As head of corporate communications at Microsoft, Larry Cohen's audiences are vast and varied. Appealing to them all can be a daunting task, though he wouldn't want it any other way.
Larry Cohen, GM of corporate communications at Microsoft, isn't one to mince words.
"He's not afraid to say what he thinks. If something sucks, he'll say it sucks, albeit in a nice way," says Bruce Chizen, CEO of Adobe Systems, who met Cohen when the two worked at Claris Software, a division of Apple Computer. Cohen is egoless and very talented, adds Chizen. "That is a rare combination."
Cohen, 36, isn't so outspoken about what he brings to the game, though he does recognize the importance of running communications for one of the biggest and most widely recognized tech companies in the world. And with such a large and varied audience - from the 12-year-old gamer to the Fortune 500 CIO - Cohen grasps the enormity of his responsibility. He knows that with a company the size of Microsoft, it could be easy to confuse its many consumers. Indeed, it's up to him to make sure that, at the end of the day, the gamer and the CIO walk away with the same positive impression of the company.
"This is the best job I've ever had," says Cohen. "It's also the most challenging. I've never worked this hard, and I never loved what I do every day in this way. The things I work on are amazing."
One of Cohen's biggest challenges at Microsoft was back in 1995, before he took over corporate communications. As a senior director of marketing, one of his first assignments was MSN, the company's foray into the internet. MSN was a daunting challenge, Cohen recalls. The time spent scrambling to get that project off the ground "felt like dark days," he admits.
But that is what has attracted Cohen to all of his jobs - amazing opportunities to work on something "that wasn't a no-brainer. I always look for roles where I'm learning something, where I'm challenged. I don't want to feel stagnant."
And that's exactly what Cohen got as head of communications at Microsoft. He took the job in 2002, and has faced everything from product launches to the Department of Justice's antitrust lawsuit against the firm. And Chizen's comments about Cohen's candor are at the core of what he does every day.
"You can't spend time painting yourself in a way that doesn't reflect reality," Cohen says. "People will see through it. You must be sure not to make yourself into something you're not. Stay true to yourself and the rest will follow."
And Cohen speaks his mind to ensure that Microsoft is not trying to be what it isn't. That helps him hold his own when sitting down with Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and CEO Steve Ballmer, notes Waggener Edstrom EVP Corey duBrowa. "They share the same interests and passion," he says. "Bill can ask him a deep question from out of left field, and in that culture, that's a sign of respect."
Cohen has also made the communications team more inclusive, inviting all views, even those that are contradictory to his own, adds duBrowa. And that leads to a better end result because it challenges everyone to not just think about what they've done before, but what they need to do next.
Cohen's challenge-seeking propensity was evident in college. As a student at Northeastern University, his plans to become a pediatrician were derailed when he bought an Apple computer. Buying that MacPlus was "an epiphany," he says. Before college, he recalls entering the room of his tech-savvy brother to tell him he was a geek, while Cohen was a cool, budding jazz musician who idolized drummers like Buddy Rich. No longer, though he still plays the drums to teach his young son and daughter.
Fascinated by technology's impact on people's lives and work, Cohen changed course, which he admits appalled his parents. But he headed west, ending up at a MicroAge computer store in Sacramento. His insight into computers and software, particularly related to Apple, landed him a job at Claris, working on product development and marketing. And from there he went on to Collabra Software, and ultimately Microsoft.
Cohen admits he doesn't have a traditional PR background. Most of his career has been on the product side, steeped in software development. But at the time, that also included marketing what he was developing. And that is just what Microsoft found so attractive - his background not in traditional communications, but in product development.
"He has an incredible passion for software," says Mich Mathews, SVP of the corporate marketing group, and Cohen's boss. "It's to the point where I ask what he did this weekend, and he'll have downloaded software and looked at the code. His incredible curiosity goes beyond that of a lot of people here."
But Cohen doesn't miss his product development days, since he gets the same sense of fulfillment he had bringing a product to market. He still works hands-on with product teams, and still sees the fruits of his labor and the impact it has on Microsoft's business.
And that is something he continually instills in his team - understanding the perceptions they need to create for the company in the eyes of its customers, which will ultimately impact the company's business goals and vision.
"It's about how you tell customers the stories about the company and the impact we have on their lives," says Cohen. "Good PR is as much an art as it is a science. And that's the difference between good and bad PR. There are people who don't understand the difference between the art and the science. It's not all transactional. There needs to be a strategic, long-term focus that helps create long and lasting relationships."
Cohen has seen those relationships pay off with Microsoft customers who are dedicated and passionate. Then there are those who love to hate Microsoft. And he understands them as well, admitting that he had a less than stellar opinion of Microsoft while at Apple.
"I had formed an opinion based on what I was seeing and hearing around me," he says, adding that being at Microsoft has opened his eyes and that the people who work at the company want to develop cool, cutting-edge technology just as much as anyone at Apple or any other technology outfit.
"At the end of the day, we want to empower people," he says. "We want to deliver cutting-edge technology and innovation. That's what's in our DNA. What I've learned about being at the extreme perception, and evolving from that, is that the only way you will ever address that perception is through showing what our motivation is, showing we are a responsible leader."
And that, says Cohen, is the crux of what his team does each day - "expose people to who we are at our core."
Microsoft, GM of corporate comms
Microsoft, senior director of marketing
Collabra Software, director of marketing
Claris Software (Apple Computer), senior marketing manager