international agency growth

How People Search for Agencies Around the World (Maps)

The typical advice we offer productized agencies is to streamline processes. Finding efficiencies reduces costs, but it also tends to improve service quality and, by extension, client retention.

But at certain moments in the growth journey, client acquisition rate is the bigger opportunity. To supercharge sales efforts, you need to focus on your niche. But it’s also possible to hit a temporary ceiling due to the size of your potential client pool.

In such situations it’s time to consider expanding your product lineup to reach new customers. 

This should not be a major departure from your niche. Instead, you should carefully consider what your market looks like today and identify new client types with similar needs. What verticals do your current clients belong to? Are they concentrated in certain geographies? Do they tend to be of a certain size?

The lowest hanging fruit is often to focus on the verticals you serve best, but consciously widen the net geographically. Today it’s more ordinary than ever to procure specialized services online from thousands of miles away, and that’s one modality of business where smaller, younger, more tech-savvy agencies have an advantage over entrenched players.

It’s easier to adapt your services to different cultural patterns and preferences than learning a new industry. If you can understand how variations in business culture affect what clients expect from their agencies, you can tweak your offering to resonate with clients all over the world.

By looking at data from Google Trends, we’ve found some patterns that outline what businesses in different countries look for when they search for an agency.

1. Setting a global baseline

  • Searches related to “advertising agency” and “digital agency” have overwhelmingly more volume worldwide than other English-language agency queries.
  • Over the past five years, “digital agency” queries have overtaken those for ad agencies in most places. Among OECD countries, the USA is the last holdout with a 55% preference for traditional agencies.
  • To spot interesting global trends, we can compare queries with similar volumes, like SEO agencies vs. creative, branding, and content, or PR vs. social media.
Map, world. Queries in English for agencies, SEO keywords vs. creative keywords, 2019 to 2021

This map gives us a fascinating snapshot, but in reality the majority of serious business queries are conducted in the native languages of each country.

There’s also not quite so much global data for PR vs. social media, but enough to make an interesting comparison:

Chart. Comparison of countries based on proportion of queries for Social Media Agencies vs. PR Agencies

To learn more, we’ll have to dive deeper into specific regions and languages.

2. What kinds of agencies do businesses in the USA look for?

In the USA, searches for “ad agency” and “advertising agency” are ubiquitous. In New York they absolutely dwarf other agency search queries. This is probably due to the history of Madison Avenue, and in practice it could mean that US businesses both:

  1. Tend to expect their agencies to have some kind of traditional media offering

and…

  1. Sometimes use the term “advertising agency” when they’re really looking for a marketing agency

With that in mind, let’s take a look at queries for SEO agencies vs. Creative agencies by US state. In this case we’ve excluded the slightly ambiguous “content agency” keywords to get closer to a 50/50 average:

Map, USA. Comparison of states based on queries for SEO Agencies vs. Creative Agencies

We tend to think of the West Coast of the US as the spiritual home of SEO. It’s certainly where a lot of the software and early agency communities developed. But if there’s a big demand for SEO in California, that’s probably more down to the general wealth of the state and higher demand for professional services in general.

It seems like, in the USA at least, SEO agencies are more popular than creative agencies in those states that rely more on their primary and secondary sectors (raw materials and manufacturing, rather than services). There’s less economic certainty in such places and thus the business culture tends to be more plainspoken, even austere.

We might guess that businesses in those environments prefer services and growth strategies whose impact they can closely measure.

Now let’s take a look at demand for PR agencies vs. social media agencies:

Map, USA. Comparison of states based on queries for PR Agencies vs. Social Media Agencies

There’s probably a few factors at play here:

  • Wealthier states, and those with lots of big business and venture capital, tend towards a preference for PR, but the correlation isn’t that strong. 
  • The states that are home to the big newspapers and media organizations also tend towards PR, with some exceptions like Illinois (home of the Chicago Tribune) and Georgia (Where CNN is headquartered) leaning towards social media instead.

What does it mean for a business environment to prefer PR or social media? It could simply be a case that the retail and hospitality sectors, or B2C more broadly, hold a larger share of total economic activity in the ‘social media states.’

3. Comparing the rest of the English-speaking world

For the purposes of our investigation, we’ll look at the UK, Canada and Australia as a whole, as well as the provinces of British Columbia, Ontario and Québec, the states of Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, and the London Metropolitan Area. Unfortunately there’s not enough data to analyze the likes of Ireland or New Zealand.

The USA has an unusual business environment compared to the rest of the Anglosphere and by excluding it we can get a sharper insight into how agency demand varies according to economic and cultural differences in different places.

For this section, instead of looking at proportions of searches in isolation, we’ll look at 

where each region compares to the whole group according to various measures.

Map, UK, Australia and Canada. Comparison of regions based on queries for PR and Creative Agencies vs. SEO and Social Media Agencies

There’s an extremely strong correlation between a preference for PR over social media, and a general disinterest in SEO, particularly in favor of creative services instead. Likewise, in most places where social media agencies are in comparatively high demand, SEO agencies are too.

London & Sydney: The Idealists, a.k.a ‘Old Influence’

In New South Wales and the UK, but overwhelmingly in London, there is a preference for creative agencies vs. ad agencies, and for ad agencies vs. SEO agencies. As we’ve already seen, these are also great places to offer PR services, but not so great to sell social media management.

What’s going on here? 

London and Sydney are known for being cities where the idea of creative genius is held in high esteem. This tends to go hand-in-hand with the presence of influential media circles, who are able to shape taste more effectively than big tech platforms.

Kind of like how luxury brands try to discern whether their customers are “old money” or “new money”, marketers can think in terms of “old influence” (traditional media and culture) and “new influence” (tech platforms).

Understanding this principle is essential to tailor agency products to different markets.

Melbourne & Vancouver: The Tech Leap-froggers

In Victoria (Australia) and British Columbia (Canada), demand for specialized creative agencies holds its own against full-service advertising. But SEO puts in an even stronger showing, particularly in British Columbia. Naturally, there’s also more interest in social media marketing than PR in both of these regions.

The simple explanation is that Vancouver and Melbourne are cities that emerged as major tech hubs, not during the dotcom bubble but later. These communities skipped the dominance of Microsoft and IBM, and grew up with iPhones, cloud computing and big data.

For startups like these, business exists online. Analytics, split testing and automation are expected by default. Artistic passion is valued, but can provoke nervousness if they can’t measure the impact of their agency’s work!

Eastern Canada & Dry Australia: The Traditionalists

Outside of Australia’s urban east coast, businesses tend to prefer doing things the old way. There’s a similar story in the eastern half of Canada, although there are some differences.

What all these places have in common in terms of agency demand is an unusually low search volume for creative, branding, and specialized content services. The main difference between them is their relative level of interest in SEO and social media marketing.

Map, Australia and Canada. Comparison of regions based on queries for Advertising, SEO and Creative Agencies

The economy of rural Canada is defined by heavy industries like logging and oil extraction. Meanwhile, small towns dot the landscape – sometimes many miles apart – seldom attracting major retail and hospitality chains. The natural result is a multitude of small, local businesses that have to fight hard to survive and prosper. 

Much like in many parts of the United States, these kinds of businesses often turn to SEO and social media agencies to help them succeed. But these are not the kind of young, urban and tech-savvy businesses that think carefully about branding. In these Canadian provinces, people search for “ad agencies” sooner than they seek out creatives.

Ontario and Québec, on the other hand, are home to global trade hubs like Toronto and Montreal. Financial services and insurance companies, science, manufacturing and publishing mega-corporations dominate the business environment. It’s not surprising to think that the culture in these provinces would be somewhat serious and austere. 

There is growing interest in SEO and technical marketing services here, but most businesses still prefer traditional advertising.

Finally, in the arid and sparsely populated states of Western and Southern Australia, SEO doesn’t resonate at all. For many businesses, marketing still means TV and newspaper ads. 

Digital marketing is an extension of that – the platforms change, but the strategy stays the same. And this isn’t a “Madison Avenue” approach to advertising. Business owners here don’t want their agency to come in with big, new ideas. They want them to keep the message simple, and get that in front of as many potential customers as possible.

Queensland: The Young Guns

SEO is popular in Queensland, Australia.

But what’s unusual is how few people search for advertising agencies compared to digital agencies. Queensland might not be quite as “creative” as New South Wales, but combined with its interest in SEO, the state stands out in our whole research group as a place with a particularly “young” approach to marketing.

Agencies that want to sell productized offerings in places like this should reflect that mindset and bring cutting-edge ideas and technology to the table.

The rest of the UK vs. London

London is broadly in line with the rest of the UK in terms of its search tendencies when looking for an agency. Creativity, branding and design are valued highly. Traditional advertising and PR are more popular than social media.

But there’s some variation. Young, tech-savvy entrepreneurs outside of London find themselves facing extraordinary competition, and unlike their capital-dwelling counterparts, many of them do turn to SEO.

4. Agency demand in other languages

Spanish-language searches are dramatically different from their English counterparts in the same countries:

Chart, Spanish Speaking Countries. Comparison of countries based on queries for Creative vs. SEO agencies

In the USA, where creative agencies enjoy strong search demand, Spanish speakers overwhelmingly seek out SEO agencies instead. In Mexico the reverse is happening: creative and branding agencies are more popular, but when it comes to English-language searches, SEO wins out. 

Now let’s take a look at Europe.

France: Modernity & Opposition

In-house marketers are often highly trained and well paid in France. There’s a strong history of “marketing as a scientific discipline,” with business schools teaching psychology at an unusually high level. It’s not uncommon for corporations to find big budgets for market research projects, sometimes conducted in partnership with academia.

In the 1970s, an agency model emerged that combined advertising, branding and PR services into a unified package. These agences de communication have typically targeted large enterprises, leaving SMBs somewhat underserved until the explosion of digital marketing in the 21st century.

We can take a deep dive into different régions of France, but Google’s data still divides the country into the 22-région system that was in place before 2015:

Four maps of France comparing queries for different types of agencies, by région

An older business model, the agence de publicité, still holds sway in areas where SMBs employ the majority of the workforce. Generally speaking, these agencies offer less in the way of branding and market research, and focus more on advertising and sales support.

Throughout the country, demand for agences de communication and de publicité is being displaced by the need for more specialized digital services, particularly search engine marketing. The more rural régions still tend to prefer an integrated PR & advertising service.

An agence de référencement might offer pure organic SEO, or combine it with paid search. These are far and away the most searched-for category of agencies in France, especially in the center and north of the country. In the South and West, as well as the historically-German territory of Alsace, there is some competition from more general web and digital agencies. 

As might be expected, English-language searches for all kinds of agencies are heavily concentrated in France’s global cities of Paris and Marseille. The major European transport hub of Rhône-Alpes and the port of Calais (that connects France, and the rest of continental Europe, to the UK) also see some demand for agencies versus French-language agences.

The key takeaway: international agencies wanting to penetrate the French market should target businesses in Paris, Marseille, Calais and Lyon. 

They should not try to compete with local branding or strategy, but offer a highly commercial product with measurable ROI. Although, there may be space for English-language PR services in Lyon or the surrounding cities of Saint-Étienne and Grenoble. 

In any case, non-French-speaking agencies should come to the market with a digital focus and ideally specialize in search engine marketing.

Germany: Old meets new

Four maps of Germany comparing queries for different types of agencies, by State

According to GWA’s Perception of Agencies study, agencies in Germany must advertise themselves with campaigns and best practices. Two thirds of people who gather information about agencies have personal contact with their representatives.

In many parts of the country, Germany is still very traditional. However, the old does blend with the new. For instance, decision makers no longer focus exclusively on personal contact with agency representatives, they take a look at social media profiles too. Junior and senior level colleagues focus their research activities on agency websites.

LinkedIn is the by far most important social network for business in Germany, followed by Instagram, Facebook, and Xing, a popular LinkedIn alternative in the German-speaking countries.

Another important aspect is the team behind the agency.

Germany is home to around 31,700 advertising agencies employing over 190,000 people according to IBISWorld. Only a fraction of those would be considered true digital agencies, yet one in three respondents to the GWA study consider the market saturated. Too many players are unable to differentiate themselves from the competition.

That being said, digital agencies (Digitalagenturen) or internet agencies (Internetagenturen) are not that well-known yet. Some of them even had to write blog posts explaining the difference between a digital agency and an advertising agency. 

It doesn’t help that a lot of agencies are full-service. They tend to offer everything from app development to SEO. German companies might expect a digital agency to help them with all aspects of their digital transformation and connect different channels and processes together.

The key takeaway: international agencies wishing to enter the German market should target the cities of Berlin, Hamburg and Frankfurt, focussing on a particular niche. 

They do not need to emphasize “digital” expertise. But to make themselves known in the German business world, agencies should have a solid portfolio they can display with the help of case studies and campaigns. 

Building a global productized agency

Productization can supercharge your agency through successive growth stages. Getting technology and processes right is the key to your success.

But sooner or later, the biggest opportunities come from stepping back and being strategic. There’s an enormous world of old agency relationships ripe for disruption. To step into that world and take a slice of the action requires bringing all the agility of modern-day online business, but also taking a look at how things have historically been done in different parts of the world.

If you’re coming from the other side, and just at the beginning of your productization journey (or considering growing your agency that way) you can download our free epic guide to productizing your agency here.

Posted by Joe