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As agencies go global, what’s the one thing they need to remember?

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By Sam Anderson | Network Editor

September 8, 2022 | 9 min read

As agencies grow, they set their sights on presences in glittering new cities and far-off locales. But in turbulent economic times and a still-developing hybrid paradigm, how should they go about it in 2022? We asked eight agency leaders.

A clear marble reflecting the landscape such that it looks like a globe

In 2022, agencies have the world in the palm of their hand – but how can they make the most of that opportunity? / Alin Andersen via Unsplash

Looking for stable horizontal growth in tough economic times, agencies all over the world are breaking into new markets – both in the traditional way with a new office and big local hires, and in ways enabled by our infamous new normal, with satellite presences and remote workers. At a recent roundtable with The Drum Network’s New York chapter, we gathered some of the European independents and groups expanding into the US alongside some North American stalwarts to ask: how do you get global expansion right in 2022?

Paul O’Malley, president, NY office, The Marketing Practice

Face-to-face and localization – they’ve never been as important as they are now. People are opening agencies in the US market because clients are asking to serve the market from this position. My own experience of coming to America, many years ago, is that people were very happy to meet with you because you’d made the effort to come from 5,500 miles away, but as soon as you left the shores, it was difficult to get those doors open for actual business. That’s not changed. Being in front of clients, and being in front of your colleagues, is still a vastly important facet of how we do the best work we can for clients.

We’re in the relationships business. It doesn’t matter what agency you’re at; you cannot buy a relationship. Even from miles away over Zoom, there still needs to be that effort of, ‘I’m wanting to be in front of you; I want to show value; I want to build a relationship with you.’

Raphael Bouquillon, managing director, US, MG Empower

We can’t forget the importance of a balanced approach. We’ve been in a world where it’s like, ‘now everyone’s at home! Now everyone’s back to the office!’ Clients might want the full team to be close to them, but that might not be the right way forward because we also need to balance costs and other practical matters. And people really love being able to be flexible and not being in big cities. It’s about being able to take care of both sides and find a meaningful answer.

We don’t need to replicate a full team in every city – but you do need to have the people that matter, the people who are going to foster the relationship. It’s about nurturing that, but it doesn’t have to be every single person. We need to find that balance that gets us to the next step as an industry.

Bonnie O’Hara, partner, Amplify

There’s so much value in acknowledging that we’re operating in a new paradigm. It’s a huge opportunity to do things differently and better, and be transparent that we haven’t got it all figured out.

Whether it’s with our staff or our clients, we should be co-authoring this new trajectory. There’s an element of building the plane as we’re flying it. Transparency about that is key. We have to embrace change and get comfortable in the uncomfortable. We’re only as good as our people, so let them contribute to what that looks like.

Emma Collins, executive vice-president, DRPG North America

One of the most successful things that we’ve done this year is, in the UK, we were a key sponsor of the Commonwealth Games. As part of that, we had tickets and we took our clients. I invited clients from the US; we hosted people in the UK. The power of that informal environment and the face-to-face element [is amazing]. We’ve even had more success with existing clients and prospective clients because we were able to be with them face-to-face and have that interaction. It goes such a long way.

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Ross Crump, chief strategy officer, Kairos Group

We’ve got to maintain consideration of how culture evolves within our industry over time. Culture wins employees over. I think it’s difficult to build solid cultures over digital platforms – cultures can be built on platforms, but they evolve and are adopted in person.

The evolution of our culture is going to become continuous. It’s going to be tested; there are going to be risks to take and we’re going to have to try new things constantly. You’ve got to continuously trial and test things. I would encourage everyone to avoid getting stuck in one way of doing things forever, because – guaranteed – there’s always another agency trying to get your team.

Laura Wagner, managing director of people transformation strategy, VMLY&R

It’s about flexibility and listening to people. We have to stay agile in our approach; we have to change what we’re doing on a dime. Listen to people, because things change day-by-day, hour-by-hour. They’ll give us the feedback if we listen and change course as a result of it.

Tony Riley, chief executive officer and president, The Mx Group

Flexibilities, transparency, authenticity – that’s all key, but there has to be a balance of confidence too. Businesses want to work with companies that they’re confident can continue to move them forward and are going to be there. You have to balance those things and make sure that you’re very transparent, but also show up as a confident leader and a confident leadership team in order for your people to feel like they have a great place to be and that clients know that your team is competent.

Kristina McCoobery, chief executive officer, Invnt Group

Lead with authenticity, transparency and vulnerability to your teams. We’ve been transparent and honest with our team always, but have doubled down on that ever since March 2020.

And authenticity with our clients right now is so important. It comes back to being there; developing relationships. Sometimes, authenticity means that we’re going to say something they may not want to hear, or that we need to shed some light on what’s really happening out there, from the story that they’re telling and what their audiences need to hear. Maybe we’re delivering exactly what they asked for; maybe we’re pushing it, being authentic and saying to them, ‘you need to look a little harder at this.’ They’re really trusting us now. Our clients need us now more than ever.

Additional reporting by Kendra Clark; interviews edited for brevity and readability.
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