Tips on Working Internationally

When we started, our first ambition was to open an office in London. It’s an inconvenient truth that we needed to have an office there in order to be taken seriously by clients. (Thankfully, I think it’s beginning to change now).

We started small and, arguably, the first London space wasn’t even in central London - Twickenham being the base. But, over time, and with a growing business, we moved further into central London, finally arriving in Farringdon in 2013. 

Since then the nature of our business and the type of work we do has changed a lot. We grew some of our UK and EMEA clients within the US and embraced a truly international way of working. We now have three major clients in the US and have learnt a lot about what it means to work on an international basis. Here’s a summary of our observations on the best way to nail it…

1.    Your work has to be excellent & bring something different

To compete in the US, you have to deliver an excellent product - there’s no shortage of substitute agency offerings on a client’s doorstep. It also has to do something different. With one client we were told that we’d struggle to break into the central team in the US, but over time, they couldn’t ignore the quality of the work we were producing in the UK and EMEA. And this eventually led to the introduction and opportunity to show them what we could do.  It’s at this point you realise that having a different perspective on some of the work actually made it better for the rest of their markets. For example, we were able to temper the tendency to make much of the brand communication work too US-centric. Our UK perspective brought something different. 

2.    Geography works for us

This has nothing to do with us, and everything to do with luck. By a quirk of fate, the UK sits in the middle of the world, and this tends to be beneficial when you’re working for a global business that’s headquartered in the US. The ability to talk to marketing teams in Asia at the end of their day, the EMEA teams in the same timezone and the US teams at the start of their days helps keep projects rolling along in real-time. As one US client commented ‘You help us balance the clocks’.

3.    Strategic focus

I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I believe it helps if the work you do is more strategic in nature. The distance and time changes involved mean that high frequency, quick turnaround work is significantly more challenging to deliver.  A more strategic, or consultancy based engagement means that there’s more time between meetings and the ultimate deliverable. A typical engagement for us tends to be a face-to-face briefing (ideally, but not essential), multiple Skype or conference call check-ins throughout which build to another face-to-face meeting to present final solutions. 

4.    Evolved ways of working 

We’ve learned over time that you can’t run a single US account on a purely UK timeframe. Something has to give, and it makes sense to make changes to how the account is serviced, both for the client and for the agency team. Some of these things seem small, but when you aggregate them, they can make a real difference for all involved…

  • Get a good conference phone. You’re going to be spending hours on it, so make sure it’s up to the task.
  • Adapt presentation styles for Skype / Conference call meetings. You have to learn to navigate the dynamics of presenting work to a group over the phone. It’s definitely a skill that needs patience, regular check-ins to make sure everyone’s following and not taking the long silences personally. (You’re on mute). 
  • Offer flexible hours to teams working on US business. Sometimes you can’t get away from the fact that you’ll have to jump onto calls or emails late at night. Allow the team late starts, or early finishes to compensate.
  • When travelling, border preparation is important. With groups of people flying back and forth to the US pretty frequently, it can draw some attention from the officials at the border. We took some advice from a US immigration specialist to make sure that we ‘present well’ when called forward. Essentially this means being clear about why you’re entering the US and saying the right things at the right times. It might sound silly, but there are lots subtleties around saying you’re there ‘to work’ versus ‘on business’, which can raise questions about visas. Get the right advice.

5.    Be prepared to travel

Sounds like an obvious one, but you do need to make sure that you’re allowing enough time. Because it’s a business trip and time is seen as money, there’s a tendency to try and pack too much into not enough time. And when you cross more time zones, it gets worse. Our rule of thumb is that a two day US trip just doesn’t work. There’s barely time to relax before you find yourself stumbling off a plane back in Blighty, exhausted and mentally drained. The best bet is to allow a working week and protect the weekends for recovery. It’s better for business and for the travelling team.

So there you go. Not really earth-shattering in terms of insights, but it’s a work in progress. We’re always looking at ways to remove the friction and add to the list.