For many UK agencies, expansion into the US is the dream. The drivers for agency owners vary – from meeting existing client demands to a personal ambition to make the move stateside. Recognising this as a huge area of growth for UK agencies, we teamed up with Waypoint Partners to co-host our latest event ‘The American Dream’, where we explored expansion, scaling and operating in the US. We were lucky to be joined for the morning by leaders who had successfully launched their agencies into the US and we’ve wrapped up their tips, advice and success stories to share what you need to know when considering to make the leap across the Atlantic. Meet our panelists:
- Dom McGregor, Co-Founder, Social Chain
- Mark Reardon, Former CEO, Ogilvy + Arc Worldwide
- David Shiell, CEO, House of Kaizen
- Steph Bennett, Director, Battenhall
- Kevin Freedman, CEO, Freedman International
- Ross Barker, Director, Entourage
- Miles Welch, Partner, Waypoint Partners
Making the decision and assessing if it’s the right move
Looking at expanding your business into the US is both an exciting and complex decision to make. Our panellists shared stories around the process they went through to make the decision to expand – identifying the right reasons, undertaking market research, and choosing the right expansion model. What was clear from their experience is that the reason for doing it must be right and the UK business must be set up in a way that provides a successful base to expand from. –––––
The Drivers to expand
Driver: Organically through existing client requirements / needs
Several of our panellists expanded into the US as a result of organic growth within their existing client base. In most cases, a client-led move to a new market is the easiest, and possibly, the most logical way to expand. However, David Shiell, CEO of House of Kaizen, shared “just having a client there doesn’t necessarily mean you should be going there. It has to be the right time for your business”.
Driver: Personal desire
There’s nothing wrong with having personal aspirations or drive to make the move. Several of our panellists spoke about the personal drivers behind the move to the States but cautioned that this should only be a part of the assessment criteria and not the driving force. While the move and subsequent success are incredibly rewarding, the journey to getting there can be really hard work, and they warned that the life of airports, jet lag, a fast food diet and living out of a suitcase isn’t all that glamorous!
Driver: It’s part of the business growth plan
Dom McGregor, Co-Founder of Social Chain said that the US was always part of the business’ growth plan, and with 70% of their media audience stateside, it made sense. One thing that all panellists agreed on was that it can take a long time to get established in the US market, so ensuring that expansion is a key component of your growth plan is crucial and having a solid, supporting business (and business partners) in the UK to build upon is vital.
Once you know it’s the right move
If there’s one thing our panellists agreed on, is that the US market is expensive! Miles Welch, Partner at Waypoint Partners, suggested: “work out how much things cost and double it!”. With such high set up costs it’s important to explore all your options and cover all your bases.
The reconnaissance mission
It might seem obvious, but as we found out from our panel, not everyone does it. Jump on a plane, go out and talk to as many people as you can. To most agencies, NY seems the most logical move, but our panellists suggest exploring outside of the highly competitive NY ecosystem to look at all your options and cities; there are big opportunities to be had in the likes of Austin, Miami and LA.
Meet with advisors – tax, lawyers, influencers, intermediaries, accelerators to get an idea of the market. There are so many different tax structures in the US, and it is very hard to unwind how you structure your business down the track, so make sure you get it right when you first set up. Our panellists had entered the US market through a range of different models from sending directors and teams across, to mergers, JV’s, buying businesses or investing in experienced partners with established networks.
Identify what you can service out of the UK
If you’re going to be putting people on the ground that aren’t 100% utilised then consider what you can service out of the UK. To start with, can you service from the UK but send client services and strategy resource over as / when needed? Our panellists also suggested making the most of technology to bridge the gap between the UK and the US while you’re getting established, a lot of the time meetings can be just as effective virtually than face-to-face.
Have a plan to scale
What happens if you are really successful, really quickly? Everything is bigger in the States, and things can move quickly. One of our panellists spoke about coming unstuck (twice) by doing such a good job they became victims of their own success. Have a plan in place to be able to scale quickly if and when needed.
Proposition building and getting your new biz pipeline moving
Dom from Social Chain spoke about making the assumption that their brand story would translate seamlessly from the UK market to the US, however, in reality, they found that it wouldn’t be quite that easy. Ross Barker, Co-Founder at Entourage offered advice around this very point, and stressed the need to align your proposition with your prospective clients challenges – “identify your target audience, figure out what their challenges are, create interesting content and events around these topics and productise your service offering to make it easy for brands to buy your services.” –––––
Identifying your audience
The US market is huge and the opportunity can be overwhelming. The procurement process is also a lot more ruthless than in the UK so when you’re looking at the market and who to target make sure that you have a balanced list. While you need to grow profile and start relationships within the bigger, established, well-known brands (and groups), also include the mid-sized and challenger brands who will be more agile and able to move faster.
Refining your proposition
Be prepared to test and refine your proposition as you speak with people and prospects; you may need to pivot if it’s not resonating in the US market. It could be as simple as the language you’re using. The process for getting your proposition in the US market right is the same process you would go through in the UK – identify your prospects, uncover what their challenges are, and overlay these with your offering. The agency landscape in the US faces similar challenges to the UK – the rise of consultancies, in-housing and squeezed budgets – so really focusing in on how you can help your prospects and aligning your proposition and new business marketing material to this will be key to get cut through. You need to demonstrate the value that you can bring.
Productising your offering
Similarly to the UK market, we’ve seen a huge shift in what brands are purchasing from agencies in the US, with much more budget going to strategy and big creative ideas than to execution. Decoupling your creative and commoditised services, and productising what you offer new clients will make it easier for them to identify what challenge you will be able to help them with, and ultimately, help them buy from you. Having different depths to your productised offering will also allow you to scale, as well as offer a way to get your foot in the door and navigate incumbent agencies.
Rapidly building pipeline
In the US you will find that your new business prospects and clients are much more used to being sold to, and networking is key. However, as an industry, it’s relatively underserved for good quality thought-leadership events and content. Ross from Entourage spoke about how they took their UK events programme for one client to the US and realised double the amount of traction in feeding new leads into the pipeline. When crafting your new business plan make sure you include challenge-led events, followed up with insightful content and activated through personalised outreach across LinkedIn, email and picking up the phone. Not only will a plan like this help you to kick-start conversations and feed leads into the top of your funnel, but once you’ve got the formula right it will help you build a sustainable new business programme for the long-term.
Operating in the US
Our panellists have tackled setting up in the US in a range of ways including sending MD’s and teams over from the UK, making senior appointments in the US, and even servicing the US business from the UK. We spoke about the differences between the two countries when it comes to building and nurturing your culture and team, through to servicing clients. ––––
Recruitment and building the team
Our panellists generally agreed on this one – the job market in the US is a lot more hopping than in the UK and people move around a lot. They find LinkedIn to be the most useful channel for recruitment and warned that recruiter fees are even steeper in the US than in the UK. Salaries (particularly in New York) are also much higher, but added perks like flexible working and increased annual leave allowances can help to attract the right talent.
Maintaining, and building culture
Defining your culture, values and vision is going to be crucial to bridging the gap between the UK and the new US business. The cultures between the two countries are very different, and you will need to strike a balance between staying true to the core vision of the business and adapting to local culture. Our panellists shared some actionable tips on how to build and maintain culture:
- Keep your brand consistent across both locations for continuity
- Make sure the UK business doesn’t suffer from a shift in attention
- Take advantage of the digital age to bridge the gap – slack, Google Hangouts and one agency even has cameras in the different offices
- Use tech to host shared company meetings and virtual Friday drinks
Working with US clients
Our panellists spoke about the speed at which US clients work at being much faster than in the UK. They’re (largely) quicker to make decisions and are happy to communicate on calls to speed things up and get moving. As a result, there is much less face time with clients in the US, however, relationships are key. So be sure to get as close to your clients as possible – the hopping job market means they could be an even more valuable contact in the future. ––––
Expanding or scaling in the US?
We’d love to chat
We’ve helped agencies both launch and scale existing operations in the US and have a few new biz tricks up our sleeve for the US audience. If new business in the US is something you’re looking to get serious about then get in touch!
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