If you were still a young chap, would you be content to ply your agency trade in London or would you be busting a gut to land a big job in China or another Asian hotbed of action?
It’s 30 years since the publication of Professor Theodore Levitt’s Harvard Business Review article The Globalization Of Markets, in which he suggested that the needs, wants and attitudes of the planet’s billions of consumers were becoming irrevocably homogenised. It was eagerly swallowed by all those in marketing who longed for simplicity and tidiness.
Imagine you’re the worldwide marketing director of Burgrips International, in 1983, sitting behind your desk on the worldwide floor of the Burgrips building in downtown Dayton, Ohio.
The walls of your vast office are covered with maps. They portray the 23 separate consumer territories for which you are ultimately responsible. Your executive assistant has helpfully colour-coded them to indicate the marketing strategies and creative approaches that have been adopted by each local Burgrips office, together with their local agencies, for each territory. No two are the same.
Your 23 territorial responsibilities are, between them, following 23 different communications strategies: some fundamentally dissimilar and some no more than a matter of nuance.
Only last month, you completed an exhausting personal tour of every one of these territories. Each one told you why it was different: "In this country, we are not brand leader"; "In this country, yellow is associated with incest"; "In this country, no-one washes on a Sunday"; "In this country, the scorpion is a symbol of masculinity"; "In this country, our main competition is desiccated cuttlefish". In your inbox is a memorandum from your chief executive allotting you 15 minutes at the next board meeting to bring the independent directors up to speed on the streamlining of international marketing policy.
Then comes Professor Theodore Levitt’s Harvard Business Review article, The Globalization Of Markets.
With the joy of a prisoner released from captivity, you instruct your executive assistant to make 23 copies, to which you attach the following memo: "To all territories. Please read the enclosed. It is now beyond argument that this is the way the world is moving. Harvard says so and I agree. Trivial local differences will no longer be tolerated as excuses for deviation from the Burgrips Global Communications Template, another copy of which I attach for your attention."
No wonder Professor Levitt won instant converts, many of them in high places. Sensible improvement were made in manufacturing and distribution, but Levitt’s effect on the quality of marketing communications was less benign.
Those all-important subtleties and sensitivities were lost; and the difference between the bland and generic and the uncannily precise is often down to sensitivities and subtleties.
And that, to answer your question at last, is why I’d never try to ply my trade in China. I wouldn’t have the ear for it; and because everyone would know that I didn’t have the ear for it, they wouldn’t bother to listen to anything I had to say.
Blue-chip agencies, such as M&C Saatchi and JWT, still seem to position themselves as an extension of a public school. We like to think of ourselves internally as more grammar-school types – but should we discretely market ourselves as this and, if so, what do you think should be our brand attributes?
Ideally, claimed brand attributes should bear some relationship to brand performance. They someho seem that bit more convincing.
I’ve no idea why you should want to position yourselves as a grammar-school agency. It’s a long time since I’ve heard top clients complain that there aren’t any decent grammar-school agencies around any more. As the old saying goes: it may be a gap in the market, but is there a market in the gap?
Why don’t you work out what you are best at – and then retrospectively work out your positioning?
If you’re not very good at anything, I’m afraid I can’t help you.
"Ask Jeremy", a collection of Jeremy Bullmore’s Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10. Telephone (020) 8267 4919
Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via firstname.lastname@example.org or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP
This article was first published on