What does the US see in us?

Reed Words founder Mike Reed looks at why British voices seem to be in high demand among US design consultancies and their clients right now.

Long ago, when I was at university, a visiting student from New York told me I had to go to the US as soon as I got the chance. ‘They’ll love your accent,’ she told me.

It seemed unlikely: why would a nation as exuberantly self-confident as the United States be remotely impressed by an accent? Let alone that of its violently rejected progenitor.

Now, of course, I know it’s a long-standing cliché that shows little sign of waning. The Anglophilia is by no means universal: a recent YouGov poll found that 35 per cent of Americans find British accents attractive – hardly a majority. But it’s still over a third of the population – and only 11 per cent of Brits feel the same way about American accents, apparently. 

Whatever the wider social trends, British voices seem to be in high demand among US design consultancies and their clients right now. Personally, I’ve seen a surge in demand from the US, especially New York. And anecdotal evidence suggests I’m not alone.

‘In the past couple of years more and more Brits are either being imported, or transatlantic alliances have been made,’ says Paul Newman, the English co-founder of CO OP Branding in New York.

Leigh Chandler, a British designer who recently relocated to join Vault49 in Manhattan, agrees. ‘It’s a hot topic right now’, she says. But, she believes, ‘[US consultancies] have always struggled to find the right type of creative minds in the US. There seems to be a drought of intelligent, witty thinking in the US design graduate pool.’

Rob Duncan, the English head of Mucho in San Francisco, points to the world’s best-known design brand. ‘For probably the last 15 years,’ he says, ‘Apple’s heads of industrial, packaging and retail design – and the overall brand guardian for Mac – have all been British. It really should say on their products, “Designed in California by a bunch of Brits”.’

Apple recently added to its British contingent by persuading Ben Stott, formerly of NB Studio, to join its team in California.

And what of writing? On a trip to the US last year, I heard more than once about the apparent dearth of conceptually-minded copywriters in the US. This seemed incredible, especially when voiced within a block of Madison Avenue. Surely Manhattan was creaking under the weight of urbane, Bill-Bernbachian writers?

Not so, says Pentagram’s Michael Bierut. ‘People who do writing for business in the US seem to be overly impressed with their own mastery of jargon,’ he says, ‘and at the same time unable to imagine how boring most of this kind of thing is to read.’

‘British writers,’ Bierut feels, ‘seem to have a clearer idea of what they want to say, more confidence in their use of language, less of a need to pander to clients, and an ability to keep everything in the proper perspective.’

Leigh Chandler says something similar: ‘UK writers communicate in five words what an American would say in 55.’

Paul Newman believes it’s about a greater strategic strength in British writing. ‘Better writing demands better thinking,’ he says. ‘It makes for a more interesting and engaging dialogue with the audience.’

But surely we’re at risk of being massively patronising? Surely our US cousins are more than capable of producing great work without British aid?

The ad world recently bade farewell to Madison Avenue’s Julian Koenig, writer of VW’s mould-breaking ‘Think Small’ and ‘Lemon’ ads, among many others. Forty years after Koenig wrote ‘Think Small’, it was named Advertising Age’s campaign of the century.

Koenig, Bernbach, Gill, Glaser, et al – the history of US advertising and design is aglow with brilliance. So what’s changed? Has the US lost something it’s now searching for overseas? If so, how did it get lost? Again, many of those I spoke to felt  the problems lay in education.

‘[The] American education system,’ says Michael Bierut, ‘does a great job of preparing people for business careers on  the arithmetic side, but less so on the reading and writing side.’

Rob Duncan feels design education specifically is an issue. ‘At least on the west coast, designers are not taught to think conceptually,’ he says. ‘It’s almost as if they’re taught to fit in, rather than stand out.’ 

Interbrand executive creative director Mike Rigby has worked extensively in the US and Australia, as well as his native UK. He speaks highly of British design teaching.

’Like many Brits, I was taught that design is first and foremost a skill of the mind, not just the hand or eye,’ he says. The combination of strategic depth, visual and verbal craft, and ‘work that solves big problems for clients’ creates what Rigby calls ‘a perceived “British design IQ” that resonates powerfully abroad.’

I wonder if clients shouldn’t also shoulder some of the blame. I’ve worked on two fairly large advertising briefs for US clients recently, and saw both of them diluted from what I felt was pleasingly original work to (in one case) corporate chest-beating and (in the other) safely saccharine retail messaging.

US clients are understandably nervous of a rapaciously litigious culture, of course, which doesn’t help. On one Christmas campaign, I was told to avoid messaging that was remotely religious. Even Santa Claus was a little ‘too Christian’. ‘We can do snowflakes, basically,’ my US design partner told me gloomily. This is hardly a climate likely to nurture original, exciting work.

For business development consultant Richard Cumming, who represents British talents to clients in the US through his company Two Goats, there’s also a macro-economic angle to the phenomenon.

‘As the US economy and power wanes, clients and their agencies are looking beyond local markets for new growth opportunities,’ he says. In this environment, what Cumming calls ‘the American “me-too” aesthetic’ often loses out to a European focus on distinctive, memorable brands.

If Cumming can build an entire business on the back of this transatlantic trade, then something is surely going on. But it can’t all be one way, surely?

No, says Paul Newman of CO OP. ‘There’s a cross-pollination of British ideas and culture that feeds into an already strong NY global creative community,’ he says. It’s a process from which, in his words, ‘unpredictable and exciting new things emerge’.

That has to be a good thing. And with creatives from every background becoming ever more mobile – and technology connecting all of us more closely – the cross-pollination will surely only increase.

National characteristics, markets and education policies will always leave their mark. But hopefully, in the ever more open and international creative market, high quality work will out – British or otherwise.

Mike Reed is founder of Reed Words.

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  • Oliver Hutton November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    This article is outrageous.

    ‘[US consultancies] have always struggled to find the right type of creative minds in the US.’

    ‘There seems to be a drought of intelligent, witty thinking in the US design graduate pool.’
    How wit and intelligent to say so, also very well documented, thanks.

    US companies have been hiring Brits with the same purpose the US government has hired the British government: use the local expertise to deal with European, Middle Eastern, African and possibly Russian “clients”. Without making the effort to speak a different language.
    The empire strikes back and buys where and when it matters, to its own convenience.

    But in branding agency culture being honest doesn’t matter, does it?

  • David Thompson November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I visited a friend in NYC a couple of years ago who’d been working there as a freelance designer for several years – after serving his time at one of the most bold and interesting agencies in the UK (if not the world).

    He loved his life in NYC, had started a family and was (and still is) set to stay for good, but looked back at the UK and missed the wit and humour which British clients enjoyed… And suggested that US clients didn’t feel the need to connect with customers as people first, preferring to treat them as sales targets to be met. So perhaps the education system (and culture at large) does focus on large-scale business success before individuality.

    Through several years of VL teaching at UK universities – I think the opposite is true… Students are taught to value ideas and originality above all else, and commercialism is rarely even discussed let alone taught.

    So perhaps it should be no surprise that Steve Jobs was American and Jonathan Ive is British.

  • Mike Reed November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Oliver Hutton – sorry you feel it’s outrageous. I was just reporting on what looked to me like an interesting trend. When I spoke to contacts in the US (American and non-American alike), I discovered remarkably consistent corroboration. That’s why I included so many quotes – I wanted to show that this wasn’t just some fancy of my own.

    I really don’t think there’s any dishonesty here. I may well be wrong, of course, and definitely welcome any insights that might refute the thesis.

    For my part, all my commissions from the US have been for work aimed at US audiences (including a number of local NYC projects) or global ones – not specifically for local audiences this side of the Pond.

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