Kaori Saito, Founding General Manager, The Hoffman Agency Japan, Tokyo

Kaori Saito headshotKaori Saito launched our operation in Japan.

As you’ll hear from her, she didn’t want the job. I remember a breakfast meeting at Hobee’s and her challenging me with “Why do you even think I can do this job?”

But she was the right person for the job.

She was a maverick.

That’s what we needed to get off the ground in Japan.

Eventually, Kaori passed the baton of our Japan operation to her old boss at PRAP (local Japanese PR company), Shingo Nomura.

Kaori continued her career in our Silicon Valley office before going on to represent some of the highest profile brands in the tech industry (not named Apple).

We’re proud of Kaori’s accomplishments beyond her setting the stage for our success in Japan.

As for our company’s culture, it’s a byproduct of people like Kaori.

– Lou

“I Couldn’t Take Those Rude Emails Anymore”

I met Lou Hoffman through a PR industry site in 1999. Unfortunately, I no longer have the email account that I was using in those days, which is why I don’t have the emails we exchanged. It would be such fun to look at them now.

We exchanged emails regularly and spoke several times on the phone over a six-month period. I was looking for a job in NYC, and he was looking for a person who restart his own agency in Japan, instead of having a local partner. The situation created two challenges for me:

  1. I wanted to work in NYC, not in Tokyo.
  2. I had no idea how to start a company.

While I had several years’ experience in tech PR, I don’t know what made him think I could start a new office by myself. Lou suggested that I visit his headquarters in San Jose before I decline his offer. Since I was always happy to travel to the U.S., I agreed to drop by the San Jose office.

Visiting The Hoffman Agency in downtown San Jose changed my mind. I liked the corporate culture, and all the people I met there were professional, friendly and energetic. It made me feel that I wanted to be a part of the Hoffman team. So I let my NYC plan go and agreed to start Hoffman Japan in Tokyo.

The Hoffman Japan office started at my narrow table at a corner of my small kitchen in Tokyo with one Toshiba Libretto. I joined a business service center, so that I could use a better-sounding address for business and rent a meeting room when necessary.

Hoffman Agency business center

The early days of HA Japan working out of a business service center. The staff member front row far left eventually redirected her career, joining a local rock band.

In the early days of the office, most of my clients came through Hoffman headquarters. Those were the tech companies that didn’t have offices in Tokyo. Working with the San Jose team was fun and smooth. The clients were nice, and they appreciated all the coverage they received in Japan. They invited me to go on a whale watching cruise in Half Moon Bay and brought me to a team-building BBQ in Palo Alto. What sweet clients I had!

The challenges came when I started working with other Asia offices. Just as I had started the Japan office, other offices started to open up in other markets in Asia. Until that time, most of all the “foreigners” I had worked with were Americans and Europeans. My challenges were from other Asia offices. The emails I received from them sounded like “I need this by tonight” without “please” or “sorry to ask you a sudden request.” Every day, I wondered, “Why do I have to deal with those rude orders from the people I don’t even know? I didn’t join Hoffman, which is a Silicon Valley agency, to receive those rude emails from people in Asia.”

After a couple of months of dealing with those emails, I decided to end the situation. I almost didn’t care if the agency fired me. I told Lou that I couldn’t take those emails from Asia anymore, and I wanted to go to Hong Kong to talk to them face-to-face. I think Lou thought it was funny. He told me to go ahead and fly to Hong Kong and talk to the team directly.

So I flew to Hong Kong … and I learned that the people were not rude at all. The people on the Hong Kong team were amazingly kind and friendly. It was just a culture difference. It was such an eye-opening moment for me.

This cultural difference perspective was discussed at Hoffman’s regional and global events several times during my agency years. We discussed how to handle the friction between different cultures at our regional summit in Singapore and at global gatherings in San Jose. The interesting thing I’ve discovered during those activities was that the emails from Japanese and British can mislead the people in other markets because we try to be too polite. While I thought the emails I was receiving were too direct and rude, they were thinking my emails were unclear in what I was asking for. It became apparent to all of us that we should pick up the phone and talk when conversations get sensitive, which can happen often through emails among the people in different background and languages.

Being a part of The Hoffman Agency was one of the big turning points in my life as a PR professional. I learned a lot there — not only how to work in a diverse environment, but also how to work at the accelerated pace that Internet companies found necessary. I had amazingly great clients, which I never thought would become such big brands years later. A Seattle-based company was tough to work with because their expectations were so high all the time; however, they were such fun to work with. One night, we all were up at 2 a.m., connecting through the Internet to finish up a quarterly plan document in 60 minutes. A Silicon Valley-based company that became a tech giant later was still a newborn baby that had only $900 monthly fee when I first worked with them.

The people I met in my days at Hoffman are my good friends and advisers even today. I had great opportunities working with amazing people through my Hoffman experience.

With all these encounters, the most important thing I learned from The Hoffman Agency was the value of corporate culture. I don’t remember caring about it much until I joined the agency. During the years in Hoffman, I learned how corporate culture can affect the people who work there, as well as influence journalists and customers. You can’t see it, and it is hard to show it to other people outside of the company … but it is there. The power of what a company believes and what atmosphere the company offers is huge. I believe that corporate culture creates the foundation of the brand. Lou and all the Hoffman family taught me that without ever having to say it.

The Hoffman Agency built a great corporate culture, and I am certain that the culture will continue to shine. Congratulations on the 20th Anniversary, Hoffman Asia Pacific!