Being good wasn’t good enough, say PR executives from U.K.-based agencies that staged a small-scale invasion of the U.S. more than a half-decade ago with mixed results.
Looking back six years later, several agency leaders say being a sharp PR pro in Britain played little to no role in the success or failure of their American efforts.
"There’s a danger in PR as an agency owner or boss where you start to believe your own hype and being successful in England, you think you’ll be automatically be successful in every other market," says Ivan Ristic, president and cofounder of Diffusion PR. "That doesn’t make sense."
Diffusion, John Doe, Hotwire, and Frank PR were among the PR shops that established U.S. beachheads in 2012, trying for a piece of the American market and hoping to add a New York City office address to their website’s contact page.
Diffusion and Hotwire have survived and expanded. But Frank PR, facing flat revenues, closed its U.S. office in 2014 (though it expanded at home). John Doe retreated to London in 2016, says former U.S. head Rana Reeves, after he fell out with the agency’s backer.
Leaders from those agencies say success in the massive American PR market requires size and a strong stable of local talent -- but mostly size.
"What I learned is you have to go big or go home," notes Brendon Craigie, cofounder and managing partner at Tyto PR. Craigie was global CEO of Hotwire when it expanded into the U.S.
"If you turn up in the U.S., you’re in a bit of business no-man’s land," he explains. "What I mean is you’re not a local boutique that is founded on a local knowledge, a local network, and local expertise. You’re not a midsize or national agency with highly developed offering and loads of capabilities. And you don’t fit into either of those brackets and you can easily get lost if you’re not quickly establishing some scale."
It’s a lesson Cragie’s successors at Hotwire learned. After opening in New York and shortly later in San Francisco, it employed 18 people. Since then, notes Heather Kernahan, president, North America, the firm bought Eastwick Communications and launched a Minneapolis office and another in Mexico City. Hotwire now has 70 employees in North America, she says.
Hotwire’s U.S. revenue growth was largely in line with its global performance last year, up 3% in the U.S. to $13.3 million while global growth was 5% to $33.3 million, compared with the year prior.
Graham Goodkind is the chair and founder of Frank PR, which pulled out of the U.S. in 2014. "It was an interesting experiment," Goodkind says. "We learned a lot and had fun and did some good client work. We put up a decent roster of clients. Unfortunately, we struggled to get to level of profitability that made it a viable business model."
If he had a do over, Goodkind says he would buy his way into the U.S. market.
"I think to succeed in America you need to get to scale very quickly," he says. "We were in the same bracket as a thousand other agencies that were starting up. If I were to do it again, I’d acquire a small boutique shop and go from there. Instead we tried to do it from scratch and it was quite tough."
It addition to getting an agency noticed, size allows a new firm to handle the wider geographic spread of the U.S.
Craigie and other communications pros say working nationally in the U.S requires knowledge of places from Texas to Minnesota and Florida to Southern California and the Pacific Northwest. None are like New York City, or even each other. He says many Brits, used to most national media and corporations based in or around London, don’t appreciate the difference.
"Often the British, they are slightly unforgiving of how people in the U.S. simplify Europe and talk about it as one place," Craigie says. "However, the British are just as guilty talking about the U.S as one homogenous entity when in fact it is very diverse and different."
Sometimes the problem isn’t size; it’s culture. Tactics that win in the U.K. can fall flat in the U.S. Goodkind found the "quite tongue in cheek punchy PR" he was familiar with "didn’t correlate with the American sense of humor."
Ristic contends U.S. PR is stylistically quite different from British PR.
"The news cycles are different; in fact a lot of things are different," Ristic says. "In the U.K., you can take this very sarcastic approach can be a bit scandalous, and that kind of stuff just doesn’t work in America."
It’s why, Ristic says, he brought only a few staffers over from the other side of the Atlantic and mostly hired Americans.
"The fact that you’re a Brit agency is not a reason anyone’s going to hire you," he says. "We were not creating a Brit agency in America; we were creating an American Diffusion."
Ristic chose not to buy his way to success and counted on that local talent for an edge. The strategy appears to have paid off. Diffusion said it has increased its client count tenfold since it first opened in the U.S.
Meanwhile, Reeves says the U.S. failure of John Doe, at which an agency representative could not be reached for comment, was about basic business functionality.
"It wasn’t as if the agency failed," he says. "One of the things I’ve learned from the experience is that different agencies have different structures. If you want to pursue the New York and London [connection] you have to have the support and backing and people understanding from the London side."