Giles Keeble: why so many ‘big’ global ad ideas just get lost in translation

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” (George Bernard Shaw.)

I recently came across an agency claim that they create one idea that can work anywhere, in any channel.

This is, of course, the Holy Grail to many a multinational client. But does it really make sense?

Careful, cuidado, attention, achtung, dangxin.

Of course, it isn’t new. For example, one global idea was the aim of Coke and many of P&G’s brands for years, until there was a shift to ‘multi-local.’ Arguments against one global idea include that it can lead to lowest common denominator work, or that it loses in translation (or doesn’t translate at all). Of course, that isn’t always the case; but I would guess that for every ad that works everywhere (‘I want to teach the World to Sing’ or P&G’s ‘Proud Sponsor of Mums’ perhaps?) there will be lots that don’t. Are visual ideas the answer? Perhaps, if they do not feature people or the ‘wrong’ colour.

There are different reasons for the search for the global Big Idea. One is the economics of multinational clients and their agencies. One office does the work and the others do the distribution. Another may be that the ad business is still rather western-centric – so when we say anywhere, we don’t really mean Africa, or India, China or Japan.

(Nick Souter once told me a story about how, when he was a boy, he answered a call from the US on a Saturday morning from a businessman who needed to talk to Nick’s father about some big deal they were involved in. When Nick told him his father was playing golf, the response was: “What? In this weather!?”)

I think John Hegarty once wrote about a shared world of brands, and to a great extent that is true, certainly within the higher levels of income. It is also true that while cultures differ, human emotions largely don’t. Some humour travels (Mr Bean), but a lot doesn’t. I used to start off a Judgement course by showing a joke to marketers from around the world: the point was to understand the need for shared criteria, and for a joke it is whether or not it makes you laugh. Not all of them got it, for different reasons – taste, understanding, culture; and cultural differences can have a big effect on communication.

Persil discovered that the idea of children being adventurous free spirits who got dirty did not wear well in Asia. In Brazil, Knorr was slow to recognise that soups have a totally different use in the North than in the South. And I’m not sure if the wonderful Honda campaign earlier this century ran outside the UK, despite the awards ads like ‘Grr’ won.

When I was in Hong Kong and involved with the launch of HSBC’s ‘The World’s Local Bank,’ I became aware that the agency wasn’t always acting like the world’s local agency. One UK script I remember being sent for checking involved an American agricultural machinery salesman giving a potential Chinese client a green hat as a brand memento. The point being that HSBC could have told him it meant the client’s eldest daughter was ready for marriage. In fact, it meant his wife was being shagged by someone else, as I quickly reported back. I was ignored. This and other scripts – no doubt from a cursory look at an online cultural differences site – caused a bit of an uproar when they were presented at a conference.

In the case of Honda, I doubt it was ever intended as a multinational campaign. Local country campaigns do and will continue, if the country or region can sustain the cost of the campaign. Some will be extended to other countries with similar cultures, though doing so (whether by dubbing or reshooting with a different cast) may sometimes be a false economy. Of course they may not communicate very well in any language or culture in the first place, in which case the whole campaign is a waste of money (as so many are).

When I ran courses for brand managers around the world, there was an understandable emphasis on the need for a ‘campaignable’ idea. The issue for me was not just about global understanding but about the channels. If TV is the main medium, and an idea works brilliantly in that channel yet not in print, should you scrap the idea? This can lead to lowest common denominator work, either something a bit safe and boring or, in the end, not much more than the message as a campaign line.

Channels communicate differently, have different interaction and probably a different role – awareness for TV, information for press and data collection for the website, for example. In some parts of the world, radio is a hugely important channel. Images can be powerful but, again, be careful of meaning. I have already written that I sense there are a lot of ‘slice of life’ TV ads, with a good representation of ethnicity and age – are these ‘global’?

The search for a ‘big idea’ remains essential. I am just advocating that clients and agencies step back and have a think before they get too excited about one idea’s ability to travel (because they are so in love with it or because of imagined economies of scale). First, is it a really great idea? Then, does it work everywhere, in all channels?

Communication is about response: is what you want to say what people think, believe or feel you have said? And do they care?

In any language, or pictures.

Of course, the agency making the claim may just be doing a bit of a PR wheeze: they don’t have, or are not expecting, a lot of multinational accounts- but the discipline of providing one idea is attractive. When Jerry Dell Femina had only just started his agency, he got a front page in AdAge with the story that they hadn’t won the coveted TWA (or was that PanAm?) account. They didn’t even pitch for it. Ah, truth in advertising!

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About Giles Keeble

Giles Keeble started as a rep (account man) at JWT before moving to BMP. There Stanley Pollitt told him that JWT’s Stephen King had wanted him to become a planner. John Webster encouraged him to become a writer but after a number of years Giles moved to French Gold Abbott and, for a while, did become a planner of sorts. Returning to writing he went to David Abbott’s new agency AMV followed by WCRS and was then ECD of Leo Burnett for six years. He then returned to AMV before moving to Publicis and then Lowe in Hong Kong at the inception of the ‘World’s Local Bank’ campaign for HSBC. He now works as a writer and strategist as well as running advertising courses for senior clients.


  1. It is known that mistakes in translation and advertising (which are often combined) lead to international marketing business failures. Only companies with the right mixture of knowhow, experienced staff and expertise can keep a constant, solid, coherent brand message in different cultures. The best brands achieve that, but only with large budgets. Globalizing a business is a demanding task, and may not be as simple as it sounds. Being neglectful of even the apparently most insignificant areas of one’s business affairs can lead to considerable losses.

    The author obviously proves his experience when he quotes “whether by dubbing or reshooting with a different cast) may sometimes be a false economy” as adaptations sometimes cost more than the original campaign. But regional campaigns may not be “transportable” as a localized version has then become flavored: “Of course they may not communicate very well in any language or culture in the first place, in which case the whole campaign is a waste of money (as so many are).”

    We describe some examples of howmistakes in translation can play a key role in the failure of a promotional campaign within a particular region. Acquiring professional translation services and relying on a human translation crew can ensure that such transcultural and translation mistake are avoided and quality versions and translations help a businesses convey the meaning.

  2. I’ve observed that central versus local control for MNCs tends to operate as a pendulum swing, over about a five-ten year cycle.

    Pressure for central control is justified as offering greater ‘consistency’, and cost savings. All well and good, but local performance tends to suffer as ‘average’ executions created for many markets perform ‘averagely’ in any one.

    At this point a reaction in favour of greater local autonomy develops. (Think of it as Newton’s Third Law of Advertising).

    It seems to be entirely internally-driven, as evidenced by the fact that companies in the same industry (say, for example P&G and Unilever in personal care), often tend to be moving in opposite directions on the pendulum swing.