Away We Go: Investing in a Global Point of View

It’s safe to say that the boundary-free nature of the virtual world is helping break down cultural barriers and engender a more informed perspective and debate among the wider world. Even so, are Google searches, blogs, Facebook and international tweetups enough to give a marketing professional a truly global point of view?

I think not.

Today we have chat, Skype, video-conferencing and a zillion other tools to instantly reach colleagues and clients in nearly any city from San Francisco to Shanghai. But when it comes to planning holistic marketing communications programs for giant global brands, that kind of virtual connectivity is not enough. As marketers we have to make bolder moves to broaden our perspectives.

By rotating select staff members among offices for short- or medium-term assignments, agencies can facilitate an exchange of cultural experience, which in turn builds their knowledge base and helps them better understand their clients’ particular audiences. Marketers talk about being “geographically agnostic” and how global is the new local, but not enough are pulling the trigger and instituting global rotations within their own agency rosters.

Not to sound like a Peace Corps ad, but a global perspective really can only be achieved by getting out there and walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. I know because I’ve done it. In one instance, I spent three years working on an account in Mexico City, followed by six months each in several other Latin American nations. My experiences working with local people on a daily basis made a huge difference in how I related to clients and my colleagues on the other end of the line when I came back to the U.S.

It’s one thing to win a huge multinational client, it’s another to provide the client with a truly expansive viewpoint. People who spend every day at company HQ, especially in hyper-urban cultural melting pots like New York or London, can feel they’ve seen it all. But in fact they become insulated, no matter how smart or savvy they may be. It’s exactly those people who need to get out of their comfort zones and understand how international practitioners, clients and audiences operate on a day-to-day basis, how they communicate with one another and what their challenges are.

A couple of doors down from me sits a colleague on a short-term stay from another country. She’s one of the most popular people in the office because she thinks differently. How better to shape and focus a global client’s brand dialogue so that it resonates with local audiences than by having people in the room who personally understand the nuances? Not only do clients benefit tremendously, but your organization is also strengthened in a way that’s different and differentiating.

It’s not exactly a brand new concept, but it’s more important than ever that we grasp it. Consider the growing promise of the BRIC nations in practically every business sector. What better way to get a head start now than to put international team members on the ground in Russia and China, and not to run the local operations, but to experience culture, uncover lifestyle patterns and identify potential clients?

An obvious challenge is money. Mostly everyone is running lean and mean. But while sending people abroad can be a sacrifice for some, it’s an investment for all. And we know that in a recession, whenever possible, we have to take a long view and invest in growth.

If you’re short-staffed, consider leveraging the expertise of some of your international counterparts by asking them to spend time in your office: Maybe someone from an area of the world who historically has had fewer resources, and who has experience doing more with less. Just think of what an asset it can be to gain a new approach to solving the same set of problems.

If you truly can’t afford to implement a global talent rotation program, think broadly about ways you might fast-track less-costly sessions in culture exchange and appreciation throughout your organization. A one-off targeted training event could give diverse people a chance to learn and problem-solve together as well as socialize. Company-wide global meetings can get expensive, but bringing together smaller individual global account teams can be a tremendous opportunity to share perspective, grow international culture and get to know colleagues.

In an age of limitations on actual dollars, international rotations can be a form of incentive that ambitious, career-focused employees get very excited about, and it can be a way to help attract and retain top talent. A career- and life-enriching opportunity — not to mention knowing your company has enough confidence in you to make the investment — may not be money in an employee’s pocket, but it’s a reward. It’s an experience beyond value, for all involved.

Michael Ramah is a partner and director of strategic planning at Porter Novelli. He can be reached at