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Taking your agency global

Have you ever considered expanding to other countries, either by hiring help or signing up clients outside your current borders?

Chip and Gini share some of their experiences in working internationally as an agency, including things that you should consider before you take the leap and the benefits of doing so.

The co-hosts answer some common questions they get from agency owners, and they talk about some of the challenges that they have encountered along the way (and how they handled them).

Key takeaways

  • Gini Dietrich: “You should be thinking about payments. You should be thinking about cultural differences. You should be thinking about paid time off, and all of those things that come with it so that you are ready for it.”
  • Chip Griffin: “Particularly if you’re doing international work, use shared calendar invites because that then handles issues like time zones and daylight savings time and it will move it around on your schedule.”
  • Gini Dietrich: “Be cognizant of the fact that many countries have much better family leave plans than we do, and they have better paid time off policies than we do.”
  • Chip Griffin: “You need to be thinking about regulatory things when you’re working internationally. You need to be thinking about things like privacy laws, particularly if you’re doing anything in the digital sphere and data collection. The rules are different in other countries. Make sure that you have some local advice on this so that you’re not just winging it.”

The following is a computer-generated transcript. Please listen to the audio to confirm accuracy.

Chip Griffin: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m Chip Griffin.

Gini Dietrich: I’m Gini Dietrich,

Chip Griffin: and we’re going for a trip around the world today, Gini, right after this,

around the world in 18 minutes. That’s…

Gini Dietrich: That was not bad. That was not a bad segue at all. That was one of your better ones.

Chip Griffin: Wow, I’m, I’m disappointed in myself. I feel like I need to get under a much lower bar.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. Well the bar was already pretty low.

Chip Griffin: I know, but that’s why I wanna go under it. When, when I clear that bar, I’m very disappointed in myself.

Gini Dietrich: Lying on the ground. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Chip Griffin: No. We are talking about agencies operating internationally, having international clients, having international employees. Partnering with agencies internationally, having an international office, all of those different things, because there are a lot of agencies in the world today that look around and say, Hey, everything’s global.

Maybe I should be too.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. And it’s not, I mean, in today’s world with remote working and technology the way that it is, it’s not hard to do. There are some things you have to think about. There are some cultural differences, but it, it is something that can easily be done in today’s world.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. And I, and I think that it’s, it’s one of those things where you just need to, to figure out what you’re willing to do, what you’re able to do and then understanding what those impacts, as you say, are. What are the, what are the gotyas, if you will, of operating in different places and are you willing to do what needs to be done in order to address it? So let’s, let’s start talking about a few of those things.

And so why don’t we start with, with one that is pretty common or more common today for agencies, which is employing help overseas. So having contractors who are in other countries typically. And so this is a question that I’ve been asked by a number of clients over the last year because, you know, they’re – the US job market is very difficult right now, and so hiring contractors or employees is very difficult for many agencies. And so they look around and they say, Hey, you know, Eastern Europe, Eastern Europe, Central America, the Philippines, there’s lots of people out there I hear about that I can go out and hire.

Should I? What do I need to be thinking about? Yeah.

Gini Dietrich: And I have, I have done – in all of those locations, had employees, well, I wouldn’t say employees because it’s really challenging to hire employees. So what we’ve done is, you know, 1099 contractors. So we’ve hired every…

Chip Griffin: except you don’t 1099 ’em, because they’re overseas.

Gini Dietrich: Correct, Right.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. So from our perspective, they’re contractors, but yeah, it is different depending on where they are. And it depends, right? It depends on where they are. It depends on their culture. It depends on their society. It depends on all of the, the rules and regulations that they have. Typically, they’re, they don’t tend to be as strict as as we are in the US.

So that’s good because you’re going from someplace that’s really strict and highly regulated to places that are not as. So it makes it a little bit easier, but you definitely do have to understand, you know, all of the things that go into that and how people are paid. Like for instance, in Canada, you have to add a VAT tax on top of what you pay.

So, you know, there are things like that that you wouldn’t necessarily know unless you, you are working inside different countries. But, you know, just like we say at the end of every episode, it depends on, on which country it is and what the kind of work that you’re trying to do on how it works.

I personally like to use things like Upwork because they have it all figured out, and then you can hire experts based on what you need. But I’ve also had full, what I would consider full-time employees handling things like content and social media.

Chip Griffin: Yeah, and it is, you know, there’s a lot of different ways to go about it using a service like Upwork or one of the offshoring agencies that are out there that can help, you know, facilitate these arrangements.

In a lot of these countries specifically, there are businesses set up where they, they essentially are almost, they are effectively the local employer. You’re hiring them and, and they’re really just sort of a country specific middleman, if you will. My experience though is that, that most agencies just ask forgiveness rather than permission.

At least as you get more off the beaten path with countries, Canada’s a little bit different. You know, Western Europe would be a little bit different, but once you start dealing with Eastern Europe, Central America, Asia, a lot of folks just send the money and kind of hope that it never comes back to bite them.

Gini Dietrich: Right.

Chip Griffin: In part because it’s very difficult and frankly, Not cheap in order to figure out what all the rules and regulations are in those places if you’re doing it directly. So I am certainly not endorsing the ask forgiveness, not permission, but I can tell you that it’s incredibly common when people are hiring directly in some of these locations.

So, So that’s something to think about. The other thing to think about though is when you’re hiring in these areas, how is it going to be different from hiring someone local to you or in your own country. And so you’ve already cited cultural differences, right? There are, in some parts of the world, when you hire people, they are very unlikely to question you.

They’re unlikely to push back, like if you make a suggestion, that’s maybe not the best one. Whereas in the US you know, a lot of times it’s pretty easy to get an employee to say, No, that’s just dumb. I’m not doing that, right? There are, there are a lot of cultures out there where you may be hiring overseas and they may just take whatever you say as gospel and run with it.

If that’s what you want, great. If you want someone who’s going to push back and, and offer some contrary advice, that may not be what you get in some of these locations. So you really need to understand sort of those kinds of nuances. So if you’re going into an area where you haven’t worked with folks there before, talk to people who have and understand because there are some places where if you tell someone climb a hill, you have to tell them, here are the 10 steps.

Gini Dietrich: Right. Yes.

Chip Griffin: And they will follow the 10 steps. And they will do great job following those 10 steps. Yes. If they get to step eight and they think, Mm, this isn’t a good idea, they’re going to step nine anyway.

Right. Right. So you need to think those things through and, and it’s something where I have hired help in basically every part of the world over the last 20 years. And you really need to know those things because it impacts how you specify the work to them, how you manage them and frankly, the result that you can expect to get from it.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, and I would also say you have to be cognizant of the fact that many countries have much better family leave plans than we do, and they have better paid time off policies than we do. So when you hire somebody, especially from Canada or Western Europe, they’re accustomed to a certain amount of time off like a full month in August, and they’re accustomed to a year off for maternity leave where we do maybe six weeks with just short term disability.

Right. So you certainly, the country is trying to change that here, but it’s not, that’s not where we are yet. So you have to be cognizant of the fact that those things are very culturally sound in their countries, and you have to be aware. So if you’re going to offer that for, for your international employees, you have to offer it for your domestic employees as well.

Chip Griffin: And, things you might never think of, like the logistics of payment.

That can be very different in some countries. There are a lot of places that you might not even think would be this way, but you cannot send a check and you can’t send a wire transfer. You’re going to have to find a different way to transmit funds to those individuals. And so you need to think about those things in advance and just make sure that, you know, you’re, you’re setting yourself up properly so that you can actually pay people in a timely fashion.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. I remember the first time somebody said, I can’t get a payment that way, and I was like, but you’re halfway across the, around the world. How am I gonna pay you? PayPal. I was like, Oh, okay. Right. Which is strange to me that I would send somebody’s paycheck through PayPal, but that’s how we did it.

Chip Griffin: And, and this is true even in some western developed countries.

Gini Dietrich: It is.

Chip Griffin: This is, this is, I’m, you know, we’re not talking about, you know, off the beaten path islands in the middle of the Pacific that have no electricity or something like that. I mean, this is, this is places you just would not think of. Right. Not having the access to the same banking tools that we have here.

That’s the case and, and you need to make sure that you’re understanding that if you’re, particularly if you’re gonna be hiring one on one, which is why it’s often better if you can work through some sort of an intermediary, whether it is country specific or whether it is global like Upwork or something like that.

So, you know, kind of factor those things in. The last thing I would say from an employee standpoint, and it’s a good segue over onto other aspects of working internationally is how you deal with time zones. And so you need to be thoughtful about how the, the time zones affect the contractors that you’re working with overseas.

You need to think about how it impacts clients, right? So this is, this is something that, that really does go across other things. And so you need to think about what you’re willing to do from a time perspective and what those team members are willing to do as well. There are some times where you may have an employee in a particular country who is actually trying to get work in the US because they’re happy to work nights, right? Maybe it works better for their family situation. So you need to understand what their expectations are regarding time zones, what your expectations are, and make sure there’s a mesh because that’s really important for an employee standpoint.

But as we, as we transition onto the client aspect of working internationally, it’s really important there as well.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, I think you, you, that’s exactly right. And trying to figure out what works for everyone. But you know, I would say that works in the US too, especially if you’re using contractors. Like I have a brilliant content producer that I use, she’s fantastic, but she has a full-time job, so she does stuff nights and weekends for us. I have to be okay with that if I want to continue to work with her and I do. So, you know, you have to find out those, those things where you’re flexible with your international contractors and employees, because you, you’re right, as you bring in clients in the mix, into the mix that are international, they’re going to have different expectations on your time zones as well.

Chip Griffin: Right, And, and, and it’s not just time zones, it’s holidays and things like that too, right? Yep. There different cultures have different holidays, and so understanding that, you know, you have clients who, if you’re here in the US they’re going to be open on Thanksgiving, right? Right. Is that okay? Like, do you have a plan to deal with that?

Is the work that you’re doing not dependent upon you being available that day or is it? And so, you know, you need to to plan for those kinds of things, and you need to plan ahead for those kinds of things. So it doesn’t come as a surprise to a client who, frankly, Isn’t aware when American Thanksgiving is.

Gini Dietrich: No, they are not.

Chip Griffin: Any more than most listeners to this podcast in the US have any idea even when Canadian Thanksgiving is or was.

Gini Dietrich: It just happened.

Chip Griffin: Yes. That’s why I use that particular example because…

Gini Dietrich: Because it just happened.

Chip Griffin: Because you know, the Canadian border’s only a couple hours north of us as it is for you as well. So.

Gini Dietrich: I laughed when you said that because a couple of years ago, we had just started working with a UK client. We’ve got this all figured out now, but we had just started working with them when we had fallback daylight savings.

Right. And we had a meeting scheduled, and it was the same meeting every Monday. But we had fallen back and they do not, So we didn’t show up for the meeting on time.

Chip Griffin: Well, they do, but it’s a, it’s a, it’s one week difference. It’s, it’s, Yeah. Just to make your life absolutely miserable. It’s not like they never fall back.

They do. It’s just not the same weekend. So it just really messes you up for like three weeks. So, you know, as you’re trying to figure it out, you then you finally settle back on it. But there are, there are countries that don’t change. Right. And so, You know, when you’re, when you’re trying to deal with that, that becomes a challenge as well.

But you have that even in the US there are some states that not observe – Arizona. And, and I used to do a lot of work with people in Arizona and that was a nightmare because we’d all of a sudden have meetings that if, if we had agreed on a certain time, that time was changing, which is why, particularly if you’re doing international work, use shared calendar invites because that then handles those things and it will move it around on your schedule.

You, you’ll still gonna have problems, but at least that problem is probably not that you showed up at the wrong time. It’s probably that you now have an overlap on a meeting somewhere else that didn’t move at the same time, etc. So, time zones are really important in understanding how those impact things.

Because it can be really great to say, Hey, yes, I, you know, I’d love to work with this, you know, fancy fashion brand in Italy. Okay, great. Understand what that means from a time zone difference. Can you do the work in the overlapping window that you have available? Do you need to work outside hours? Because if it’s a client, you are the one who’s going to have to sacrifice generally.

Right? Right. Not them. But that’s an honest conversation you need to have in the process with them before they become a client. So, you know, you know, how, how big of an issue is this going to be? Are you going to need to have me at 7:00 AM every day, which is, you know, 1:00 AM my time.

Gini Dietrich: Right. That’s a problem.

Chip Griffin: Are you cool with that or not? I mean, yeah, maybe you are. Maybe you’re a night owl. Maybe you want to be up at one a.m.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. I am not, and I just recently told the client no, that I was not meeting with them at 2:30 in the morning. But I would say for the most part, at least based on my experience, especially in Western Europe, They’re accustomed to working with East coast companies, so if you’re on Eastern time or even central time, which is what I am, it’s pretty doable.

I mean, you start working with them at two or 3:00 PM their time, and they go, they, they go late. They go until six or 7:00 PM so they’re, they’re pretty, most of them, especially if they’re large or are accustomed to working east coast time with Americans. So it’s not as big of a deal. But yeah, I, I literally just had somebody say, Can you meet us at 8:30 our time and I was like, No, that’s the freaking middle of the night.

Chip Griffin: Right. But it’s, it, and you’re absolutely right. And, and I’ve done a ton of work with Europeans over the years and, and you know, they are very used to, to dealing with the US, particularly the East coast and, and so they understand those hours.

But you also need to think about, okay. You know, am I a morning person? Am I going to be sharp during that overlapping period? Yep. Do I, do I have other commitments with other clients? I mean, are, are my mornings already all jammed up with other stuff because they’re not going to be available to you in the afternoon in the US Right?

And so, so you need to think through just all of those little impacts. And there are things that, that oftentimes people don’t think about until they’re actually starting to schedule things once they’ve become a client. So you want to think about that in advance, whether it’s an employee, a contractor, a partner, a vendor, a client, whatever. All of those things, the, the sooner that you think about those issues and you try to figure out if it’s going to be a problem, and if so, how you can address it, the better.

Gini Dietrich: So one of the things that we, we touched on with employees or contractors is the cultural differences. And I think that’s really important to understand as well.

And you know, with, with Canada, with Western Europe, it’s a little, it’s not as, jolting. But if you’re working in Asia, like I had a, I have a really good friend I had lunch with last week and he was, he was telling me this story of how they had a Korean client and they, it was a big account. They won this big account and they were very excited and they thought, Okay, we’re gonna fly over there and we’re gonna roll up our sleeves and we’re gonna brainstorm and we’re gonna get down into the trenches and we’re gonna do this work together and we’re gonna have a great time.

And it turns out Koreans don’t like that. And so they went to do this and it was very standoffish. They didn’t want to participate at all. And what they learned through that experience is that they needed to accommodate early and work really hard and do the brainstorming and all the work ahead of time, and then go into the meeting the next day and present three ideas.

And not only that, but then they would say things like, this idea, could it work in this country? And that meant that they liked that idea, but they would not necessarily, necessarily say like we do here, oh my gosh, I love that idea. Let’s see if we can do this, this, and this. They say, they’re very just laid back and, and sort of, I wouldn’t even say, laid back, just sort of protective of their feelings and emotions and, and do it in a different way.

So even thinking about cultural differences from that perspective. You know how you handle that and make sure that you know what they are before you go in and you’re all ready to brainstorm with them. And they’re like, No, no, no, We, we don’t do that .

Chip Griffin: Right. And, and you need to think about those cultural things, particularly if you’re doing anything in the marketing sphere that involves communication, which a lot of marketing does.

Yep. And so you, you need to think about how some of your messages may be received. You may need to think about how messages are communicated to you. You need to be conscious of whether English is the first or second language of some of the people that you’re working with, if you’re an English speaker. Very fair.

Because oftentimes when you’re dealing with someone who English is the, is their second language, they may not communicate with the same precision that you’re expecting. And so they may say one thing, they may not mean it in exactly the way it comes across to you. So you need to be… and that skill develops as you work with more folks in that culture, but also the individuals, right?

Because everybody is, is different in how they’ve learned the language and how they communicate things. And, and I still remember this time, I was on a call with someone, English was their second language, and, and he said to a woman on the call with us, I say this not to pleasure you.

Gini Dietrich: Oh geez.

Chip Griffin: Everybody started laughing except him, because he didn’t realize, because he was a relatively new speaker of the English language. I could not speak his language really at all, however, so I, I have no position to criticize. Right, Right. But we need to think about those things because while that’s a humorous example, there are others where you may get the wrong impression based on what someone says, and it may mean, may not be as obviously incorrect as that one was.

Gini Dietrich: Poor guy. He was probably like, What? You guys all laughing at him.

Chip Griffin: And, we waited to explain it to him after the call was over. Because this was a group call. But, and I, I still remind him of this to this day. Because it’s funny. It’s funny. I mean, and he thinks it’s funny as well now. You know, in the moment he was confused by why we were all laughing

But you need to think about those things and it’s not just sort of cultural sensitivities. There are also regulatory things you need to be thinking about when you’re working internationally. You need to be thinking about things like privacy laws, particularly if you’re doing anything in the digital sphere and data collection, all that.

The rules are different in other countries. What you can and can’t do is different. Make sure that you have some local advice on this so that you’re not just winging it. Don’t just go Google GDPR and figure out what you need to do. Talk with someone at your client, talk with their experts, whatever. Make sure that you are dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s because you really don’t want to run afoul of some of these, not just privacy laws, but other laws that may be present in other countries, particularly if you’re, if you’re dealing with data of any kind.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, you have to be really careful with that. And the laws here are definitely different. You know, we, we, like I mentioned, we work with a client in the UK and for probably six months, the first six months of the relationship, we went round and round and round about, you know, just sending emails, like blog posts to people who had opted in.

And in the UK they can’t do that. But we kept saying, But we’re, the list is in the US. We can do that here. We can, like… and so we had to, we had to work through that for the first six months of the relationship to help them understand that we had two different lists, one for Europe and one for America, and that we could send marketing emails to the, to the US list.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. And, and it’s also, you know, if you’re going to be doing work in foreign countries, it can be useful to have a partner in that country. So, you know, find another agency that works there potentially. Particularly if you’re just getting started. Right. If you’re, if you’re starting to dabble, if you will, in international work, thinking about expanding your markets, you might be better off partnering with somebody.

So you start to learn some of these things that way as opposed to, you know, coming in and saying to a potential client, Absolutely I can do all those things. And then learning on the job.

Gini Dietrich: Right. Right. Right, right, right.

Chip Griffin: Because that can be a painful experience and a reputation damager potentially for you as well if you’re not careful.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. Yeah. It’s a lot to think about. It’s not impossible. It’s not as overwhelming as this last 20 minutes may make it seem like. You, you sort of do the work and tiptoe in and, and you figure things out. But these are definitely some things you should be thinking about. You should be thinking about payments. You should be thinking about cultural differences.

You should be thinking about paid time off, and all of those things that come with it so that you, you are ready for it when you’re, when you’re going into it.

Chip Griffin: And, and working internationally can be very enriching too. So I, I really don’t want to scare you off from it because I love my international clients now.

I love working with folks internationally. I’m so glad that I, I got into that a few years ago, much more deeply. And so, you know, it, it’s the kind of thing that could be very rewarding. You just need to know how to do it right.

Gini Dietrich: Totally agree.

Chip Griffin: So, with that, we’re gonna draw this episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast to a close. I’m Chip Griffin.

Gini Dietrich: I’m Gini Dietrich.

Chip Griffin: And it depends.

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The Hosts

Chip Griffin is the founder of the Small Agency Growth Alliance (SAGA) where he helps PR & marketing agency owners build the businesses that they want to own. He brings more than two decades of experience as an agency executive and entrepreneur to share the wisdom of his success and lessons of his failures. Follow him on Twitter at @ChipGriffin.


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, the lead blogger at Spin Sucks, and the host of Spin Sucks the podcast. She also is co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Follow her on Twitter at @GiniDietrich.

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