When we opened our sixth global office in Shanghai last month, a colleague jokingly asked, "How many offices do we need before we become a proper ‘global network’?" For an agency that still considers itself a start-up, international growth is a double-edged sword. Of course, you want to grow across borders to attract global clients. But with each office, your excitement is tempered with a healthy fear of becoming slow and cumbersome, which is exactly what went through my mind when I heard the words "global" and "network".
Yet the need for global networks is greater than ever. The power of digital technology is making the world smaller and more connected. However, established global businesses are finding it increasingly difficult to respond quickly enough to maximise the benefits made possible by this increasingly connected digital ecosystem.
It is the responsibility of a good strategic agency to lead by example. But worryingly, agencies with the capability to be global can often end up suffering from the same problems. They don’t accelerate clients, they conform to them.
Anyone who works for or with an established global brand knows how challenging it is to create a brand experience that is both global and connected, while not simply reverting to the lowest common denominator. The reality is that for most global businesses, the economies of scale that come with a centralised approach to marketing and customer experience development simply outweigh the benefits that come with developing a tailored experience in each market. This paradigm is being challenged as businesses transform to put digital and data at the heart of their strategy. However, the rate of change is slow, and it will be a long time before the biggest brands fully redress this balance.
As global networks (I just said it again), it is our job to help clients accelerate towards this transformed state. However, many agency structures are also built on idiosyncratic global versus local foundations. Whether it’s overly developed HQs from where the agency’s most prized talent, client relationships and work emanate, or counterproductive business models where offices aren’t motivated to share intelligence, skills and people; the industry has simply not been effective at setting up global businesses that are beacons for our clients, showcasing what is possible when you remove borders.
For agency networks to survive and then thrive, they will need to adopt business models that motivate collaboration and not place undue importance on certain geographies over others. They must strive to help clients become more nimble and increasingly connected, rather than top-down and siloed. They will bring world-class talent and experience to bear for global businesses in a way that is equal parts skilled, empowered, flexible and stable. And they’ll be able to do all this at the speed of culture.
Many of these principles have guided the way we’ve set-up our networked approach. It’s not perfect and it’s not always been easy, but things that are worthwhile rarely are.
Bill Brock is the founder and chief executive of AnalogFolk.