYSIS: Profile - Hoffman: breaking the boundaries for PR. Don't let his near-empty appointment book fool you - Lou Hoffman is busy breaking PR boundaries. The first hi-tech PR man to fly a flag in Asia pencils in Aimee Grove

Unlike most CEOs, Lou Hoffman is not tough to pin down for a meeting.

Unlike most CEOs, Lou Hoffman is not tough to pin down for a meeting.

Unlike most CEOs, Lou Hoffman is not tough to pin down for a meeting.

In fact, contrary to those corporate execs who wave a packed schedule around like a badge of honor, the head of San Jose, CA-based The Hoffman Agency happily boasts about his accessibility: 'You can almost always get in to see me on any day. That's because I intentionally never allow my calendar to become more than half full,' he says, displaying the contents of a fairly blank calendar book, which has just one appointment penciled in - today's PRWeek interview. 'Lots of this business is reactive, and you just never know what's going to come up.' Hoffman's wide-open calendar says everything about how he runs his company and his career. This is a man who believes in taking chances, challenging conventions and following opportunities wherever they may lead. And by doing so, his once one-man, one-client shop has in 13 years blossomed into a dollars 12 million agency with six offices around the world representing blue chip companies such as Hewlett-Packard and National Semiconductor.

Driven into Asia

Certainly the accomplishment for which Hoffman Agency is best known - being the first US-based hi-tech PR firm to establish a physical presence in Asia - can be directly attributed to Hoffman's ability to recognize and capitalize on opportunity. Before 1994, the 42-year-old had never traveled to Asia, and his agency had never handled an international press tour. But when a client at Hyundai insisted, Hoffman teamed up with a top local firm to coordinate a five-city press tour in Asia. The experience, he says, 'was a quasi-disaster.' So in 1996, with just 20 full-time employees, Hoffman eschewed the usual route and did what even heavyweights like Brodeur, Weber and Convergence had yet to do at that time: plant a flag in Asia with a branded office in Singapore.

Over the next four years, the agency set up four more branches in Tokyo, mainland China, Hong Kong and, just last month, South Korea. By next year, Taiwan and London will join the list of Hoffman's overseas outposts.

While it may be his claim to fame, Hoffman insists he never intended to become a global PR pioneer. In fact, he never even planned on a career in PR. Growing up in Tucson, AZ, it was journalism that filled this budding entrepreneur's dreams. But early on in his first job as a police beat reporter on a local newspaper, Hoffman had a change of heart. 'I had to interview the police chief after one of his officers shot a teenage, unarmed boy. After just a couple questions, the guy just went off on me, screaming 'This guy has a family and you're going to ruin his life!' I couldn't take it and quit,' Hoffman recalls.

Over the next few years, Hoffman meandered through a variety of different careers, ranging from industrial chemical sales to copywriting before finally joining Marken Communications, a Silicon Valley IT boutique, as an AE. After four years at Marken, just a few months short of his 30th birthday, he decided to hang out his own shingle, taking client Meridian Data with him. Now, Hoffman's agency is on target to bring in about dollars 17 million worldwide in 2001 - making Hoffman Silicon Valley's largest independent.

Yet no matter how big his empire has grown over the years, those who work with him say Hoffman has never taken his hands off the real client work. 'What is different about Lou from others I have worked with is that he actually still does media relations. He leads by example, and actually still writes and calls reporters. I don't know any other heads of agencies this size that still do that,' says Hoffman VP John Radewagen.

His own best publicist

Some of Hoffman's best media relations work has actually been for the firm itself. This self-described introvert has never shied away from the media spotlight, contributing a quarterly opinion column for MC magazine for the past three years as well as successfully pitching the agency for coverage in publications like Business Week and Inc.

Hoffman says publicity for the agency means better prospects for recruiting - a critical objective in the PR talent-starved Silicon Valley.

Perhaps because of his high profile, Hoffman has generated his share of critics. 'Why does he need to talk so much about himself? I always distrust someone who needs to show off that much,' says the head of another major agency in the Valley. Others whisper that Hoffman's visibility is an attempt to drive up the value of his firm for the auctioning block.

Hoffman disputes this: 'Now that we're kicking ass, why would I give that up? That's not to say we will never be sold, but I have walked the plank already - and decided that the money wasn't all that important to me.'

More important to Hoffman is stretching the boundaries of PR service.

The man who conquered Asia is now eyeing Finland and Israel as two regions with potential for unique VC partnership agreements. Both are countries where tech innovation is high, but the size of the local market is small enough to necessitate exporting this technology to the US, he explains.

Critics have said that Hoffman's mid-level size and independent status present the agency with a positioning problem. 'They're too small for the truly global accounts and yet too big to be considered a service-oriented specialist boutique,' says one Silicon Valley agency insider. However, Hoffman believes the Finland and Israel idea illustrates the advantages of his agency's size. 'If you're a Hill & Knowlton, an Ogilvy or a Shandwick/Weber, you're too big to make this type of deal. If you're a local Finnish or Israeli PR company, you can't deliver on the US side. And if you're a NRW or Applied Communications, you don't have the global infrastructure to pull it off.'

No matter where the road leads his agency in the next 10 years, Hoffman says the most important thing about his future plans are the fact that nothing - like his daily schedule - is written in ink. 'Successful companies today, to ensure their success five years down the road, must be willing to try new things, stretch their boundaries and take a chance,' he says.

LOU HOFFMAN CEO, The Hoffman Agency

1983-1987: Works for Marken Communications

1987: Starts at The Hoffman Agency

1992: Wins Silver Anvil award for launch of HP's Kittyhawk disk drive

1996: Opens first Asian office in Singapore

1997-1999: Opens offices in Beijing, Tokyo and Hong Kong

1999: Teams up with Cunningham to share HP's e-Services business

2000: Opens office in Seoul, South Korea.

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