A Small Shop Goes International: It's Not as Overwhelming as It Sounds

From Denver to Shanghai to a Swiss Ski Resort, Challenges on a Global Trail

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Amsterdam, Sao Paulo, Beijing -- the big ad agencies have their international bases covered. But small agencies can expand overseas as well. My agency, for instance, just opened offices in Shanghai and Verbier, Switzerland, after clients asked us for help in these markets. Though the new offices will require some upfront investment, we expect that they will allow us to double the size of the agency in the next three to five years.

Expansion overseas isn't without its challenges, of course, and our efforts to overcome them can be instructive if you're thinking about going in the same direction.

We started from scratch in each location, finding, securing and creating office space. The real work comes in staffing the new operations. First, we secured a vice president of global operations with more than 25 years experience on brand accounts at large agencies around the world. His on-the-ground experience in Europe and Asia will be the "glue" that holds together our global operations. The general managers we hired for each office are local experts. Hiring from the top down ended up being a good decision, because our key hires then turned around and made more key creative, digital and strategy hires, mostly from the nearby area.

As we start the process of building local partnerships, we've offered pretty much anyone in our Denver headquarters -- at all levels of the organization -- the chance to move to China or Switzerland. Several have already volunteered. And we plan to send a few people from the United States to each office to help bridge the international and U.S. teams.

Another big challenge our agency faced in "going global" was choosing office locations. We thought about opening our European office in Zurich, Milan or Amsterdam, but realized that we could best serve our clients -- brands in the sports, outdoor and lifestyle sectors -- by staying away from the large advertising centers. We opened our European office inside a ski resort -- possibly the first ad agency ever located 100 meters from a gondola -- so we could attract the kind of talent who live and breath our brands, and work alongside our brands' target customers every day. In China, such an option wasn't readily available, so we chose downtown Shanghai because of its creative, historic and artistic energy. Both of these decisions were one part strategy, one part gut feeling.

Operational hurdles were ultimately pretty manageable, though Chinese and Swiss business cultures could not be more different in terms of legal, governmental and banking policies. The red tape has made us appreciate how relatively easy it is to do business in the United States. Surrounding our team with legal, accounting, banking and consulting groups made the process streamlined and efficient. One piece of advice: Make as many local relationships as quickly as possible. From new business relationships to new friends met at the local bar, these local connections have helped us get the cultural feel of our new locations.

In the end, going international has taken slightly longer and cost about 15% more than we originally budgeted, mostly because of the challenge of finding great talent. We're still in the early days of our expansion, but are already developing project scopes with our global partners. It's too early to call our effort a success, but if your agency works with global brands, we can assure you that becoming a global partner is an option you can at least consider -- without being overwhelmed by the thought.

Scott Mellin is CEO of Factory Design Labs.
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