Going Global: Images travel - but ideas thrive

Images can take a campaign international, but it's the strength of ideas that will really unlock its potential. Just ask the US president-elect Obama.

You don't need me to tell you how successful Barack Obama's presidential campaign was. And you certainly don't need me to analyse the communications strategy behind it. Even before the dust had settled, that job had been done many times.

But what struck me as I travelled around my territory during the US election race was the ease with which the Obama brand crossed borders.

In cities from Amsterdam to Zurich, I saw T-shirts bearing Obama's image, along with the now familiar messages: "Hope", "Change" and "Yes we can". Not that I wish to disparage the president-elect's international supporters, but I'm sure many of the people wearing those T-shirts had only a cursory knowledge of his policies. Obama was no longer a mere politician. He had become an idea.

I found this highly relevant, because, in our business, we're constantly grappling with the global management of ideas. Ironically, despite the fact that it's now almost 45 years since Marshall McLuhan first wrote of "the global village", that task has become increasingly difficult.

In the early days of TBWA, our main concern was that our network was too diffuse. We were worried that we had gaps here and there; that the disparate agencies were not working closely enough together. Today, I think, most people agree that our network is highly cohesive. But wrangling with those ideas has not become any easier. Digital media and empowered consumers have seen to that.

So how on earth can we ensure that our ideas cross borders with the agility of Obama, without becoming distorted along the way? For a start, I'm utterly convinced by what my friend Jean-Marie Dru described in Cannes as "the beauty of big". Other may disagree, but I personally feel that, in order to manage ideas on a global basis, you need a big, seamless network.

After that, the approach depends on each specific client. As most readers will be aware, there's no cookie-cutter solution. You need the answers to several questions. What is the strategic direction of the client's company? Is it national, regional or global? What is its attitude regarding the standardisation of products and marketing?

If the client wants to change its positioning, does it envisage a gradual change or a revolution? Or does it want both, depending on the market? And is the decision-making process centralised or decentralised? One interesting exercise is to put these questions to the HQ and the local markets. The answers are always revealing - and most often different.

International co-ordination within an agency is no less fraught with sensitivities. It should not lead to a loss of local initiative, a lack of local competitiveness, or the demotivation of local staff. It could lead to a single interface for all regions, cost-efficiencies, the input of many creative talents and a coherent execution of an idea across several media. What it must achieve, however, is control of the client's most valuable asset: its brand image around the world.

As you all know, a fairly effortless way of handling global communications is to focus purely on the visual. Thus, copy disappears from print advertising to make way for stunning visuals and big logos. Dialogue vanishes from TV spots, resolving the problem of local adaptation.

I'm not knocking this method, which we've deployed as often as our fellow agencies. As Dr Rolf Kunisch, the former chief executive of Beiersdorf, has said: "Images travel, words don't."

But what if radio turns out to be the right solution, for instance? Or if you want to develop relationships with each market's leading bloggers? Or simply to create local websites, for that matter? Suddenly, words become crucially important. And so does size.

A large network has access to talent in all these fields. That's what we mean at TBWA when we say we're specialists in "Media Arts". It's about juggling ideas and distributing them across media in a way that both entertains and engages.

The beauty of big is also the beauty of flexibility, and to be honest with you, we have as many different approaches as we have clients. We have straightforward global campaigns. We have regional hub-and-spoke campaigns. We have local executions of global strategies. And a few other configurations that I don't have room for here.

But one thing remains unchanged - and that is the primacy of the idea. After all the pondering and perspiration, communicating on a global basis comes down to that. You need a solid idea. You need a single positioning that everyone can relate to. But more than that, it has to be so inspiring that it can be interpreted in thousands of ways, across many different media, without ever losing its meaning.

We've had a few ideas like that at TBWA. They're strangely logical, yet reassuringly provocative. We call them "disruptive". You know what they are, so I don't have to mention them again. Oh, all right then - you've twisted my arm. The likes of "Think different", "Impossible is nothing" and "In an Absolut world". These propositions are so crystal clear that you can adapt them to any environment. In fact, that has to be the case. There's no room for error. Because today, we're not just communicating in different markets - we're talking to individuals.

Once the idea is watertight, you can sit back and let the talented people in your network come up with brilliant interpretations. And they'll be able to do so again and again. Images may travel, but great ideas have a life of their own.

- Perry Valkenburg is the chief operating office of TBWA\International and the president of TBWA\Europe.