Building a Global Start Up

WE Communications Blog: Alan VanderMolen

— Alan VanderMolen 

Thursday in London I will be standing in for WE Communications co-founder and CEO, Melissa Waggener Zorkin, at The Indie Summit – a confab for leaders of independent marketing services agencies from around the globe.

My topic (which the organizers amended from Melissa’s) reflects the job I share with my colleagues: Building a Global Start Up.

How can an established, 32-year-old agency be a start up? Simple. With our re-brand last year, our founders re-committed to being global and infused a new energy into the agency that is encapsulated with a spirit of entrepreneurialism. The agency was given the permission to aspire beyond our already admirable accomplishments and to re-imagine our future.

As a global start-up, we have a tremendous advantage with an enviable global footprint – 9 countries on 5 continents, a solid base of clients and a wealth of talent. That said, we qualify as neither boutique (single sector or practice business in one or multiple geographies under say US$ 50 million) nor behemoth (multiple sector or practice business in multiple geographies over say US$ 200 million). So, in my view, we have the opportunities and the advantages of a start-up without the anchors of an entrenched, global player.

What is clear for us: We will remain independent. We will compete aggressively in our core sectors on both a local and a global basis. We will use speed, bold solutions and deep value as weapons. We will innovate for the benefit of our clients and our colleagues. 

Exactly how we do those things, however, gets to questions of leadership philosophy and culture. For me, three principles underscore our approach.

1. Market-Up Orientation.

We strive to minimize national, cultural bias. Most global marketing services networks were built as ‘American Global’ (Hill & Knowlton), ‘British Global’ (Saatchi and Saatchi), ‘French Global’ (Publicis), ‘Japanese Global’ (Dentsu) and, now, ‘Chinese Global’ (Blue Focus). While we are admittedly headquartered in the United States, our business spread is such that we can put significant emphasis on voices, influences and outlooks from our colleagues in India, China and South Africa to shape our capabilities, point-of-view, evolution and client orientation. The effort we put into listening and engaging colleagues from those markets equals the efforts applied to colleagues in Australia, Germany, United Kingdom and, indeed, the United States. In addition, we have an expansive national exchange program allowing our colleagues to have secondments away from home. The key point being we want to reflect our clients’ markets and surroundings. We do that by approaching our agency from the markets-up, not headquarters-down.

2. The Relentless Pursuit of the Possible (#RPoP).

This applies to clients and to colleagues. For clients, the daily question is are we doing everything we can – exhausting all avenues – to drive creative, impactful and measurable outcomes for our clients? As an independent, this is a far-reaching question. We actually apply solutions within our core and outside our core in the best interest of the client instead of in the best interest of a specific line of business or P&L. For colleagues, the ask is two-fold: Is the agency providing an environment that encourages innovation and creative risk taking? And, are you pushing yourself to the bounds of what is possible for your client and for your career? It boils down to ensuring we allow The Relentless Pursuit of the Possible…and, yes, I do hashtag it: #RPoP.

3. What Would David Do (WWDD).

This is our competitive philosophy against the big guys. Inspired by Malcolm Gladwell’s book, David & Goliath (read it!), its essence comes from a quote in the book: “Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness.” When we face a holding company or a top 5 five by revenue competitor, we embrace our under-dog size. Much as David spotted his size and skill with a long-distance weapon as advantage against a huge competitor who required close-in, hand-to-hand combat to win, we view our ability to be fast, to price aggressively and to partner through our WE+ group with best-in-class agencies regardless of parentage as our rock and sling shot. So, with each pitch, I do ask: WWDD?

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Alan VanderMolen
President, International & WE+