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What we’ve learnt building a global firm

6 Mins

Despite starting out in a tiny office above a garage in a quiet London suburb, Brand Learning was always international – right from day one.

Our early work involved us supporting multinational companies, including Unilever, Barclays and Astra Zeneca, in building their global marketing capabilities.  This meant we spent a fair amount of time on planes and in airport lounges.

In the early days we aimed for growth in the region of ten to 15 per cent per annum to create steady momentum for the company -this would have meant the business would double in size every five years or so, though this wasn’t in itself the motivation. 

However, we quickly hit a ‘sweet spot’ of rapid expansion – growing by over 50 per cent two years in succession –which was exciting but put a heavy strain on our energy, our people and our systems.

As the business developed, we increasingly found ourselves working on global briefs and with organisations based in other countries – particularly in Europe (for clients such as Shell and Philips) and in the US (for clients such as PepsiCo and Kelloggs). 

And our growing international client base and ways of working brought a whole new set of challenges: instead of clients being in London or just a short flight away, we had to learn how to deal with major time zone issues, cultural differences, language and the human pressures of long haul travel – often early, late or at weekends.

There were also issues caused by differing international perspectives on the subjects of marketing and capability building themselves. We largely pioneered the category of marketing capability development in the UK and Europe, but it is much less well developed in the States and that has made it more challenging as we came to set up our first overseas office there just over a year ago. The upside, though, is considerable if we get it right.

Over the years, we have increasingly been working at a more strategic level with our clients, winning larger and more complex global programmes rather than just individual projects. One recently required us to facilitate 45 workshops around the world in a very short space of time. 

Our operating model  initially was one of developing strategy and content with global teams and then working to deliver and embed changes in the marketing operating model, vision for marketing and practical ways of working globally. 

That meant we needed talented people in markets outside the UK, to help roll out global programmes with local client teams, but also to develop new business by opening up communications with global marketing and commercial heads based outside of London.

We had identified the US as a priority market because over 20 per cent of our business had already been established there. But in the end it was the availability of the right people to move that made it possible for us to open up our new office.

New York is accessible, well known and a great place to be, with a vibrant marketing community, but not the lowest cost location by any means. So we decided to start up in New Jersey (lower taxes) and use a Regus office (that gave us flexibility for affordable expansion).

We managed to build our local US team quickly, but what we didn’t do – and in hindsight something we should have done much earlier – was to hire senior directors with strong knowledge of the US market and a network of existing contacts.

We made the decision to manage the back office operations and support out of London – this is more cost efficient but also means that the local team did not have to worry about too many administrative details. This has helped our leadership team release time to spend with clients, developing new business and coaching new employees.

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