Leadership in advertising is not only achieving financial success and stature in the business. It is also the influence leaders have on the lives of those they worked with at their agencies. The career of Ronnie Hoffman, one of the first woman creative directors at a major Rx agency, must include the inspirational role she played for employees, principally young women, who were with her at Gross Townsend Frank Hoffman (now Grey Healthcare Group) in the 1980s.
She exerted her influence as an outstanding copywriter, but even more significantly, it was her one-of-a kind personality that so profoundly affected those around her. Hoffman is remembered for her passionate approach to living—music, theater, art, food, social causes, friendships, and healthcare advertising. She was a forceful advocate for the role of Rx advertising in advancing improved treatments to save lives and improve the quality of living. Accordingly, her enthusiastic spirit led her to exhaustive study of the science of products, to enrich the promotional message with motivating insights for physicians and patients and to be able to distill brand virtues to simple, direct copy.
David Frank, who worked with Hoffman for many years, describes her approach to writing headlines and text: “On the one hand, she was this analytical, scientific type, and at the same time she was able to take very complex information, that she understood completely…and break it down into bite-size ‘chunks,’ which was her phrase…to make [copy] telegraphic and easily understood.”
She applied this technique to good advantage on Merck’s Tonocard, for which she wrote the headline/slogan, “Like Lidocaine, But It’s Oral.” She also brought her direct approach to the launch of Merck’s mega-brand Mevacor, as well as a marketing vision for the product that included an agency recommendation for broad-scale cholesterol screening—an indication of her sense of the public health value of pharmaceuticals. The agency’s assignments from Merck led to Hoffman’s involvement in the formulation of the company’s brand positioning system that employs all elements—color, graphics, logo, type, headlines and copy—to project a product personality.
The strength of her copy was its simplicity and honesty. Lynn O’Connor Vos, Grey’s current CEO who was an AE on the Merck account, recalls what happened when an FDA-mandated “black box” letter, written by Hoffman, was sent out on Tonocard: “Prescriptions went up! Ronnie told that story over and over again. She’d explain, ‘If doctors know the truth, they’ll get comfortable with the product and they’ll write more.'”
Although those who knew Ronnie Hoffman praise her scientific acumen, writing talent, and appreciation of the business, they tend to concentrate on her personality and the impact she had on their lives. Lori Spielberger, now creative director copy at LM&P Questar, was a copy typist at GTFH who Hoffman helped make the jump to copywriter.
In an appreciation of her, Spielberger says, “Ronnie gave me a career…her belief in me, in a kind of easy way, without making a big deal of it, but just opening the door for me…in a sort of ‘Come on in. It’s great in here,’ changed my life.”
Risa Bernstein, co-president and managing partner of Flashpoint Medica, adds, “Ronnie was all about infectious enthusiasm. Everyone she touched could feel it. She was the persona we all became. She helped groom a generation in our industry, a group of kids, to grow up and love this business. And she had an amazing impact on women because, here she was, one of the trailblazing women [at medical agencies].”
Says Ilyssa Levins, chairperson of GCI, Grey’s PR group, on Hoffman’s supportive qualities, “She cared about people…she was able to take you into the folds of her…to embrace you in her life…and make you feel that there was no one more important than you.”
Speaking of GTFH when Hoffman was creative director, Lynn Vos says, “It was an agency of very young people. We grew up with Ronnie Hoffman. She was the first person I worked with who was that smart and that engaging. She set a standard of excellence and brilliance that was inspirational and you wanted to achieve at that same level. And it was fun working with Ronnie. She made coming to work a blast.”
Hoffman’s fervent passion for her work came, not surprisingly, with a stubbornness, even a combativeness, with colleagues and even clients about copy and marketing ideas she believed in.
Recalls Ilyssa Levins, “You couldn’t push her. She was unmovable…[but] all difficulties with Ronnie were resolved most of the times with peals of laughter. Just like [in a family] you can get angry, but then you move back, and continue on, knowing that the people really care about you, and everything’s okay.”
Hoffman was active in the early days of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association. She was the featured speaker at the group’s first large gathering and made an impassioned address on the need for a forum to help further the careers of women in medical advertising. What she said was to set the direction for the organization.
In June 1991, while at work at the agency, she was stricken by a cerebral aneurysm. She lingered in a coma for weeks and died on September 3, 1991. The untimely death of the vigorous, passionate, and generous woman who was such a force at GTFH and in the industry stunned the agency and everyone who knew her. She was such an unusual talent, with such a capacity to inspire others, and she played such a major role in advancing the careers of women in Rx advertising that the imprint she made on our industry remains indelible.