Matt Williams: is it time to reverse the one way agency traffic across the Atlantic?

On Thursday, our office was filled with Hershey’s chocolates, bottles of Brooklyn Brewery lager and Bruce Springsteen (his songs, not the man himself).

The reason? We were celebrating the launch of Partners Andrews Aldridge New York.

Despite a pretty illustrious history – I don’t think I’m showing too much bias by saying that Partners has been one of the defining direct marketing agencies of the past two decades – this marked the first time that we’d opened up an office overseas.

I won’t get in to why that is – that’s a story for a different day and I don’t want this to become a pointless PR puff piece. But I do think it’s interesting that whilst publications like this very website has spent much of the past few years covering new launches of US agencies opening up in London, there’s been very little news of any UK-based shops making the move the other way.

Droga5, McGarryBowen, Crispin Porter & Bogusky, Mullen, Anomaly, The Martin Agency… the list goes on. All have launched in London with big ambitious plans and have experienced varying degrees of success.

So why so few going the other way? As always there’s no single answer to this question. And the factors determining success and failure are vast – just as they have been for those US shops coming to Blighty.

But I do want to pick out three reasons that to me are most prolific. That I think have been trends in the past but are beginning to change. That will give us as an agency the confidence to head into America, and why I believe some of our other counterparts will be following suit.

The first one comes down to agency structures. I know, I wanted to write that it actually all comes down to our unique British spirit and sense of humour, but we know no-one’s ever going to buy that. The US is a big and diverse market – at times it seems being able to be relevant to New York and Los Angeles is as challenging as trying to be relevant to both London and Moscow – so it massively helps to have a support network in place to facilitate a move.

And there are very few agile networks left who have the ambition to develop their brands further. Engine helps massively here, and the Lake deal in particular is key to making the Partners New York move happen. So whilst it’s relatively easy for independent US shops to make the transition to the UK, it’s tricky the other way round. It’s why I guess it’s no surprise that the other UK-based agency we’ve seen planning to go Stateside is Lida, who in the shape of M&C Saatchi have the relationships and platforms in place to make its plan happen.

But alongside any network muscle you need the right culture too. A culture that can travel. And that means a desire to collaborate. To believe that ‘no one is more creative than all of us’. To have in place a series of skills, services and products that align to clients’ specific business goals. We’d like to think that works for us because, well, ‘partnership’ is actually in our name. But we’ve seen far too many agencies – moving both ways across the pond – who fall flat because of exactly this problem. The cultures and services aren’t aligned, they’re just expected to succeed because they already do elsewhere.

And finally, one a bit more personal to Partners. Whilst I’ve by no means been using the piece as a cry for a British invasion from all sides of our industry, I do think that the UK’s traditional ‘customer engagement’ agencies have a key opportunity to thrive in the US. Few in the world devise great ad campaigns, produce great content and create amazing digital innovations like our favourite US agencies. But there’s a huge opportunity for US brands to be more creative and customer-focused with their data. Owning more data is critical to building stronger relationships and using that access to drive creative in the US presents a particularly exciting prospect for agencies who have been doing that in the UK for a while.

So what next? Aside from finishing off the various selections of quite frankly average celebratory sweets (Americans really can’t do chocolate, can they?), our intention with Partners New York is to bring a little slice of what’s made Partners London what it is and translate that in as seamless and attractive way as possible. I think it’s quite an exciting moment – not just from a Partners perspective but from a British perspective too. The UK industry is rightly proud of our communications industry. Why can’t we take more of our much loved agency brands and tackle New York with the same gusto that our US counterparts have entered the market over here?

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