Trading Places: A Brit in NY and an American in London talk PR, comms and culture shock

Denise Kaufmann and Matt Neale are two agency bosses who have travelled across the pond, from the US and UK respectively. John Harrington finds out about their experiences in their adopted countries.

Despite the shared language and common heritage, navigating through the US PR market as a Brit – and vice versa – can be as precarious as a rush hour taxi ride through Time Square.

As part of our International Expansion edition, PRWeek brought together at our London office two PR agency bosses with unique perspectives on the challenge: Denise Kaufmann, American CEO of Ketchum London, who has lived in the UK since 2010; and Briton Matt Neale, president of international at Golin, who one year ago relocated to New York as co-president of that office. From salaries to working culture and media mores, our protagonists examine the transatlantic culture shock.

When you first moved over to your adoptive countries, what struck you as being the biggest differences from home?

Matt Neale I think it’s the blur between work life and private life in the UK; it’s almost as though one runs into the other. I went with that mindset into the US, even to a city like New York, which I think is culturally very similar to London. People come in, do their job, then they get on and deal with their other life. That was very strange. You really have to change your approach because people’s expectations of what work should do for them are very different to the UK.

Have your perceptions of your adopted countries changed over time?

Denise Kaufmann One of the biggest changes that I’ve noticed is the way that I communicate. Working in New York, it’s much more direct. There’s a cultural shorthand for an American talking to an American. What would seem very natural to me in the US doesn’t necessarily translate here.

MN Do you find yourself being less direct [in the UK]?

DK Yes. I do. Whereas in the US, you could just put it right out on the table. You could argue with people pretty violently actually, and it’s fine. That doesn’t happen here. I think there are a lot better manners.

MN Really? Because I think the US is so civil. There’s a layer of civility across the nation. I feel that Brits are far more straight talking.

Do you find there’s a different style of doing things over here from in the US?

MN I find that Americans are far more professionalised in client service. These people are so polished. They are also older. I think in Britain you get given quite a lot of responsibility at a younger age, whereas in America there are more people in their 40s and 50s still at the peak of their game and there is room to rise. There is maybe another layer of seniority in America that we don’t have here that goes with greater budgets and a bigger country.

DK I would agree with that. Going in at a senior level with big clients in the US, it can be more like a management consultancy. We have that here too, certainly, but not to the same degree.

Is PR taken more seriously as a profession in the US than the UK?

MN There’s more people employed and more money to be earned, because of the size of the market, but I don’t think it’s taken any more seriously, it’s just bigger. But it looks different. The US work is very internal-focused because of the size of the internal market in the US. London is this international hub.

DK In London there’s a real push for the ‘international-ness’. I think maybe because budgets are smaller and maybe because there’s less risk, they’re more creative. One of the things I love about working here is you’re not fenced in in quite the same way you are in the US.

MN Absolutely right, and I think that has an effect on the kind of agencies that are sought after. I’ve worked at a couple of really big places in the UK and we were constantly trying to appear small, whereas in America, it’s like, ‘why would you want to do that?’ The plucky creative agency that exists in the UK... there is really no place for it – that I’ve seen so far – in New York. They just [act like], ‘well, you haven’t got the scale – prove that you’ve done it before’. In America, maybe because there’s more money at stake, they really want to know that you can do it.

DK I think the idea of relationships is really important in both markets. But I think it’s much more transient in the UK. In a lot of the work we do in the US, you see client/agency relationships that have been around forever.

Do you think the US is ahead in areas like diversity and employer practice?

MN I would say no. The state in the UK is so much more impressive when it comes to labour practices. One of our digital directors just had a baby and she was talking about being back in the office in 12 weeks. That was almost considered a long time. It seems brutal for me.

DK I was like, ‘why can’t someone come back in 12 weeks’, because that would be my natural inclination. I’m better now! But at first I couldn’t understand how this could be possible. I was like, ‘what do you mean you’re going to take a year off?’

MN [To Kaufmann] What do you think about diversity?

DK In terms of work forces, I think the UK is ahead, definitely by employing more diverse groups than in the US. I do think it’s probably not where it should be for either country.

MN I think clients in America are often more progressive when it comes to diversity, embracing new markets, whether it’s LGBT, or Hispanic communities.

What about how the media operate?

MN This is from a consumer point of view: it’s really hard to watch the news in America because it’s editorial, whether left or right. You rarely get someone saying, ‘right, this is what’s happened today, I’m now going to get someone to challenge both those views’. It’s, ‘here’s what I think’.

DK I do think it’s difficult for anybody to get an unbiased viewpoint. It wasn’t always like that. It’s gotten so much worse. Sometimes our American clients have a hard time understanding how much of it there is in a market this size [in the UK], that the way they are covered can depend very widely on who is covering them.

We’ve had one client get burned by the Daily Mail. We really have to educate American clients and clients outside the UK market about what that means, that there are a lot of newspapers here and there are a lot of different ways of communicating – radio’s huge in this country, much more so than in the US.

Would you say the US is more progressive in terms of the types of media used?

DK I don’t notice a huge difference. [To Neale] Do you?

MN I always used to think the US clients were six months ahead in terms of, ‘we want us to use this platform, or we’re willing to take a risk in this channel’. Maybe the UK has caught up a little. When I look at the sort of work we’re doing in the US around content marketing and putting money behind it, there’s probably more of an appetite in the US.

[In the UK] you will hear, ‘there’s not much point, you might as well save our budget and do something else’. The relationship between comms people and journalists is a little bit more professionalised [in the US]. It’s a little bit of a business. Let’s be frank: you can pay to get on TV in America. Someone showed me this amazing coverage on the Today show, and I’m like, ‘that looks paid’, and they go, ‘oh it was!’.

What advice would you give to UK agencies looking to set up in a new country?

MN First, I would tell them to think really carefully. The small creative agency is not as respected in the US as it is here. You can’t just have a couple of people in New York and hope to cover this massive media market. You do see a few of these small agencies that have set up in America, there’s this bravado when you do it. Sometimes I just think it’s a little bit arrogant.

DK I think the need for local knowledge here, culturally, is really important.

MN That’s when they get it wrong – three Brits going to New York, then they hire an Australian to be their number two. That’s not going to work.

One thing that’s really infectious about working in America is the level of optimism that people have.

DK It’s a big difference that I did notice. There’s this real sense of optimism, sometimes blind optimism. Here I think people are more cautious, while at the same time taking creative risks, which sounds completely contradictory but I think people do think through things a little more carefully. I think there’s a bigger dose of cynicism, with good reason.

Do you find any differences in the recruitment challenges in the US?

MN It took me a while to get my head around the salary costs. They are much higher in the US, which I think speaks to the size of the market but also to living costs in certain cities. Perhaps that breeds professionalism within agencies and client organisations.

If we were going to start our own business in February, we could have our whole team in place by March, because everyone is on two weeks [notice]. Think about the impact of that to an organisation, it’s remarkable really. All your assets can be gone in two weeks.

DK When you grow up in that system it doesn’t seem as harsh and deplorable as it probably is. Something in between would be perfect.

MN [In the US] people seem to hop around. I’m not sure if I’m seeing more millennial CVs at the moment, but it seems to be ok to do two years here, two years here, two years here... very careerist. This is a little romantic: I would far prefer people who have stayed in one place and proven it. Those CVs are rare anyway, but they seem rarer in the US.

So, US or UK; which has the best PR market?

DK That’s not going to happen! They are so different in many ways.

MN One is right for the country and the culture that it’s there to serve, and the other is right for the country and the culture that it’s there to serve. If you’re in America trying to serve the UK market, then the British way is the best, absolutely, and vice versa. As an international organisation, you’ve got to cherry pick the best of both worlds. You cannot be a global business and be American or British or French because it’s not going to work as well as it could if you can blend those styles, those management approaches, and feel like you’re a sixth continent.

This article comes from the February edition of PRWeek UK.

Click to read the full range of features, analysis and opinion on international expansion, along with the case studies on nine agencies' expansion plans.

John Harrington

John Harrington recommends

international expansion

Read more

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in