The World: How the UK's ad pioneers are faring Stateside

Attempting to conquer the Big Apple has proved a major challenge for even the best of British agencies, Ann Cooper writes.

Whether you call them invaders or entrepreneurs, most UK agencies setting up in New York favour a slow, low-key strategy. They are in it for the long haul, with each taking a measured approach to the Big Apple's notoriously unwelcoming attitude to carpetbaggers.

Such arrivistes have included M&C Saatchi, which hung out its New York shingle in 1994, Bartle Bogle Hegarty, which landed amid much fanfare in 1998, the media agency Michaelides & Bednash, which arrived in 2001, and Mother, which created a media frenzy when it opened an office in 2003.

But timing is everything. And, now, more than ever, the improving economy, a changing media climate and more openness on the part of clients translates into opportunities for UK agencies. Naked, the UK strategic planning consultancy with international clients such as Coca-Cola, certainly thinks so. It plans to launch across the Pond within months. "We're being led by demand and we're meeting potential clients and going through the process," John Harlow, one of Naked's founders, says. "We want to do it at our own pace and get it right."

Harlow, who plans to tout a service called The Big Tool, says feedback has been positive. "Half-a-dozen agencies want to work with us," he says. "With clients such as Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola leading the way toward communications planning, we want to focus on the right people who can deliver an authentic US feel. We don't want an all-Brit line-up."

M&C Saatchi arrived in the US mainly to service British Airways. The aim, Tom Dery, the executive chairman, Asia-Pacific and the US, says, was always to grow slowly. "We wanted to offer good local service combined with global thinking. We're not a big network and we use our resources tightly."

In 1999, it opened an LA service office, which won accounts including Ketel One, Qantas and the San Diego Zoo. "LA started later and is a different business model, using local resources and calling in satellites as required," Dery says. "Our ambitions are not that different today. We don't want to be the biggest, but the most sought-after."

In 2001, the media planning company Michaelides & Bednash opened a New York office with three people.

"We worked with Unilever in the UK, and wanted a US footing to develop the relationship," the co-founder George Michaelides says. Three months after it arrived, the events of 11 September happened.

"It was terrible," Michaelides recalls. "Clients weren't doing anything. Then it picked up and we got some local media business. Realistically, to get work from the bigger global brands, we realised we had to do it by building the relationships in the UK."

Michaelides argues it's important to be culturally engaged. "Our whole premise is based on cultural, rather than brand, ideas and making brands part of popular culture. If it doesn't happen in New York, London or Tokyo, it's not going to happen on any scale." Cutting back in New York, Michaelides concentrated on the UK. "The market is there, but you've got to have one big client and be in it for the long haul," he says. "We're keeping our options open and we'll both go out there, because it needs a lot of our time to get it going."

One UK agency of which much is expected is Mother, led by Linus Karlsson, Paul Malmstrong, Rob DeFlorio and Andrew Deitchman. The agency won business from Miramax, the National Basketball Association and the burrito chain Chipotle.

More recently, it has won projects from Miller Brewing, Coca-Cola, Target, The Children's Place and LVMH. "We've exceeded our expectations and are happy with where we are," Deitchman says. "The work is starting to come out and we're breaking new ground with Target and Coca-Cola."

The most successful of the Brit pack is BBH, which was named as Adweek's 2002 Eastern Agency of The Year, four years after it arrived. Although it now has more than $350 million in billings, its chairman, Cindy Gallop, admits getting established was tough. "If you're not in the US, you forget how big it is," she says. And it took the 2002 win of Levi's in North America to really put it on the map. Recently, however, under the new creative director, Kevin Roddy, BBH has been winning a slew of new business, such as Electronic Data Systems, SUV Safety and Diageo's Smirnoff Ice.

Even though more clients are willing to use UK agencies, their US peers remain unconcerned. "I hate to be lofty about this, but this is a multicultural country, and if it's in America, then it's an American agency," Ari Merkin, the executive creative director of Fallon, New York, says. "America has its own set of rules. Every agency has to find its place. It's about being true to your own culture and adapting to the new one. And that mix can be extremely successful."

BARTLE BOGLE HEGARTY

Date: established 1998

Billings: $350 million

Clients: Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff Ice, Levi's, SUV Safety, Axe

Deodorant, Unilever, Sony Ericsson, EDS, Time Warner Cable Road Runner,

Rolling Stone

Clients lost: Reebok, Lipton Side Dishes, ING Direct, Cantor Fitzgerald

Staff: 120

Bartle Bogle Hegarty progressed in a series of fits and starts to begin with, but finally, after almost seven years since it opened its New York office, it appears to be cantering down the home stretch to achieve similar creative dominance to that it enjoys in the UK. In 2002, it was named as Adweek's Eastern Agency of the Year, and landed the Levi's account in North America. Since the appointment of Kevin Roddy as the creative director in September 2004, BBH has won new business from clients such as Smirnoff Ice and Electronic Data Systems and released much-commented-on campaigns for Axe Deodorant and SUV Safety.

MOTHER

Date established: November, 2003

Billings: Undisclosed

Clients: National Basketball Association, Chipotle, Miramax, Miller

Brewing, Coca-Cola, Target, The Children's Place, LVMH

Staff: 20

Mother created a lot of buzz before it even arrived in New York in 2003, thanks to the reputation of the Mother ship back in the UK. To begin with, under the leadership of Linus Karlsson, Paul Malmstrong, Rob DeFlorio and Andrew Deitchman, the agency kept a relatively low profile, and slowly began winning accounts. Its creative work thus far for the National Basketball Association and Chipotle has failed to excite, but with a batch of new clients, including Miller Brewing and Target, it's surely only a matter of time.

MICHAELIDES & BEDNASH

Date established: 2001

Billings: n/s

Clients: Projects for Oxygen TV, Motor Trader, Fast Company

Staff: Three, plus freelances as required

Opening in New York just three months before the terrorist attacks of 11 September took place hit Michaelides & Bednash hard. Operationally, the agency's joint founder George Michaelides says, it couldn't innovate as quickly as it did in the UK. "Every state is like a country," he comments. "Also, the US is far more metric-obsessed and that gets in the way of considering ideas. There's a huge cultural difference."

M&C SAATCHI

Date established: 1995

Billings: $65 million (New York) $40 million (Los Angeles)

Clients: British Airways, Financial Times, University of Aberdeen,

National Football League, Crystal Cruises, Qantas, Ketel One, San Diego

Zoo, US Tourism, Tourism New Zealand

Staff: 15 (New York)

M&C Saatchi set up offices in New York at the same time as it opened in Sydney, serving the Pacific rim. From the beginning its purpose was to service British Airways, the agency's biggest account. It opened a service office in LA in 1999, and, using a different model, successfully began winning a slew of local accounts.

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