FEATURE14 August 2009

Crossing the pond

Features

How wide is the gulf between the research industries in the US and the UK? We asked Owen Jenkins, a Brit in the US, and Charles Jennings, an American in the UK, for their impressions of the differences, the ups and the downs of being an outsider.

An Englishman in Boston

Owen Jenkins is US managing director of Kadence International


MAKING THE MOVE
I met and married an American girl in London and, after a couple of years and two children, we decided that the time was right to move back to my wife’s home town. When I informed Kadence’s CEO of our plans, he told me that Kadence was thinking of opening up a US office anyway. As my wife was from Massachusetts and the CEO was familiar with the area, Kadence opened its first international office in Boston.

DAY ONE
My first big impression was travelling through immigration. When the clerk asked if I was emigrating, it all sounded so final. The weather was the next big thing to hit me. The air temperature can get down to -20 degrees during the winter, and in July and August the average high is 27-28 degrees – so I needed a larger wardrobe.

When I moved over here in 1996 I came from a world of suits, whereas the US was business-casual even then, and dress-down Fridays meant jeans and sneakers. I stood out painfully in my suit on my first visit to the 3M head office in Texas, where I was informed that only salespeople wore suits.

I did notice and appreciate that US organisations will listen to your pitch. They may say no, but they will always listen. This attitude was important when building a business.

A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE?
I think that US clients are more demanding. The cliché that Americans never stop working is true - people take laptops on holiday (sorry, vacation) and let you know their mobile numbers. Vacations tend to be shorter, ‘fortnight’ doesn’t even exist as a word, and weekend work is common.

The immense size of the US can be awe-inspiring, and although the job is fundamentally the same, the budgets and contracts are often much larger than those experienced in the UK. I had heard America described as the largest consumer society the world had ever known but I didn’t truly comprehend the scale. With this spending comes immense business opportunity but also intense competition.

I have worked with some very large companies in the US, and that can make the research more unwieldy

I have worked with some very large companies over here, and that can make the research more unwieldy. Research plans and questionnaires sometimes need to be signed off by multiple ‘internal’ clients who can have differing perspectives, and who you might not have direct contact with. Also, as research may not have a seat at the big table it’s important that results can be communicated easily by a third party.

Americans are interested in the next big thing, and are quick to adopt new tools and techniques. This speed of action is good for innovation but needs to be managed during execution. The ‘go for it’ attitude is refreshing when starting out but if it results in ‘unmaking’ decisions later, it can be frustrating.

THE VIEW FROM OUTSIDE
I believe that my time in the US has allowed me to look at things with fresh eyes, not just here but also back in the London office. I thought that I knew the US when I came over, as we are exposed to many things American in the UK, but I didn’t. This encouraged me to started asking a lot more questions. However I do believe that the average UK citizen is exposed to a wider range of experiences than their US counterpart. This allows me to offer a broader perspective on research issues, which in turn helps to anticipate implications and plan accordingly.

WHERE IS HOME?
I have lived in the US for 14 years and two of my children were born here. As the children grow up my wife and I may have more opportunity to travel, but I don’t know what the future holds.

MY ADVICE
If you get the opportunity, take it. You’ll learn a lot about yourself and the country you came from as much as the country you visit. The US would not have been on my shortlist of places to work had I not married an American, but it has been a worthwhile and fulfilling experience.

An American in London

Charles Jennings is a principal director at the UK’s Avista Consulting


MAKING THE MOVE
My wife is English, and when we first married we thought we would alternate between the countries. Crazy idea, but we were young. That kind of nomadic existence hit the buffers once we had children and seemed to settle us where we were at the time, which was the UK. As more children followed it was not so simple to up stakes and move around, however attractive a new posting might be.

DAY ONE
People use more colourful and descriptive words in the UK than in the US, where language and communications can be direct and blunt. I remember being on the Underground in London and seeing a sign saying ‘Blocking the doors causes delays and can be dangerous’. It sounded so poetic and such a nice way of getting you away from the doors. In the US it would just say ‘Keep clear’.

Within the office, colleagues were more formal and polite than American workers. I had to get out of the American habit of automatically abbreviating a person’s name. A US boss also has a more visible presence, down at worker level, sleeves rolled up and nudging you on. It’s a case of learning the culture, but I think you are more quickly assimilated in the US office than here.

A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE?
I’m actually amazed at how similar the routines are between the US and UK. Market research is international and very much the same wherever you go. However, US desk research resources are more advanced as so much has been surveyed, catalogued and reported on compared with Europe and the UK.

The main difference seems to be in the strength and cohesiveness of the research industry in the UK. In the US it feels like the research sector is a poor relation of the more important sales, marketing and PR industries

The main difference seems to be in the strength and cohesiveness of the research industry in the UK, focused around an active and supportive trade association with relevant journals and events. In the US it feels like the research sector is a poor relation of the more important sales, marketing and PR industries, and doesn’t have the same voice. Market research is often seen as a career step as you work your way through marketing.

Distances are greater in the US so there is less chance to get to know other agencies as well as you can in the UK. In the UK there tends to be better contact between suppliers and buyers, and that enhances the industry’s ability to present a cohesive image.

The US also offers a greater ‘can do’ feeling and support for the small guy or newly arrived agency. Even large corporates are willing to give you a chance to quote despite not having heard much about you. In the UK I feel there are more hurdles to get over to prove yourself, or to be considered in the first place.

On the respondent side, UK focus groups seem to require more moderator encouragement than in the US. I think this is because Americans are more keen to share their opinions – sometimes so eager that you have to slow them down.

THE VIEW FROM OUTSIDE
I think taking a more commercial and practical ‘American’ view is helpful at times.  A good commercial understanding of the problem is useful in deciding on the research programme. For example, asking questions like ‘What exactly will the research do to help the client get to the bottom of their problem?’

When working with American clients, I feel that I know how they are looking at the problem and what they are expecting from their European research. This helps to anticipate beforehand where the problems and pitfalls might occur, and suggest in advance the ways of dealing with them.

WHERE IS HOME?
It’s funny that whenever I hear the word ‘home’ I associate it with the US where I was born and spent my formative years and early job experiences. But I’m afraid it’s here in this second home that I’m likely to stay.

MY ADVICE
If you’re going to work abroad, the younger the better. Try it.

4 Comments

11 years ago

Really interesting piece. I especially liked the view of the American in the UK and can see exactly where he is coming from having had my own experiences of working abroad. Good content and well written piece. I would like to hear more from Mr Jennings in the future

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11 years ago

Great articles from both gentlemen. Interviews such as these can be real insights and a boon to those involved in the business world of Britain and the US. I'm not sure that issues brought up in these articles are discussed between business people at seminars and business meetings between the different countries.

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11 years ago

This was such an interesting artical. I like the fact that Mr Jennings referred to London Underground as "poetic" very insightful. I couldn't help but smile when reading the content of Mr Jennings' artical. Nice views and interesting to read!

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11 years ago

This article made for a pleasant read and both gentleman highlight some interesting attitudes towards how many aspects of market research differ between the UK and US. From my experience, business to business research can be more personal in the UK compared to US and maybe distance does have something to do with this as Charles Jennings suggested. Additionally, project speed does not always indicate quality and maybe it is better to take a more formal and timely approach to some research. Therefore larger companies covering greater distances may miss out on the details of the smaller based client. More articles like this please - it gives a nice personal insight into the workers behind market research today.

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