The AdPulp Interview: Bob Hoffman

Bob Hoffman is a funny guy in the tough as balls New York City tradition. He’s also an insightful business leader running a 100+ person ad agency headquartered in San Francisco.
Hoffman’s had the occasion to visit Portland recently–his daughter goes to school here–and this has led to some great face-to-face conversations over breakfast and again over coffee. This interview is an extension of those discussions.
Q. What led you to start Hoffman/Lewis?
A. Desperation.
I was in my early forties. After freelancing for three years I came to the realization that in the not-too-distant future I would be 50. I recognized that a 50-year-old freelancer was an old man but a 50-year-old CEO was a young man. I decided to be a young man.
Q. What led you to begin blogging? Will you continue writing the blog long term?
A. I started it almost two years ago out of frustration. I got sick of all the bullshit I was reading every day. After two weeks I said everything I wanted to say, but I’ve kept going because it’s fun.
I won’t continue it long term. It’s too dangerous. I’m amazed a client hasn’t fired me.
Q. You say no one’s figured out how to make money with online content–including The New York Times–and that brands are wasting money in an area where there’s “no formula,” only experimentation. Please elaborate.
A. These are two different but related issues.
1. Artists’ works used to be among the most highly valued of commodities and were protected by law. While technically they still are, the laws seem virtually unenforceable. This has already nearly ruined the music industry, and threatens the movie, television and newspaper industries.
Web maniacs applaud this as some fuzzy-headed form of democratization. They don’t understand that democracy respects and protects personal property – including intellectual property. I don’t think they’d be quite as sanguine about it if it were their paychecks being “democratized.”
Online content is now expected to be free. AdPulp has several thousand readers a day. You’re entitled to something for the news/entertainment/information you provide them. I know how hard you work. You work all day, every day to provide it. But they expect it for free. Why? Do they work for free?
2. As for brands wasting money on line, it’s like this. There have been a few big online advertising successes. But for every success there have been a thousand dismal flops. This is the dirty little secret that no one in marketing talks about.
Remember, advertising is a minor annoyance at best. Traditional advertising causes forced exposure – if you’re going to watch American Idol you have to see my Pepsi spot whether you want to or not. Online advertising is different. You have to volunteer for it. The idea that people will voluntarily turn themselves in, or can be tricked, coaxed, or charmed into interacting with most brands, is a fantasy propagated by naivete and ideology.
Yes, there have been a few big successes. They seem random and ad hoc. They are mostly one-offs.
Q. What’s the best thing about living in San Francisco? Is it a good city to conduct business?
A. San Francisco is a terrible city for business. Rents are high, taxes are high, salaries are high, living expenses are high, and most of the cab drivers are high.
The best thing about living here is that there are two baseball teams, good Mexican food, and a lot of bars.
Q. Would you pay to read any ad blogs? If so, which ones and why?
A. Advertising is a fairly interesting subject but most of the blog writing is dreary and predictable.
The only one I would pay to read is AdScam. Not because of the content, but because Parker is so funny.
Q. What’s the most important thing you do as CEO of the agency?
A. Keep my partners from killing each other.
Q. What do you think of Lee Clow’s media lab ideas? It seems he’s trying to rebrand (and expand) the agency offering.
A. I have some ideas about where the ad business is going. They are very different from Lee’s. If I were you, I’d bet on Lee.
Q. Will Hoffman/Lewis remain an indie shop?
A. Yes.
Q. Do you have a favorite TV show?
A. The only things I watch on TV are baseball, Seinfeld reruns and documentaries about sea otters.
Q. Who do you most admire in business and why?
A. Steve Jobs. The best ad guy of this generation.
Q. What’s the ad business going to look like in 20 years?
A. 1. It will look like the Japanese ad industry. A few huge entities controlling everything.
2. All ads will be “rated” by a highly politicized “consumer review board” and will have to display their ratings.
3. The internet will be the punchline to jokes about stupid, primitive technology.
4. Seth Godin will still be writing that advertising is dead.
5. Talking animals will still not be funny.
6. Copywriters will be required to wear capes and Mouseketeer ears.
Q. What’s your take on alternative compensation models? Should agencies and clients have a performance-based system in place?
A. Ideally, yes. The problem is it’s impossible to isolate the effect of advertising from all the other variables. Consequently analyzing success, in any realm other than direct response, is very difficult.
Q. Are you only as good as your last ad?
A. I’m even worse.

Previous interviews from this series: George Parker | Amber Case | Alan Wolk | David Rosen | Katharine Stone | Marc Babej



About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.