“The world is Grid’s playing field, and travel is the catalyst that keeps us ahead of the game at an international level,” says Adam Byars, joint CEO of Grid Worldwide. “It’s not just an expense or a line-item on our profit and loss statement. It’s not something we can cut back on if we need to trim costs. It’s fundamental to our DNA. Our goal isn’t to be the biggest or best in South Africa. Our goal is to help brands across the globe find relevance and meaning.”
Achieving this vision has taken a number of key ingredients, starting with Byars’ own relationship with travel and how important it is for both personal and business growth. “I was fortunate enough to model at an international level after finishing high-school,” he says. “I’ve always looked at the world as my playing field, but actually getting the opportunity to travel engrained that belief. When we leave our comfort zones, we don’t only learn more about the world and ourselves, but we find inspiration in unexpected places.”
A global view
Byars brought two key lessons back with him to South Africa. First, that the world is connected, and anyone can do business anywhere. Second, to truly be relevant - and to understand what people care about and respond to - you need to look beyond borders, categories and industries.
So, how do you build an international business without also being a business whose team travels extensively? The short answer is that you can’t.
Byars says: “We’re essentially a small South African agency punching above our weight. What we deliver and how we deliver it is the foundation of our credibility, but we can’t achieve anything without all seven managing partners traveling far and wide throughout the year, not just to pitch for business and to deliver on campaigns, but because it’s so incredibly important to constantly broaden our horizons,”
Today, from a business that had never done international work, Grid’s seven managing partners collectively travel between 40 and 60 times a year. It’s a commitment that goes far beyond an annual trip to Cannes, and it requires a whole new way of doing business.
“We’ve had to commit to becoming a 24/7 always-on business,” says Byars. “We use simple and effective communication channels, like whatsapp, to stay in contact with each other and across Grid’s various teams, and we’ve learnt to operate wherever we are, as if the entire world is our boardroom.”
It’s not easy. Byars and his partners are always available, wherever they are in the world, but they’ve also learnt to only travel for the good of the business: “Traveling is essential. How can we deliver iconic and game-changing ideas if we aren’t inspired ourselves, and how can you continue to be inspired when everything you know is immediately at your doorstep? Life is about challenging and stretching yourself, your ideas and your opinions. Over and above the need to be with our international clients when we develop and deliver campaigns, travelling give us the inspiration and creative fuel we need. But we’ve also learnt that while this is in many ways our super-power and secret weapon, it’s also hard on the business.”
Ultimately, the momentum of Grid can’t be hindered by the fact that there will always be one or more managing partners outside of the country. Byars himself relocated his family to Doha for ten months while Grid delivered on the Destination Qatar campaign, for the Qatar National Tourism Council.
“We’ve learnt to only travel when it’s for the good of the business. All seven partners can’t attend Cannes each year, for example. We don’t travel unless there is a clear objective and outcome, and it mustn’t do more harm than good for the business. When it comes to being in a position of power and leadership and traveling, there’s a fine balance between personal ambitions and professional needs. We should never take traveling for granted – or let it become detrimental to our businesses.”
Building a global business with local relevance
From working with Louvre Abu Dhabi to create the art museum’s brand in the United Arab Emirates, to delivering Destination Qatar, Grid’s team has had to develop an intimate knowledge of people and markets far from the city where the agency was birthed, and travel is the cornerstone of this achievement.
“In each case, it’s not just about understanding the client and the brand, but who they’re speaking to. Helping brands find their relevance again can’t be achieved in a bubble.”
Grid’s work with Michelin in Paris is a prime example: “We were brought in as an impact player and tasked with repositioning the brand’s mascot, Bibendum, also knowns as the Michelin Man – an iconic figure that has represented Michelin tyres since 1894. We needed to reposition him for the 21st century without losing everything the brand had built up. He is the brand mascot that has the most equity in the world. We couldn’t mess with that – or him.”
And so, Grid’s team changed the conversation. They trimmed Bibendum down for a more health conscious world and they focused on how he embraces mobility and safety instead of just being the face and the name of a brand. They gave him meaning and purpose.
“Traveling inspires us to think beyond our own experiences,” says Byars. “It teaches us and constantly changes our perspectives. There are so many lessons and blessings in travel. It’s certainly not always easy. It’s often incredibly tough. But in order to deliver on our vision of a global business with local relevance, we’ve not only embraced travel, we’ve built a business around it, and we’ve worked with some iconic brands on incredible projects as a result.”
This article was first published in The Drum Network's print supplement. Members of The Drum Network receive and have the opportunity to write for our print magazine, which is distributed to other relevant members and brands in print and on our app.
Nadine von Moltke-Todd, editor in chief, Entrepreneur South Africa for GRID Worldwide.