Going Global: A story for the ages

Perched on a bar-stool in what was once one of Soho's most popular after-work spots, Mark gazes out the window on a decent London day ...

He wipes away the foam from his upper lip and tries to look as important as one man can in a near-empty pub in the middle of the day. Mark spies Frank, walking with purpose, up the alley.

"Hey, Frank, over here," Mark shouts, as he pokes his head out the window. "Come on in and let me buy you a pint."

"Good to see you, ol' chap," Mark exclaims.

"Good to see you, too," Frank replies, as he promptly extends his hand.

After a few brief pleasantries about the wives and kids, Mark strains to find something to bridge the years in order to avoid the fast-approaching silence.

Mimicking a shadow boxer, Mark's eyes widen as he launches into the past: "Remember when we traded punches vying to run the shop ... something, ay?"

"That was almost three years ago," Frank declares, as he recoils from the make-believe punches, hoping not to revisit the events that transformed agency cohorts and drinking buddies into mere acquaintances.

"Hmm. Seems longer," Mark reflects.

"Yeah, I really thought I had it," Mark says. "After all, I had the education, the training and the big agency names under my belt. You'd been at the agency, for what, a year after landing here from the States?"

"Hey, remember when old-man Jacobs volunteered you to make that speech at Cannes?" Mark recounts. "Whatever happened to him anyway after the board dispatched him?"

"Painting on the coast, I think," Frank says.

Chuckling aloud, Mark rattles off the seemingly neverending list of insights Frank delivered that day in Southern France against the backdrop of the Great Recession. Insights that catapulted Frank to the forefront of the agency, while spelling the beginning of the end for Mark.

"You really surprised everyone when you went on and on about how clients could no longer afford to let strong markets cover weak markets because they didn't have the cash or credit anymore. How middle-market companies were going to take on the big guys because they weren't so leveraged or beholden to governments.

"And didn't you say that protectionism would reduce the global market into something you called 'Local Hamlets'? And, if I'm not mistaken, I think you even said that a slew of new regional brands would emerge, and that even existing global brands would be built market-by-market, from the bottom up, rather than from the top down."

A knowing smile overtakes Frank's face as he, too, recalls his wild ride at Cannes.

Mark pauses to catch his breath before polishing off his mental checklist: "And the topper was when you flashed those little sayings on the screen, like: Local is the new global; It's a bottom-up world; There are no global brands, just global businesses; Age of the entrepreneur; and Trust and collaboration = new agency currency.

"Good thing it was a big room, Frank, because there were more than just a few snickers - if you know what I mean. So what whacky notions are you working on now?"

Now, fully engaged in the conversation, Frank leans forward and states his case as if selling a client on a risky campaign: "Well, funny you should ask. I think technology is starting to isolate people so much, especially young adults, that they'll unplug from texting, Twitter, Facebook, and the like, and actually want to talk again. So while everyone's chasing data, the smart ones will develop new ways to enhance and utilise voice, and make it culturally relevant - market by market.

"As part of this, you'll see what I call pod marketing replace one-to-one marketing. People will actually want to be part of a group, or pod, rather than continually be singled out."

Seeing Mark slump in his chair somewhat bewildered, Frank picks up steam to further drive his sell: "Plus, clients, with the need to control costs and regain profits, don't have the resources and manpower to keep fragmenting their brand and messages across so many different platforms and venues. It's just too damn inefficient with not enough returns. Clients will house their pods of marketing among corresponding pods of agencies rather than dispersing a bunch of one-off ads among a bunch of disjointed specialists."

Now Frank is really into it, for his ability to connect the dots is what ultimately led the board to put him in charge of the agency's global accounts, and ultimately the entire agency - ahead of Mark.

"So, because of all of this, agencies will stop chasing tactics and one-off executions. We'll actually start telling and customising stories region by region around a simple, big idea. After all, the movies are doing it so we're soon to follow," Frank states emphatically. "Back to the future, my friend, with a bit of new technology thrown in for good measure."

"You're serious?" Mark inquires, with a shocked look on his once- rugged face. "But you've obviously been right before so who knows?" he says under his breath.

Quickly recalling the pain of a lost opportunity, Mark tries to close out the conversation as fast as he can: "Well, congratulations again, Frank. Damn if you buzzards haven't come out of nowhere to kick everyone's global butt with this whole organic, bottom-up, collaborative, local-market, building-block ... pod-marketing thing.

"Whoever thought that a 75-person shop could pull it off? But, then again, who ever thought the bloody recession would change the fundamentals of running global business, much less an agency?"

Frank interjects: "Well then. It's been great, Mark. Glad I bumped into you. I've got a client meeting to show them our new weekly budgeting model. Got to go with the flow, eh? Anyway, make sure to say 'hi' to Helen for me."

Mark solemnly replies: "Will do ... will do, Frank", as he returns his mug to the beer-stained table and instantly ponders what could have been, while facing what is.

- Al Moffatt is the president and chief executive of Worldwide Partners