Just like any other highly competitive talent-based industry, the
advertising business revolves around the constant search for
It’s often the only way that individual agencies can achieve any kind of
Hardly a month goes by when we don’t read of some agency ’totally
rethinking’ the way advertising is created: some months it’s the dawn of
the ’media-neutral integrated communications consultancy’; other months
it’s hot-desking and mobile telephones, client-friendly workspaces and
payment by results.
Now, if you talk to clients about the issues which most concern them, an
increasing proportion will confirm that building their brands abroad is
somewhere around the top of the list. Most are reasonably indulgent
about the cavorting of the advertising agencies and their frantic
attempts to appear innovative. Clients appear to see this as a necessary
ritual dance which helps them to distinguish a little more easily
between otherwise rather similar businesses.
But when it comes to talking about new ways of operating
internationally, the advertising industry, despite reinventing itself
with tiresome regularity, has absolutely nothing new to offer. It’s
still flogging the same basic, distributed network concept that J.
Walter Thompson invented exactly 100 years ago: a full-service, fully
staffed advertising agency in as many countries as you can possibly
think of - and then a few more just for good measure.
Globalisation is creating a tidal wave of businesses which require the
hunger, dynamism, flexibility and creativity of the domestic hotshop,
combined with the maturity, geographical reach and local sensitivity of
the traditional networks. The networks were never designed for
international advertising, they were designed for multilocal
advertising. And the need is acute for a new kind of resource that is
purpose-built for developing regional and global campaigns.
The internet is a fundamental part of the picture. For the first time in
history, we have a medium that is international by default; what you say
and what you show on the internet is everywhere, instantly. An
often-repeated point, but worth mentioning: it costs no more time, money
or effort for a consumer in Ethiopia to access the menu of a sandwich
bar in Alberta than it does for an investor in New Zealand to view the
prospectus of a mutual fund in Norway. That fund and that sandwich bar
are global businesses now whether they like it or not.
So the tidal wave is gathering pace and, in the absence of any
satisfactory alternative, the big agency networks are still carrying out
more than 80 per cent of all the international work that’s going -
despite the fact that by no means all their clients actually need a
geographically distributed solution, or such a heavily resourced one
The remaining 20 per cent consists of those valiant and conscientious
businesses that are prepared to bear the extra financial and
administrative cost of hiring a different domestic shop in each of their
markets and themselves take on the burden of creating brand synergies,
encouraging message consistency, maintaining common standards, sharing
best practice and co-ordinating the efforts of all those fiercely
When I started out in advertising, I joined the London office of a major
international advertising agency as a junior copywriter. I was so very
junior that they put me by myself in a tiny windowless room in the
basement, somewhere between the boiler room and the staff canteen, and
set me to work writing small-space, black-and-white trade ads for sheep
Soon after I joined, an account manager wandered down my corridor,
waving a TV script and wailing pitifully: ’Does anybody here speak
French?’ Fool that I was, I dashed from my room to volunteer and was
instantly demoted to the position of international co-ordinator.
International creative issues
For what seemed like a very long time, I flitted like an unwelcome ghost
between our offices around the world and was vaguely expected to monitor
and report on international creative ’issues’ (whatever those might
It was a truly fascinating experience and little by little a picture
began to emerge.
The first thing I noticed was that we seemed to be extremely bad at
doing international work. For some reason, the moment two or more
offices were asked to collaborate on any project, things sort of fell
apart. People stopped talking to each other, everybody became extremely
critical of everybody else’s ideas and exceedingly protective of their
own, and I began to hear a certain phrase, which was destined to become
painfully familiar to me in the years that followed: ’This will never
work in my market.’
It became apparent that a psychopath in his worst nightmares could not
have invented a worse way to do international advertising campaigns than
an international advertising agency network.
It’s actually quite obvious once you start to think about it. The reason
why people in advertising agencies bother to get up in the morning is
because they love to create ads. Their raisons d’etre are, in no
particular order: coming up with great creative ideas, casting glamorous
models, going on location to Tahiti, winning awards, and getting rich
and famous. Who can blame them?
But what happens on an international campaign is that only one agency -
the so-called ’lead’ agency - actually gets to do all that exciting
strategic, creative and production stuff while the rest of the network
is expected to sit obediently at home, waiting for the fun to be over,
so that they can get to work diligently crafting ’adaptations’ of the
work for use in their own market.
Hardly surprising that our overseas offices often became obstructive and
intractable. More often than not they’d give it to a junior account
executive to translate or palm it off on to the local client (who, in
one case, regularly passed the ads on to his nine-year-old daughter to
translate for her homework).
At the time, we laughed about this problem and called it the ’not
invented here syndrome’. But this didn’t begin to do justice to the
sheer scale and the utterly crippling effect of the problem, or, indeed,
to calculate how damaging it was to the already fragile relationships
that existed between the network’s offices and to the quality of our end
It’s no exaggeration to say that what we were asking these people to do
was humiliating to them. Copywriters and art directors don’t get paid
what they get paid because they can write or draw nicely: they get paid
because they can come up with astonishing new concepts to galvanise the
performance of their clients’ brands. Out of thin air. When you let them
do it and when they’re good at it, it’s almost like magic.
But we never did let them do it, and we acted all surprised and
frustrated when they gave it to the receptionist to translate and took
our meagre comfort in complaining bitterly about the obstinacy of
After a few tries, I discovered that it wasn’t much fun being the lead
agency either. I remember that the first time an international brief
landed on my desk, I was wildly excited about it. I pictured my creative
work running in dozens of countries around the world. I may even have
called my mother.
But after the second or third time that I’d been practically reduced to
tears by a grim voice on the phone, somewhere in the network, muttering
’Zis vill not vork in my market!’, I found that all the pleasure had
The malignant presence of the network was like a grey cloud, hovering
over our heads. ’Sod this,’ we all said, ’let’s stick to local work. At
least we’ll only be arguing with the client.’
The reality, of course, is that an advertising agency is basically an
out-tray: its particular skill lies in creating new messages and sending
them out into the world. When it is expected to act as an in-tray for
other people’s concepts and other people’s projects, it won’t do it well
and it won’t do it willingly.
And advertising is just like anything else in this world; it’s good when
it’s done with love. But the network seems purpose-built to ensure that
as many people as possible treat every part of the process with as much
hatred and irritation as possible.
In a network, what ought to be a creative process - for all these
reasons - ends up as a destructive process. Somebody somewhere starts
off with a good creative idea, which is interesting, striking and
resembles an irregular, spiky, multi-pointed star.
Then they ask people around the network to check it out for use in their
markets as, of course, they must. And those people, naturally piqued at
not being invited to contribute to the creative process are more
inclined to propose massive, utterly damning objections than helpful
So they immediately set about thinking of all the reasons why it’s no
good for their country - because it’s not their idea and because they
won’t get the credit if it works (although they’ll most certainly get
the blame if it doesn’t).
So the French creatives knock off one point from the star because it
might just be considered offensive in their market. And the woman from
the German office says that somebody else did something a bit like it
last year; off goes another point. The Italians can’t live with the
humour in the headline, so that goes too. Fairly soon, that interesting,
striking, spiky idea starts to look something like a smooth and tiny
By this stage, the honour of the natives being satisfied and the energy
of the ’lead’ creatives exhausted, time has usually run out and the
network thus arrives at the chosen creative idea for its international
Extracting any kind of agreement on any subject from a large group of
brilliant, determined, excitable and creative people from around the
world is not a task for the faint-hearted. Those who prosper in and
relish such roles are the politicians and the diplomats, not the
creatives or the perfectionists.
And that’s why all those honest attempts to find the idea that everybody
loves invariably end up in a desperate 11-hour struggle to find the idea
that nobody minds.
In consequence, most of the international advertising campaigns in the
world are desperately dull and boring and bland and soulless because
it’s the stuff that nobody minds.
I began to suspect that the truth about networks was rather simple and
rather bleak. If a client company wants an advertising campaign to run
in 16 countries, it needs 16 advertising agencies like it needs a hole
in the head.
Simon Anholt is the founder and chairman of World Writers. This article
is adapted from his book Another One Bites The Grass, published by John
Wiley & Sons.