How do you staff overseas offices

Tempted to seek out opportunities abroad? You’ll have to have the right mix of international outlook and local know-how. Anna Richardson asks what talent
design consultancies need for their overseas offices

Taking a job abroad has always had its attractions. Designers skip the country for a change of climate, setting or opportunities, and increasingly a keenness to escape the current economic gloom. But when consultancies look to staff offices overseas, the need to pay off a UK mortgage tends not to be at the top of their requirements.

Jonathan Ford of Pearlfisher, which opened an office in New York four years ago, says that ‘a balance of local know-how with company cultural affinity is incredibly important for a design group’, while fellow branding consultancy Fitch, with offices in more than 12 countries, is keen to make use of its international staff to supplement local talent. Recruiting locally is vital in countries such as India, but so is an international perspective, says Fitch chief creative director Tim Greenhalgh. ‘People employ Fitch for its international knowledge. While [clients] appreciate the economies of scale they get when working with the local studio, they do expect an international outlook.’

Other consultancies consider local talent a priority. Martin Darbyshire, president and chief executive of product design consultancy Tangerine, which opened an office in Seoul in 2004, says that even though the criteria for employment remain broadly the same as for the London office – ‘vision, creativity and analytical skills, combined with the right cultural fit’ – the company looks for people ‘who understand East/West thinking, culture, taste and attitudes’. The team is made up entirely of people from South Korea, which reflects this attitude, but also a dearth of European designers working in Seoul. This means Tangerine relies on its local presence and a network of contacts to recruit the right people. ‘Design is a small world and everybody knows everyone in the Korean market,’ says Darbyshire.

Saffron Brand Consultants is also concentrating on local candidates for its new Mumbai office, but for different reasons. ‘Saffron has a very strong feeling that the New York/London axis is increasingly too limited and short-sighted if you want to have a credible claim to be a global brand,’ says Saffron’s Ben Knapp.

When recruiting, ‘the guiding principle was not to have what other branding groups have, which is people from London, New York or Paris running offices in Asia,’ he says. ‘We wanted a fully established Indian office, as much a member of the Saffron family as the offices in New York, London and Madrid, headed by a local Indian person who has an established reputation in this or a similar field in India.’

Saffron now has around ten local staff, found through local recruitment agencies as well as word of mouth, and Knapp hopes to hand over the helm by spring. ‘It was important to find people familiar with the Indian culture and business context and give the unique Indian insight into any project, to be able to produce brands that make sense globally and not just in Western Europe or America.’ But even Knapp stresses that Saffron encourages employees to get involved in other offices. ‘That’s reflective of the globalised, globetrotting company •we are – we’re all keen internationalists,’ he says. Whether moving staff between offices or recruiting people on the ground, one basic prerequisite remains at the top of the list/ talent. ‘The business is a battle for talent,’ says Jonathan Cummings, managing director of Start Creative’s new Hong Kong office. ‘We look for the best people regardless of nationality. We see London as a hub of international talent and our business reflects that.’

Sharon Wheeler, director at Turquoise Branding, which opened a Dubai office more than four years ago, has seen an influx of designers to the area over the past six months. ‘Before, you would have to pay a premium to relocate somebody, but now that’s not the case,’ she says. However, quality might suffer, she warns. ‘Some consultancies make the mistake of just having bums on seats, and sometimes you wonder where the quality is. Clients don’t want to think that they’re [dealing with] the poor relation on the ground. They want to feel like they’ve got the real McCoy.’

Fitch’s Greenhalgh agrees. ‘Finding talent is difficult anyway and even more so when you’re talking about groups in India, Asia or even America,’ he says. The company tries to grow its offices organically by encouraging staff to work abroad and regularly organising exchanges between designers in different locations. Four months ago, Greenhalgh also started a new ‘globetrotter’ programme to identify candidates willing to travel, allowing them to work at a number of international Fitch offices during a set period of time.

As for who would make the best globetrotter, one more box has to be ticked – and it’s not the desire to escape the credit crunch. Greenhalgh says, ‘Candidates should feel ready to see other parts of the world and experience other cultures.’

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