How To Be Post-Geographic
“Relatively tiny in terms of permanent staff, globally distributed, more post-geographic than multinational, the agency has from the beginning billed itself as a high-speed, low-drag life-form in an advertising ecology of lumbering herbivores.”
William Gibson, Pattern Recognition
Post-geographic... in a semi-globalized world
Developing work for ‘export’ is of course nothing unusual. That said, Wieden+Kennedy Amsterdam is an unusual office, in that the vast majority of its output is designed not for The Netherlands, but for somewhere else. That somewhere else can encompass seventy plus market across all continents. It can encompass an entire region or continent other than our own. Or it can be designed for just one single market outside our own.
But the choice to act as a post-geographic agency isn’t for the most part a response to the emergence of a post-geographic world.
The New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman of course encouraged us to see the world as a flat one. We are undoubtedly more connected. More than this, the financial crisis has starkly demonstrated how we are are ever more inter-dependent. But the lines we draw across the globe - as with that much-shared map of Facebook - sometimes lead us to overstate the disappearance of geography and distance.
For example, it’s estimated that 90% of people will never leave the country in which they were born, 2% of all telephone call minutes are international, 21% of US news coverage is international, 38% of European news coverage is international, and no more than 5% of private charitable giving goes overseas.
Physical, legal, cultural and emotional borders then, still exist. As the Professor of Global Strategy at IESE Business School, Pankaj Ghemawat, has observed, “the world is neither a collection of autonomous nations (World 1.0) nor perfectly flat (World 2.0), but semiglobalized.”
No, the choice to act as a post-geographic agency isn’t in response to the emergence of a post-geographic world.
And while we can debate the optimal balance between localism and globalism, it’s born of marketers’ desire to create financial and strategic efficiencies. It’s born of the desire to ensure that the wheel is invented once, and to focus efforts and resources on brilliant execution rather than theory. And it’s born of the desire to leverage and disseminate best practice.
It’s not always merely about efficiencies, of course. Whether the work is commissioned for export to multiple markets, or is imported into a single market, the quest for creative content that is originated somewhere else can also be driven desire by the desire to focus finite marketing resources against the very best quality and talent.
When it comes to developing multi-market strategies and work, the body of both academic and practitioner literature is fullsome, and the arguments, frameworks, and theories more than well-rehearsed.
So I thought it might be more interesting to share 12½ more human habits of heart and head that allow us to operate as a post-geographic agency, do good work and stay (more or less) sane.
A caveat. It isn’t rocket surgery.
1. Jettison all snobbery
There is a horrible and enduring piece of received wisdom in adland that holds that global or multi-market work appeals to lowest common denominator. True, the average commercial break on CNN is filled with commercial content so risible in its relentless, self-regarding banality it makes one’s eyes bleed. But there there need be no inevitability to this.
To anybody wanting to succeed in the undoubtedly hard task of creating multi-market work, I’d encourage the abandonment of any snobbery about multi-market work necessarily being lowest common denominator stuff. Remind yourself that Shakespeare and Lady Gaga are both global phenomena, and that they’re both (in their own different ways) pretty good.
2. Don’t lose sight of what is universal and timeless
It’s easy to be consumed by all the change - both ephemeral and significant - that’s coursing through our industry. But the belief that any one thing (like the internet) or phenomenon will Change Everything Forever encourages us to focus on the superficial surface of things, which do of course change all the time. But we would do well to just occasionally cool our jets. Just a little.
That’s why we find it helps to subscribe to the belief that while lives and cultures may differ, the stuff of story, myth, and human biography - love, sex, war, politics, jealousy, altruism, heroism, and so on, is enduring and universal.
The surface trappings of life and culture may have changed, yet the choices, predicaments and motivations of the characters of Homer, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Austen, Dickens are as vividly meaningful and recognizable as they were when audiences first encountered them.
3. Seek and you shall find
While the stuff of story, myth, and human biography - love, sex, war, politics, jealousy, altruism, heroism, and so on - is enduring and universal. It would be foolish to deny differences exist.
The socio-economic structure of countries varies, the development and structure of product categories, and the consumer behaviours within in can vary widely between geographies.
So too can culture. And here the distinction made by cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken is helpful. There is the stuff of ‘fast culture’ - that endless torrent of changing fad, fashion, and ephemera. Thus, at the time of writing Gers Pardeol tops the Dutch singles chart, Gianna Nannini and Giorgia the Italian, and Rihanna and Calvin Harris top the New Zealand charts.
And there’s nothing like ‘slow culture’ - those inherited beliefs and values - to divide. As the psychologist and anthropologist Hofstede showed decades ago, attitudes towards power, institutions of authority, individualism masculinity and femininity, and time differ profoundly across cultures.
So supplied as we all are, with both similarities and differences, in developing multi-market creative content, we believe that whatever flavour of globalism (whether it’s global strategy/local execution or global strategy and execution or global execution/local activation) is applied, the approach is a matter of choice. driven not just by cultural market and consumer conditions, but by a business’s imperatives and priorities.
In developing Heineken’s new creative platform, we could have chosen to focus on what what divided the beer drinkers Ho-Chi Min and Manhattan. And we would certainly have found plenty of differences, both fundamental and more ephemeral. But the organizational ambition of Heineken was to develop a properly global creative platform that could accommodate the needs of both developing and mature markets. So we sidestepped the differences and concentrated on the anxieties and aspirations that united young men around the world.
Those of us developing global strategies and work could do worse than heed the insight that the quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg gave us. His famous Uncertainty Principle holds that the very act of observation affects what is observed. There is no such thing as a neutral observer.
We choose to recognize the truth that if we go looking for differences (between people, cultures or markets), we’ll find differences. And that if we go looking for similarities, you’ll find similarities. The trick of course, is to know when to seek differences, and when to seek similarities.
4. Your reality is not a reference point
It is human nature to use our own experience as the benchmark and reference point for contrasts and comparisons. And so we can regard markets and cultures can be “more.... than ours” or “less... than ours”. And it’s but a short step from this to assuming that our way is the normal or right way.
Ethnocentrism was never really a very helpful way of regarding the world. And it’s a profoundly unhelpful piece of mental baggage if you’re wanting to be properly post-geographic.
Furthermore, if we’re sitting in the developed, Western, English-speaking world using that as our point of comparison is becoming rapidly outmoded as the word’s balance shifts eastwards.
There is another reality it helps to put aside. And that is the our own industry’s preoccupations. For our industry can exhibit an unhealthy interest in itself. The obsession with its comings, going’s and doings, the chasing of awards, the dissection of other people’s work, the bickering over whether “it’s been done before”... all this (and more) characterizes those who, as our ECDs Mark Bernath and Eric Quennoy put it, live in ‘Adghanistan.’
But soon as we get our minds out of the confines of Manhattan and the M25, and indeed outside the preoccupations Soho and SoHo, Campaign and Adage, life rapidly looks very different.
Bear in mind that most people we’re creating stuff with and for haven’t seen that campaign (or case study) that everyone back home was talking about. They haven’t seen that famous episode of Seinfeld or The Inbetweeners.
Abandoning any lingering thoughts that your experience, values, assumptions, or habits, preferences and reality lie at the center of the world can be hard work.
5. Have a well-worn passport
Don’t do the job if you haven’t travelled.
Don’t do it if you haven’t travelled at your own expense. If you’ve never got lost, if you’ve never been thrown onto your own resources, if your only experience of Somewhere Else is in business class, in conference rooms, and international 5-star hotel chains, if your window on other cultures is limited to Wallpaper and Monocle, and if your first impulse on arrival is to seek out the nearest Starbucks.
For you might indeed be an international jet-setter with gold status, but you will be of little use to anybody. You are surfing the thin veneer of internationalism that covers the world. But you are most certainly not connecting with cultures.
Worse, you’ve demonstrated that you’ve no interest in doing so.
6. Don’t worry - local insight is no guarantee of anything
If we look past all the rhetoric, the self-congratulation, the slick case studies, the creative awards, the campaigns du jour, the planning awards, the effective awards, the smartass blogs, the authoritative keynote speeches... and it’s plain that the vast majority of what we produce as an industry isn’t brilliant or even good.
Most of what our industry puts out into the world is banal, patronizing, derivative, lazy, insulting, hectoring, clumsy, polluting, stupid, repetitive, intrusive, toxic, or just plain irrelevant.
And the vast majority of that work is originated locally. By people who are of the country and its culture. Who theoretically know its customs, habits, and language. Who have their fingers on the local pulse.
7. You don’t have to be here to be here
If proximity is no guarantee of insight, equally distance (both geographically and culturally) need be no hinderance to understanding and insight.
You don't have to have lived as a fifteenth century courtier to write in vivid and convincing detail about the life of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister. Just read Hilary Mantell's Wolf Hall. Nor as Arthur Golden demonstrated in his Memoirs of a Geisha, do you need to be Japanese or indeed a woman, to successfully and movingly inhabit the persona of a geisha.
The list of examples goes on. And it should give us both courage and conviction. They are sustained pieces of art. And as such they must aim for a degree of intellectual and emotional veracity (call it 'insight' if you must) that our efforts arguably need only approximate. But none of them required having actually been there. Whether that’s at Henry VIII's court, in Japan, or in the body and mind of a woman.
Indeed while proximity can give us the nuanced grasp of cultural references, equally there is something to be said for the outsider’s perspective.
It gives us the ability and permission to ask the dumb questions. To see the everyday, the banal, the taken-for-granted world that constitutes so much of our lives and find it new, fresh, and fascinating. As the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead put it: “Anthropology demands the open-mindedness with which one must look and listen, record in astonishment and wonder that which one would not have been able to guess.”
Allied to the gift of naivety, the internet of course expands the reach of our understanding like nothing before. We can at the click of a mouse or swipe of a finger know the biggest grossing movies in Brazil. The best-selling female recording artist right now in China. What people are saying about your brand in Russia. We can know what people consume, rate, share, discuss, and search for. And that is at least a start.
So if, for example, you want to develop work for Russia’s third largest telecommunications company and understand attitudes towards success, progress, luck, and fate... and how they impact mobile telecommunications, it helps to draw upon an informal, trusted infrastructure of researchers, journalists, cultural anthropologists, academics, freelance planners and creatives, cultural producers, semioticians, and so on, to whom we can turn for information and insight.
Wherever possible nurture networks of collaborators.
8. Be patient
The transfer of enthusiasm - from a client to an agency to a consumer to their social circles - is arguably at the heart of our business.
Getting to great is never easy and it needs us to bring energy and enthusiasm - the belief that a great outcome is possible. Getting to great when you’re developing multi-market work is arguably even harder. There will be even more stake- and opinion-holders, all of whom need persuading and enrolling.
And when creative souls by their very nature want to get on with the business of actually making stuff, the timelines can seemingly stretch on into infinity. We’re already deep in creative development for example, on Coca Cola’s 2014 World Cup campaign. In these circumstances, we need to be able to sustain our enthusiasm - and that of people (agency and client) around us - and over the long haul.
We look for those who can run emotional marathons, not mere sprinters. People with enthusiasm, stamina, and resilience.
9. Help people merchandize the work
Unless you find yourself (for better or for worse) working with autocrats, global work will invariably need to be shepherded through many stake- and opinion-holders. Quite often an agency will never come into contact with all of them, and it’s easy to overlook the fact that a lot of global clients are effectively salesmen within their own organizations.
The work may come first. But we do find enormous value in developing a common language for global work. Powerpoint and Keynote get (more often than not deservedly) a bad name. But arming our clients with the right language and helping them getting their own internal stakeholders to embrace it is critical. The selling and enrolling process continues long after we’ve packed up creative presentations and left the room.
You will have an easier time getting global buy-in to a campaign, idea, or whatever you want to call it, when you can be precise about how the campaign works, what the idea is, etc. It doesn't have to be too clever or too complicated – but we don’t underestimate the amount of help people will need to understand and effectively merchandise the work you are asking them to buy.
10. Don’t think (too much) in clever words
Planners can find themselves spending too much time in airless rooms debating the difference between ‘friendly’ and ‘approachable’, ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘metropolitan’. It would make a medieval theologian proud to see us contemplate so intently the pinhead of brand strategy.
Of course words can help marketers point brands and strategies in the right direction. Though when you’re developing multi-country work, the chance of say, English being everybody’s first (or confident second language, even) will be slim. Indeed only about 17% of the world’s population speak English.
Moreover, when you’re making content that must run across regions, languages, countries an cultures, the limitations of these exercises is quickly exposed. Not least of all because your work will very often not be driven by words. By by images and sounds.
The three-minute blockbuster film for Nike’s Word Cup campaign had to travel effortlessly across thirty countries. Necessarily, it had to rely on the art of visual storytelling.
Wordplay, irony, idiom, slang... none of them will get you very far if you want to be post-geographic. So if you want to be properly post-geographic, let go of your reliance on fancy words and keep things simple. Think in pictures, not just words.
11. Design is a global marketer’s secret weapon
It’s often an overlooked asset in the global marketer’s toolbox, but we’ve found that the silent language of design can be enormously effective in binding the disparate elements of a brand together across cultures and geography.
Latin America’s Copa America is much more than a continental football tournament. Regional familiarity, shared language and customs give the rivalries the intensity of a neighborhood brawl. Recognizing that this wasn’t just the Copa America but the ‘Copa Barrio’ led to the development of a distinctive and unified visual language for use across the continent and its allegiances well in advance of the development of advertising and activation.
When the development of multi-market strategy and work can often find itself constipated as words are smithed, traded, and debated, getting to a common look and feel for a brand - finding its visual vernacular - can often provide marketers with a unifying foundation upon which to build ideas and activities.
12. Invest in relationships
No great work can happen without strong relationships and the trust and enthusiasm that they foster.
But the distances that come with not being There can make that more than challenging. And there’s nothing that’s guaranteed to rob us of our will to live as having to enduring endless conference calls at uncivilized hours of the day with people you haven’t met and don’t know.
We believe that it’s easier to understand, trust, and like people we’ve met. And while they undoubtedly have their uses, you don't create strong relationships through email, conference or video call alone. So while the work comes first, we invest in the human contact that nurtures and sustains it.
We choose not to work with strangers.
A concluding thought
Patience, enthusiasm, over-communication, empathy, interest, curiosity, flexibility... On the part of both agency and indeed client going global takes many of the same sensibilities and skills that go into creating great local work that has no intention of travelling.
But there’s one thing that the creation of global work (of whatever hue and flavour) needs perhaps more than anything. And that’s the appreciation that it’s an act of generosity, not self-aggrandisement.
We’ve all come across the jet-setting adperson/enforcer. The kind that works in the service of the ‘center’ or the global brand onion. I once heard somebody liken these global marketers and adfolk to seagulls: “They fly over, shit on everything, and then leave.” Don’t be a seagull.
Our role, whether it is on the client- or agency-side, is not to control and impose but to enable people to succeed.
The reason we exist if we operate in some multi-market capacity, is not to benefit ‘the centre’. The center isn’t a market. It’s a function. Markets make the money. And at the end of the day, we don’t create global strategies, insights, ideas to benefit people with ‘global’ in their job titles or roles, but local markets and their customers.
(I don't usually write or comment directly on Wieden+Kennedy. It's important to note therefore that all the views above are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer. I had to say.)