WHEN NETWORKS DON’T WORK: Advertising is like anything else in this world. It’s good when it’s done with love, but with global campaigns networks seem to be purpose-built to treat every part of the process with as much hatred as po

Just like any other highly competitive talent-based industry, the advertising business revolves around the constant search for innovation.

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

independent players.

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

minor modifications.

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

advertising campaign.

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.