WME founder Nick Bell on why a global brand is not part of his expansion plans
Sunday, January 31, 2016/
Creating a global brand is the ultimate hallmark of success in the corporate world. However, when the time came in 2010 to expand to other countries, we purposely put our ego aside and opted not to display our multi-million-dollar Australian business name up in lights across the globe.
We made the decision not to leverage the WME brand name we trade under here in Australia. Instead we carefully selected brand names that better suited each of our international markets. In a world mesmerised by the success of brands like Coca-Cola, Apple, Google and IBM, this approach most definitely bucked the corporate trend.
A global brand wasn’t the right fit
There are many Australian companies that view their market as being global, scrambling to expand their footprint to all corners of the world. But not us. After deciding to enter the global market five years ago, we now have digital marketing agencies in seven countries. Our team operates in Singapore, Dubai, the US, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Thailand and Australia, with over 450 talented digital marketing experts within those offices.
I think there is a misconception amongst some entrepreneurs that they must follow suit, doing as those before them have done in order to achieve success.
Developing a global brand shouldn’t be the priority. Global expansion is about creating a brand that best resonates with your target market within that country, and finding a way to grow that business that serves your long-term goals. It was our decision that all of our agencies would operate under their own unique name, branding, and the professional guidance of a general manager entrusted to make business decisions for that office.
Of course, the biggest downfall to this strategy is that WME is not recognised as a global brand. But it has worked for us.
Personalised branding works
A more personalised branding message for each country we operate in has proven to be a far more successful business strategy for us.
Why? We realised early on that WME’s business ethos did not align with the needs of our global clientele. Each office targets a different clientele with their own distinct needs. WME has thousands of clients in Australia, from SMEs to large corporate clients, whereas our Hong Kong, Thailand and US offices focus on high spending clients.
Aside from that, rolling out the WME brand globally would have made it virtually impossible to sell one arm of the business. And the day may come where I choose to sell one of the international brands. A sale would be for strategic benefit, such as being able to access a new client base.
Creating independent brands for each market and building a strong management team has also allowed me to focus on my passion for investing in and developing startups, including a mobile app development company, organic restaurant in Hong Kong and online events business.
In markets such as Singapore, Thailand and Dubai, we opted to open with a local business partner, who each holds a share of the company in that market. I value my local partners greatly because they help us navigate local market trends and client preferences. We maintain the controlling share of the business, and we’ve put very specific strategies in place to ensure reporting is methodical and routine.
While our agencies operate as individual businesses, we’ve implemented several initiatives to cultivate a sense of unity across all offices. We have a company exchange program where team members will spend a week or two at an international office for training and development. We also have a group wide company Facebook page, where colleagues can post about the latest events, company updates and digital trends.
Expanding overseas is tough
In the early days international expansion was tough, but an experience I wouldn’t change. I remember early on we didn’t have funds for a fit-out, so I laid the carpet myself.
While each office around the world was profitable within months, opening in Asia was a real eye-opener. My market research told me this market represented vast opportunities, but heading over there to set up our office and hire staff was nothing like in Australia. It was tough doing business in an entirely different culture, and there was no welcome mat laid out for us.
I also realised that digital marketing in Asia is two or three years behind what we’re doing in the US and Australia. There’s a lot more need to educate staff there, to bring them in line with what we’re able to offer our clients here. The hard work has paid off and we’ve now grown to 250+ staff in Asia.
WME has been invited to list on the Australian Stock Exchange, but we’re not even close to that at this stage. Again, it would mean having to answer to a board, which I refuse to do.
Admittedly, handling over any decision-making powers given I’ve built this company from scratch makes me nervous. But it’s also given me complete autonomy over a company I’ve built from scratch. And who doesn’t want that?
Nick Bell is the founder of Melbourne-based digital marketing agency WME.