Leadership + People: Episode 45 - Jacob Hoehne - Part 1 of 2

In this episode Jacob Hoehne shares how asking the right questions and client recommendations helped them landed a Project with Goldman Sachs and the Vatican. Hoehne addresses the ameture mistakes of marketing and how to turn the focus back to the audience.

Show Notes

  • Focus first on the why of the story and the brands mission and then on the technical components of how it will be captured [00:13]
  • How a small project recommendation lead to a project costing hundreds of thousands of dollars [02:38]
  • Keeping people at the center; audience, stakeholders, creators [09:19]
  • Always asking if the task at hand will fulfill the aim. ie. help a woman in Africa be able to use her financial statements to make more educated decisions, to stay on target when working on a dozen different deliverables [09:19]
  • On multifaceted projects with many collaborators, work for face to face time to create a more unified vision [10:10]
  • Dig deep in sharing an organization’s story. Go for the roots and not the leaves [12:07]
  • Don’t be afraid to offend some people to attract the right people [12:07]
  • Place your customer as the hero of the story, your product or company is just the sidekick in helping them succeed [12:07]
  • It is possible to do for profit work that also is for good [17:07]

Show Audio


  • Collins, James C. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t. New York, NY: Harper Business, 2001. Print.
Jacob Hoehne 1

This episode of Leadership and People was originally released on: August 14th, 2018

Show Transcript

[BEGINS] 00:00

[Welcome to Leadership and People. This is a series that pulls back the curtain on leadership by interviewing CEOs, Senior Executives and Entrepreneurs who had large exits. We ask these experts about how they built trusted networks to rapidly grow their companies.  And what advice they wish they knew if they could do it all again.] omitted from recording

JL: Welcome to Leadership and People. I’m Jess Larson and today on the show, we’ve got Jacob Hoehne, CEO of ISSIMO Storytelling Agency. Did I say that right?

JACOB HOEHNE: Story Agency, yeah.

00:13 JL: Story Agency. So for everybody who doesn’t know the difference or talk about the branding there. Why refer to yourselves as a story agency?

Story Before Tech

JACOB HOEHNE: Yeah. I think you know there’s a lot of things that, you know, with a production company I think the focus is on the equipment and the tools and the deliverables. And what we found in terms of what our clients chose us for and where we added the most value, was everything outside of that, as well. So it was everything before the camera started rolling. And really, we had a clients tell us, ‘you’re asking questions I wish our agency of record would ask’.  You know, we tend to be really deep in terms of that, of getting into a brand’s why and what they want to be when they grow up and what they’re… and why they deserve to exist on the planet. And understanding who they are before we talk about what camera we’re going to bring or what, you know. So in a way productions was too focused on just the technical media side. And really it’s about crystallizing peoples’ story. Then using a megaphone to blast that to the world.

01:39 JL: Yeah. Well when you think about the last, you know, dozen years you’ve run this company and how you’ve gotten to work with such big clients like Goldman Sachs and the Vatican and {?} and these folks. What do you attribute that to?

JACOB HOEHNE: That’s a good question. I think there’s… You know, the simple answer is all of them came from relationships. You know. As much as big companies, you know they’re still run by human beings. There are still people involved. And they have all come about because of introductions or connections of people who knew us or trusted us and recommended us. And…

02:33 JL: Yeah. [rustling noises]

JACOB HOEHNE: That was just really loud rustling. Ok.

02:38 JL: So when you think about that, there, let’s take one like Goldman Sachs. Can you tell everybody about the project you’ve done and the show is called Leadership and People. Obviously there is all sorts of staff and moving parts to organize. Can you talk about what the project was and leading a project like that?

Reach of Client Recommendations

JACOB HOEHNE: Yeah sure. I mean, so the Goldman Sachs foundation is particularly focused on how do they help small businesses and women. And so there are ten thousand  women and ten thousand small businesses programs. And one of the challenges they are facing is they are located in, you know, they partner with a number of community colleges around the country. And throughout the UK. But they wanted to be able to get this message a little farther and wider and provide more value with the curriculum they created. And so particularly for a small business owners and women in developing countries, where the access to community college or other resources was just really limited. And so the way that kind of came about. We did, actually a small little project for a client locally who got invited back to Goldman Sachs in New York to present and she showed the video that we created. And they, because of that invited us to bid on the project and we won the bid. And it was all because of a project we could have done in our sleep. But they were impressed enough to think ‘ok well’.  It had a bit of a novel delivery with some video cards and some ways that we designed mailers to you know tell their story when they open the card and other things. It was nothing revolutionary but it was the right person seeing and making that connection and having a recommendation from our client. You know at the right time and they invited us to bid. So…

04:58 JL: Yeah.

JACOB HOEHNE: That was kind of the mechanics of it, I mean. I don’t know if we would have ever been on their radar otherwise.

05:05 JL: Yeah. So when you think about, you know. As you and I have talked about that project before. These big projects end up in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. When you think about leading that, what do you feel like are… What’s kind of your leadership methodology? You know you’ve got to get a lot of humans to corporate? [chuckle] There’s a bunch of things that goes into anything creative. And especially for an organization of that caliber there’s obviously a certain production quality and a certain brand identity, brand voice that I’m sure they wanted matched. Can you just tell us a little bit about your leadership philosophy when you’ve got all those moving parts.

JACOB HOEHNE: Yeah. I mean I think….

06:00 JL: For starters, how many videos was it?

JACOB HOEHNE: Yeah. Well I can describe the scope really quickly.

06:06 JL: Yeah. Yeah.

The Goldman Sachs Project

JACOB HOEHNE:  So I mean, the first… They have ten modules that they teach at the community colleges currently. So we were taking two of those. And really the first month and half was going through and saying; ok what makes sense to translate for an online delivery. And which things are really best left in the one on one or in a classroom setting. Or you know? And so particularly when it’s messy or undefined, that’s particularly where you need more of a consultant and not just a technician. We went into it not knowing, is this going to be fifteen videos? Is this going to be no videos and just an interactive website. So we really didn’t have, we kind of went in platform agnostic and delivery agnostic, in terms of what the deliverables would be.  And what we determined through that, I mean we brought in an instructional designer consultant on that to have that particular focus. But ended up having two interactive games. There were four animations. Four live action videos. Some were scripted and filmed with actors. Other ones were actual participants from around the world sharing their experiences. So we went and filmed in London and two places in India and LA and Houston to show these principles apply to all sorts of different business, all different sizes and different places around the world. And there were infographics. And there was a learning management system. And this was plugged in too. So a lot of different pieces and deliverables. But at the end of the day they all had to have a unified message. They had to have, the story had to resonate and be cohesive throughout. And so we didn’t do the coding or the games or building the website or doing the, you know, the instructional design or content. But all of those pieces had to filter through what’s the core story they are trying to tell make sure they all played together well. And so yeah, several hundred thousand dollar project over several months. And you know, a dozen different deliverables, was kind of the scope of that thing.

08:58 JL: So when you think about that, you know, traveling around the world, different folks, different skill sets, different deliverable. What is kind of your leadership philosophy for approaching what you do there?

JACOB HOEHNE: I don’t know if I’ve ever thought of it that way.

09:19 JL: Or what are some of the lessons or the principles that have done well for you?

First and Foremost: Helping People

JACOB HOEHNE: Yeah I think one of- one of the things is like, that’s one of our core values, is that idea of put people first. Both in taking care of people as opposed to projects. But then also keeping the people who are touching that project in mind. Like having the audience first and foremost. Especially with a large organization like that. There are layers upon layers upon layers of approvals. There are a lot of different stakeholders. And getting really crystal clear of what the vision is, what the objectives are. So a question we like to, you know it’s kind of a Clayton Christensen questions but; what’s the job to be done. And having that be sort of our guiding star for it. Because you can have, whether it’s scope, creep or just drift of message, of like why are we doing this. If this isn’t helping a female entrepreneur in Sub Saharan Africa be able to read her financial statements then we shouldn’t do it. That’s sort of the guiding thing. How do we help someone who maybe doesn’t have access to other educational resources. If they can use this does it help them better use their financial statements to make educated decisions to get financing or whatever they need. So a lot of it was around those ideas. And when you get, you know because there were the educational partner who created the content. They brought in Thunderbird University to help with the online distribution part and consulting. And we’re trying to quarterback all these different parties, and having that clearly defined. And one of the things we did upfront was get all, or as many of the people as possible in the same room. We met in Phoenix and spent two days together getting on the same page about all this. You know, 5 minutes of face to face can save a thousand emails. You know, sometimes. That isn’t always possible. And there is obviously a lot of different tools you can use. But whenever possible, especially when there are a lot of different parties and different interests, nothing beats face to face and being in the same room.

12:07 JL: Yeah. You know. So I want to talk about this for a little bit because so many of the rest of us who run organizations, we get told over and over and most of us believe that telling a good story is going to help us accomplish our goals faster. You know whether it’s recruiting better staff, whether it’s attracting clients, whether it’s retaining clients. You know that story type connection instead of just a list of features. We all know that it creates more of that emotional connection. And as content marketing has been on the rise for the last decade, most people have done something with that. Right? For those of us who aren’t in it 24/7, what are some kind of rookie mistakes you see folks make. Or what are some of the things from your perspective the rest of us can learn from as you’ve gone through these lessons over twelve years straight.

Rookie Mistakes in Story Telling

JACOB HOEHNE: Yeah. I mean I think, you know there’s this idea of a lot of people tend to hack at the branches or try to pluck leaves instead of thinking about the roots of their story. A lot of that is the why. What got you started in the first place? Or what was the intention of the founders? What are your core values that you actually… or what are your authentic values? What do you actually live by? What can you be true to? And understanding that or having that defined. A lot of times we hear, you know, well we know it even if it’s not a spoken thing, it’s felt. And that works to a point but as soon as you need to share that message outside of that inner circle. If you’re growing or there are new hires. Or there’s a merger or you’re trying to attract new customers. It’s really essential that you’re clear about who you are and who you aren’t. It’s an obvious rookie mistake or red flag of saying everyone is my customer. You know. Really great brands are like magnets. You know, they have a really strong pull. And so they attract people. But they also repel the other side. So if you are not repelling some people, then you’re probably not attracting the right kind of people.  If you’re trying to tell a story that doesn’t offend anyone, or doesn’t- or is trying to cater to everyone. It is irrelevant to everyone. Part of that is trying to understand- its an internal focus first. We kind of call it- You don’t want to be a morning news politician. So you wake up in the morning, turn on the news. You see what morning news is about. See what the polls are. And that’s how you decide how you’re going to vote. Or what you are going to stand for that day. And sometimes that shows up in ‘ Oh there’s this great opportunity’. But if you don’t look internally first. If you don’t know who you are and what as an organization and what you stand for and what you can be authentic to, then chasing opportunities… it’s not going to be sustainable. You’re not really going to be authentic to it. And so market fit is important but first knowing where you stand and then finding who are the people that are attracted by that message. And then when you are true to that you are going to speak to their hearts far better than just trying to be a market opportunist. And the other thing is realizing that you are not the hero in your story. You are the sidekick. Most brands get that wrong. And try to put themselves up as the hero when really it’s about your audience’s perspective. They need to be the hero and how do you support them in getting to their quest or across the finish line. And so some brands do a fantastic job with that. I mean Home Spot has done that for years in terms of promoting their customers and how they are succeeding. And the underlying message is the tools they are using are helping them succeed. But it’s the customers who are the heros. Maybe you are Gandalf giving wise advice or you’re Samwise Gamgee and you’re the loyal friend who is going to be there with them. I mean whatever that character is, or story or analogy you want to drop. But those are some common mistakes that we see.

17:07 JL: Yeah. Seems like getting a hold of ego kind of bringing some humility to it. And thinking about the customer first. Thinking about the audience first.

For Profit and For Good

JACOB HOEHNE: Yeah. I mean and one of the things that has been an interesting thing is we’ve kind of pivoted. We’ve been in business 12 years but it’s really been in this last year that we’ve kind of narrowed what we want to do. And it’s been really energizing. And in one way it can feel like, did we waste 11 years of just sort of being a one size fits all shop. In just serving local customers and being whatever they need us to be. I mean it is what it is. So we did a project with the Vatican Laudato Si’ Challenge in helping give voice to their message and what they stand for. And it’s really about doing good in the world is good for business. That you can do for profit and do for good. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive. And we’ve had this false notion that we have to sort of… If you are going to succeed you have to treat people poorly or you’ve got to rape and pillage the earth. Or you know, you’ve got to… It’s this false dichotomy. It’s been a really energizing transition to focus on for profit for good. You know, cause-brand,  mission-driven type organizations. So what we’ve found is like ok, we happen to be really good at that. And we love telling those kinds of stories. And the market has rewarded us really well for that. And so it’s sort of that hedgehog concept in Good to Great. You know that venn diagram of overlapping those things. And that is fluid. You know, the pieces were always there. Throughout the years we were always doing it, we had to cap it at two per year for pro bono projects for nonprofits that we wanted to do. And then we made money over here selling widgets and what have you. And it’s been exciting to just, you know, the way we are going to make a difference in the world is the same way we are going to make a living. And trying to help elevate and promote stories of brands and organizations that are doing good in the world. And that…

20:05 JL: I love it. In fact, this is kind of what I want to spend the second half of the interview on. This is actually a good place for us to end part 1 of the interview. Everybody please tune in. We are going to keep talking about this subject. You know it’s something a lot of CEOs and a lot of organizations are interested in. I think it’s actually worth a deeper dive. So thanks everybody for listening to part 1. Tune into part 2 where we are going to dive deeper in this.

[END] 20:34