About this time last year, the IPA and the Advertising Association joined forces to encourage British agencies to sell their wares on the global stage. Their argument was a compelling three-fold pitch: the UK is already a centre of excellence for marketing services; in particular, it has a record of creativity that is admired around the world; and crucially, it has long led the way on effectiveness, thanks to the unrivalled IPA Awards and Databank. With Brexit on the horizon, our trade bodies called for British agencies to look outwards and show the world what we can do.
So what’s happened since then? Well, despite the scars caused by the referendum, there are some encouraging signs that the industry is moving beyond Leave or Remain and is embracing the more pragmatic need to export. I’m not just talking about developing outstanding global campaigns, although there have been some great examples of this, led by the likes of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO’s "Viva la vulva". I mean more permanent forays abroad: the kind of international ventures that are much higher risk than a bit of transcreation, but potentially much more rewarding, too.
Most notably, Mother has opened an office in Shanghai, We Are Social has launched in Tokyo and we have set up own camp in New York. More Brits will try their luck, no doubt: partly because our domestic market is relatively small and experiencing single-digit growth and partly because the best agencies have a swashbuckling desire to sail to the ends of the earth and test themselves in a hostile environment.
In fact, if you’re running a half-decent agency, and have any sense of ambition, you’ll need to consider your global strategy at some point. But as you do your research, you’ll also become painfully aware of how many great names have failed miserably in this task. So why is that – and how can you avoid it?
Adapt to local markets
Well, the downfall of most agencies’ export strategies is that they fail to adapt to the local market. Typically, they’ve reached those foreign shores on a wave of domestic success but get wrecked on the rocks of arrogance and hubris. They assume that their reputation will travel before them and automatically open doors. They send their own nationals and end up feeling like clueless colonials at best, or invading aliens at worst. They don’t make an effort to understand the local culture, make friends or learn new tricks. They launch with work for global clients that they’ve inherited, rather than local brands they’ve won.
This failure to assimilate has been the cause of so many foreign flops that it’s the first warning all would-be exporters receive. However, assuming you avoid this minefield, there’s another challenge lying in wait, just beyond the beachhead. One that perhaps receives less attention.
This is the risk that, in trying to blend in with the locals, you lose sight of your origins and the DNA that made you special in the first place. Stray too far in this direction and your outpost can feel just that: an isolated, under-resourced community that lacks any connection to the mothership. Clients who think they’re buying into a global brand (after all, that’s what we encourage them to create) find out that the local offices barely know each other, let alone have anything in common.
Prioritise local work
You can hopefully see that these two dangers represent diametrically opposed threats – a little bit like those old sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis (sorry, if I’ve gone a bit Boris there). In our case, we’ve tried to navigate our way past them by hiring a blended team (if nothing else, our management trio is surely the best Texan-Argentinian-Norfolkian team in Manhattan), prioritising local work (one of our first briefs was for Busch beer and centred on Nascar, so we were literally off to the races) and making sure all our new hires spend time in London as part of their induction. This seems to be paying off as we’re now more than 20-strong and have half a dozen clients, both American and international. But we’re not complacent: far from it.
On our agency wall on 5th Avenue, there’s a vintage shirt for the New York Generals. It’s a beautiful retro design, with a super-cool badge, betraying their story as an iconic 1960s soccer club. At their height, they played out of the Yankee Stadium and their international all-star team beat Pele’s visiting Santos side from Brazil. The snag is that they only lasted two years, before going spectacularly bust. Obviously, we hope that we will enjoy better luck than those other Generals but the shirt serves as a useful reminder to balance swagger with humility. For all those fellow dreamers, hoping to conquer the world this year, we salute you. But as you get your boots on the ground, make sure you don’t get too big for them.
Andy Nairn is co-founder of Lucky Generals