James Clifton, group chief executive at The MISSION Group, shares his thoughts on the cultural nuances that add to the complexity of working across multiple territories
As a group with over 31 disparate locations around the world, from Singapore to Belfast, Shanghai to Norwich, it is always a challenge to manage teams of highly creative people across multiple cultures towards a common set of goals. Consequently, as the “alternative group for ambitious brands”, we define ourselves more in terms of values, attitudes and a shared approach to how we do business rather than a proscriptive set of processes or methodologies.
This certainly helped, back in the good old days, pre-pandemic, when the world felt as if it was heading in roughly, if not literally the same, direction. By which I mean that, even with trade pacts being abandoned and new tariffs being imposed daily, the developed economies of the world were on a positive growth trajectory, inflation was largely under control, exchange rates relatively stable and levels of optimism about the future broadly aligned. Yes, there were local differences but it felt like we were all at least heading in the same direction.
This meant that doing business in diverse markets, Asia for example, meant mastering the not insignificant challenge of cultural and language differences. As any westerner who has tried knows to their cost, that’s easier said than done in Asia. From observing rigid hierarchies in seating plans to how to address your hosts (and in which order), from avoiding the number four with Mandarin-speaking clients to favouring the number eight, and from suddenly realising that the person you’re conducting complex negotiations with isn’t the actual decision-maker, merely the person with the best English, who may be quite junior, it was always a journey of discovery and lessons learned, often the hard way.
Thankfully, the protocol of building genuine personal relationships, deeply embedded across much of East Asia, offered a welcome respite from the labyrinthine maze of things to get wrong.
Now, however, the challenge of doing business in Asia and elsewhere is harder than ever and I don’t mean just because of the suppressed demand and stuttering economies due to Covid. It’s both more complex and more subtle than that.
Firstly, that sense of commonly shared growth across developed economies that characterised the years prior to 2020 is now deeply fractured. While China appears to have bounced back somewhat, Europe lags far behind, with big disparities across even the constituent member states of the EU in terms of growth outlook. The US too, is a deeply fragmented market: while the stock market continues to set new daily benchmarks, specific sectors (travel, tourism, leisure, sports and entertainment) remain deeply compromised and face a long road to recovery. Some US states remain locked down, others wide open.
Across countries and markets, the level of central support provided to citizens and businesses also varies greatly, from direct payments to all taxpayers to wage support schemes and extended credit facilities for small businesses. Some regimes have been very generous, others not at all.
This piecemeal landscape means that marketing campaigns and promotional communications need to either straddle the differences or be deeply localised to feel authentic.
That’s equally true within a company. Regular communications programmes need to bear in mind that some people may be 100% working from home in a territory with a spiking case count and no vaccines yet, while others are released from lockdown with falling case counts and vaccines already available or on the near horizon. Striking an appropriate view of future corporate endeavor can therefore be a delicate balance of acknowledging genuine difficulties with a message of hope for the future.
The discrepancy across markets, even neighbouring markets, makes crafting communications for global brands especially difficult, because the wrong tonality can strike a jarring wrong note, making a brand appear culturally and contextually out of touch with customers. It’s not so much what you say but how you say it.
In Asia, especially, we not only have the challenges mentioned above but the added difficulties of localized lockdowns and curfews, closed borders and even Government actions (as in Hong Kong, Thailand and Myanmar).
It all makes for a very fragmented global scenario for those looking to work and invest in markets. Making a large commitment to a foreign market should, of course, always be a rigorous decision-making process, but now there are so many more variables to take into account. And so many intangibles to consider, such as political stability, regulations and public sentiment.
I’m afraid I don’t have the magic solution – if there even is one – but I do think that now is not the time to give up on communicating with people just because its hard. In fact, it’s because its hard that we need to try even harder. Maintaining a common cultural framework within organisations, despite the difficulties, can actively help give people reassurance and optimism in difficult times. Inviting feedback and practicing active listening, can be hugely positive for people feeling isolated and despondent.
Also, allowing people to share experiences - especially tactics they’ve found helpful – can be a big positive. Acknowledging we’re all tackling these challenges at different speeds means that some can share hard-won learning with others just encountering a problem. That’s surely what teamwork is all about.
And yes, doing business across markets, stumbling along at different paces, is not easy. But hopefully if we can all keep facing in the same forward direction, we’ll surmount these difficulties and emerge again into a brighter tomorrow.