Outsider's Advantage: Lessons for U.S. Brands From U.K. Creatives
We can all agree that the U.K. doesn't have a lot to shout about right now. From a cost-of-living crisis to sector-wide strikes and ever-changing government leaders, we don't appear commanding or stable.
But even at the best of times—remember those—we've always been a little reserved compared to our U.S. cousins, whose innate confidence is self-fulfilling. Bigger ideas. More conviction. More ambition.
As an exaggerated version of a self-deprecating Brit, I like to think that's part of our charm (more on this shortly). But when it comes to creativity, we could afford to cast aside our natural reserve and be more vocal.
A British perspective on the U.S.
For U.S.-based brands, success in your home market is always going to be the priority. Everything else is a "nice-to-have." As a brand owner, quite apart from all the logistical advantages, you might imagine that choosing a team that was living the life of your core audience would make sense. You'd get more relevant, more insightful work.
Except I don't think that's true. And it seems that some of the most consequential businesses of the past decade agree with me. When it was time to transform their brands, Airbnb, Uber and Meta all came to teams in the U.K. for help.
To illustrate why, let's jump across to the world of TV.
The success of Succession
The last decade has seen a load of successful TV shows set in the business world. Billions, Suits, even Silicon Valley. Each made in the U.S., set in America, for a global audience.
But there's one show that stands out. In an era of franchise, formula and IP, Succession is fundamentally different. It defies conventional genre constraints. Is it a drama, a comedy, a tragedy? Its characters are broadly reprehensible as people, its camerawork, dialogue and even narrative form are unusually messy. But despite, or more accurately because of this, it has been incredibly successful. Both in the U.S. and globally.
The outsider's advantage
Succession's British origins are fundamental. Jesse Armstrong—ably supported by a mostly British writers' room, featuring Lucy Prebble, Georgia Pritchett and Tony Roche—was able to leverage a real point of difference. They created an utterly unique show that stood out in a sea of corporate sameness.
Firstly, as non-Americans, they were outsiders gazing into an unfamiliar world. As this fascinating article (the product of 10 years of research by Gino Cattani and Simone Ferriani) explains, the outsider has a huge advantage. "Being less tied to the norms and standards to which insiders conform, outsiders recognize solutions that escape incumbents' attention."
But while being an outsider is important, there's a sweet spot. Too close to the subject, and you can't see the forest for the trees. Too far away, and the forest becomes a blur.
And that's where Britishness comes in. In the case of Succession, its creators are definitely outsiders looking in. But as Brits, they share a cultural simpatico with the U.S. that enables them to understand what they're observing. That balance sits right at the heart of the show.
Back in the world of branding, you can imagine that same sweet spot appealed to Airbnb, Uber and Meta. Beyond some awkward time zones and the occasional choppy Zoom meeting, there were relatively few barriers to overcome. And those barriers were clearly inconsequential compared to the potential upside: an invigoratingly fresh point of view.
Beyond that perfectly balanced proximity, there's also something very specific about the British sensibility. There's a subtle but undeniable British twist to Succession's writing. This helps it feel smart, wry, elegant, occasionally cynical and—perhaps most importantly—distinctive. But crucially, that difference is not so extreme that the resulting dialogue sounds out of place coming from a wholly American character.
I see that in much of the best design originating from the U.K. It has a global sensibility and broad relevance, combined with an indiscernible, innate Britishness. Sometimes that's a subtly subversive copyline. Other times it takes the form of an unexpected design decision that lends it a nuanced sophistication. It's not always obvious, but it's there if you look for it.
I'm certainly not saying that only U.K. creatives can do that. But I do think our culture gives us a helpful head start.
Packed with talent
That Britishness helps writers and creators produce something fresh and unfamiliar, yet ridiculously compelling for the U.S. market. Working with a U.K. agency gives you a chance to take advantage of that same combination of creative distance, cultural proximity and British sensibility.
Added to that is the undeniable fact that, right now, the U.K. is home to some of the world's best talent, working at some of the world's best agencies. In branding, any credible list of top firms would include a significant portion based in the U.K. So if you're a business looking for the best of the best, you'd be crazy not to include U.K. agencies in your search.
And for those managing budgets, sad as I am to say this, our economy means that the U.K. is on sale right now. You get a lot of bang for your buck.
Clearly, that innate Britishness helped the Succession writers—and others—create something utterly distinctive and ridiculously compelling.
So, if I can cast aside my awkward Britishness for a few uncomfortable final words... if you're a U.S. brand, utterly distinctive and ridiculously compelling should be something you want too.