If you’re a British expatriate in the US and you have a nostalgic longing, all you have to do is switch on the television for a weird mix of nostalgic BBC programming and the more modern reality TV villains.
Public television channels such as Channel 13 in New York make sure you can catch up with ten-year-old episodes of Eastenders or the now politically incorrect humour of Are You Being Served? on a regular basis. And it seems ever since the arrival of Simon Cowell on these shores, every US reality talent show on network television must feature a judge with an English accent telling off yet another wide-eyed fame-seeking teenager.
None of this is new of course. From the Beatles through to the recent strong showing at the Oscars British creative talent has always punched well above its weight and sometimes on far more limited resources than American creatives can count on.
And it’s not just in the entertainment industry but also in advertising and marketing where the UK has produced some of the world’s biggest and most influential agencies, including Saatchi & Saatchi and BBH. Not forgetting of course second largest global agency group, WPP.
In the early Nineties when the world started to go truly digital with the advent of the Web, it seemed to be all about Americans with their amazing technology resources out of Silicon Valley and seemingly inexhaustible funding leading to the dot-com boom.
Many of the companies launched in the UK are now household names including MSN, Yahoo! and AOL as well as many smaller technology companies and digital agencies. Google came a little later.
Resilient track record
One of the interesting outcomes of the dot-com crash that followed in 2001 was that many of the UK arms of the US companies seemed to weather the storm better than their mother-ship companies. They were having a rough time in a US market, which had turned its back on digital in part as an emotive reaction to the wider stock market downturn.
That ability to manage well through the course of tough times seemed to have helped the British online advertising market close what was once a wide gap some way behind the US market.
The New York Times picked up on this a few months ago in an article, with a headline announcing: “The Future of Web Ads is in Britain”. The article said the British online advertising sector had benefited greatly from being a national market rather than a mainly regional market like in the US with its two main East Coast and West Coast poles and everything else in between.
But with the digital marketing sector growing rapidly on both sides of the Atlantic there is a dearth of talent and suppliers for clients.
This has led to the arrival of numerous British digital executives to key cities such as New York and San Francisco.
One such executive who moved from London last year is David Eastman, president international of Agency.com, Omnicom’s lead standalone digital agency.
“The market for online advertising is more advanced in the UK,” says Eastman. “I think the craft skills are better in the UK and I apply that across the board not just in my agency.”
Others British executives agree that their talents are appreciated here. “The advertising and marketing industry in the UK is at an exceptionally high level,” says Chrysi Philalithes, vice-president of global marketing at Miva, a search advertising company, created in 2004 after London-based Espotting merged with Florida-based FindWhat.
And it’s not just individual executives who are finding their way to the US. Numerous agency executives have been spotted in meetings in the US exploring what chance they might have of opening up shop here.
Philalithes, who moved for Miva to New York last year, explains: “There are great opportunities in the US market. The scale of the US market is so large but it’s also growing.” However, on a note of caution she adds: “There’s also a lot of competition here.”
One young agency that has actually opened up shop and is doing a lot of work in the digital space is Naked Communications, the strategy and communications shop. It opened an office in New York in January 2006 and so far has 25 people working full-time for clients including Coca-Cola, Nokia and Johnson & Johnson.
Naked New York founding partner Paul Woolmington says his agency sees North America as an important hub among the eight markets it has entered so far, particularly with regards to digital marketing.
“Without question, America is disproportionately important when it comes to digital,” he says. “Let’s face it some of the largest companies driving this space have their headquarters here.”
Woolmington says that although there are very talented digital executives in the US, the rapid growth has pushed up demand for skills. “The US growth has soaked up executives from other markets, especially the UK, but also means there is room for more digital agencies that have interesting points of view.”
But though Naked has been successful at carving itself some space in the US it won’t be easy for others to make the leap because of the fragmented nature and sheer scale of the US, say others.
“There’s enough work to support more digital agencies but what’s holding it up is the way that digital projects actually get to agencies,” says Agency.com’s Eastman. By that he means how many clients’ request-for-proposal process typically goes through the lead traditional advertising agency, which tends to put the digital agency at a disadvantage.
Typically one of the skill sets that British talent gets most praised for is creativity. Elliot Cravitz, associate creative director at Digitas New York, says that it has to do with the way British students and other Europeans are trained at art school.
“Here in the US the training is quite pragmatic and oriented towards a career,” says Cravitz. “In Europe you’re perhaps not forced into the corporate realm and start right off as a pure play creative.”
For Eastman one of the skills that he finds lacking across the agency industry in the US is account planning. “There’s a very small gene pool of planners here that we’re fishing from. I’m thinking of bringing over planners from the UK to seed the skills that are needed,” says Eastman.
Planning skills are necessary to help the agency’s creative work acquire more focus, explains Eastman, so producing the best results for the client.
Naked says it has done well in the US because it has been able to provide a unique strategic service for clients that many US agencies typically do not address.
The US online ad market is huge even though the UK’s market is growing more quickly. According to US Interactive Advertising Bureau, online advertising alone was worth an estimated $16.8bn (£8.4bn) in 2006. This means that a lot of agencies are able to specialise successfully. Some companies are very niche in their offering in the US, says Woolmington.
“They are fantastic search optimisation specialists or brilliant Web designers or people who are great at rich media, but what UK companies can help with are strategic issues that clients now face. People in the UK tend to have a better strategic focus.”
Yinka Adegoke is a New York-based business journalist. firstname.lastname@example.org