The similarities that bind Australia and the US are also creating a false sense of cultural cohesion, leading to issues for people doing business on both sides of the Pacific. Co-CEO Alexandra Mayhew, and Andrei Mylroie, partner at US-based DH and global president of IPREX, recently sat down to talk about culture, the agency business and more.

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Alexandra: Andrei, thanks for taking the time to chat with me about doing business with Aussies, a pertinent discussion following our IPREX meetings this year in Dubai, Casablanca, and North Carolina. I wanted to start you off with a story.

I was once told that the consulate with the most complaints on cultural adjustment was the Australian consulate in New York. At first, this baffled me for the obvious reasons: Australians and Americans are so close and similar in so many regards - English speaking, children of Britain, Australia has been involved in almost all major American military endeavours since World War I – so why the cultural misalignment?

I’ve come to believe that despite our similarities, Australians chronically underestimate the cultural difference between us and Americans. And I believe this may go both ways.

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Andrei: I’m always happy to compare notes on these things. Embracing and working through cultural differences is truly one of my favourite parts of international work. When you can help a client enter new markets and extend their brand without losing what makes them unique or who they really are as a company, it’s hugely satisfying. But this isn’t easy work.

I agree with you that the cultural differences between Americans and Australians are easy to overlook and underestimate. There are plenty of reasons for this. The countries look and feel similar. The architecture, our relatively short histories (with the exception of native/aboriginal people of course) and even some of the quintessential western cultural references—there’s a lot that feels familiar when I’ve spent time in your part of world. Compare that with the UK. London or Manchester or Liverpool feel way more foreign than Sydney or Cairns. The architecture, the layout of cities, the age of buildings, even the strip malls. They feel familiar. And because the surface feels familiar, it’s easy to assume the core is the same.

Because at the same time, there are these giant differences. Australia is so much more isolated geographically. It’s a small population compared with the U.S. Aussies always strike me as more global in some ways, and yet parochial in others. Neither of these things are a slight, by the way.

There’s also the language. Similar, but also quite different in tone, directness and what’s acceptable.

Alexandra: Well I would say you can’t overlook Australians penchant for profanities and idioms, which may I say I quite enjoy and believe Americans find rather endearing.

Andrei: Your idioms. They’re endless! Seriously, I don’t know how you remember them all. Which is my way of saying that to use your word, I find them endearing. Every time I ask something bland like, “how’s your day going?”, I get an answer like, “I’m busier than a dog trying to bury a bone in a marble floor.” Cracks me up every time.

Alexandra: Do you see any other significant differences working across the US? I suspect the cultural differences in Australia would be less pronounced as we’re such a young, sparsely populated country.

Andrei: I think a lot of Americans even underestimate the differences within the U.S. Go from the Northwest of the country, where I live, to New York, where I grew up. New York is so much more aggressive and faster-paced. California has a culture all of its own. And head to Atlanta or New Orleans and you’ll experience fantastically different cultures, dialects, and more.

Alexandra: Talking about culture, I would say one of the starker cultural clashes is modesty, or lack thereof. In Australia we have a pejorative term: tall poppy syndrome (TPS). TPS is an Australian’s tendency  to disparage those who have gained significant wealth or prominence. As horrible as TPS is, I would say it stems from the high value we place on modesty, which I don’t think is a bad thing. We tend to judge people on their competence and abilities through their actions – not through their ability to sell themselves.

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Andrei: The stems of TPS. That’s punny!

American exceptionalism is one of my biggest pet peeves. In fact, peeve is too weak of a word. Without digressing too much, whenever I hear people say we’re number one, I ask them what country is in second place. There’s a line between confidence and arrogance.

On the other hand, I think there’s an entrepreneurial drive and willingness to innovate, take risk and think creatively that’s a pretty pervasive part of the American psyche. You see this play out every day in business, in the media and in everyday life. I hate generalizing about these things, but I think it’s fair to say that most Americans have a bigger fear of failure, than fear of success. Sure, sometimes this goes too far. Do you remember the picture I took of you and Jonny Saatchi from MC2 in Raleigh? Classic stuff.

When you start doing more work with American companies expanding into new markets though, you often see them making mistakes around positioning. In the U.S., positioning as the biggest, the best or most innovative is common. But in overseas markets I’ve seen this backfire so many times. It comes off as arrogant or just marketing fluff. This is especially true in some European markets. What’s your take about Americans doing business in Australia?

Alexandra: I’d have to agree with you Andrei.

One of the most significant issues I see for Americans doing business in Australia is around language – primarily, fluff. I’m yet to receive an American press release that I haven’t had to rewrite. I’m not saying you can’t write, I’m just saying that your approach is completely wrong for our market for a few reasons – one of which is the aforementioned value we place on modesty, so your marketing language doesn’t fly.

Another one is the nature of our media environment. Australia has a relatively concentrated media market, filled with time-poor journalists who do not suffer time-wasters, waffle, or marketing-led stories. America is 13 times larger than Australia and shares its content across state borders, so the need for constant content is immense. You’ve also countless industry publications - it seems no topic is too niche - and therefore have journalists who are far more amenable to publishing (what Australians would describe as) softer stories. In Australia our press releases need to be just like us, little, punchy, and direct.

Andrei: You see, this is why IPREX is so important, and why bringing local insight to international clients matters.

Keep in mind that our media landscape is vastly different that even five years ago. We definitely have a ton of niche publications, but we also have a ton of businesses chasing coverage. Plus, the number of journalists is shrinking substantially every year. You mentioned releases, which is interesting. In the U.S. these get used with media, but just as importantly to notify people on the finance side of the house, we use them with customers to flag around new deals, etc. Using a release solely to drum up news coverage is harder than ever.

Your perspective about not wasting reporters’ time is spot on though. I agree that way too many in our industry are pumping out fluff. Maybe it’s a bit more tolerated here, I’m not sure. But pushing that to journalists too often…in my experience, it’s just not that effective. It’s also why we now generate way more content—videos, articles, blogs, and more—in part to ensure our clients’ stories get told. Plus, circulations are way down.

You mentioned that Australians are direct. I hadn’t noticed! Sarcasm aside, Aussies and the Dutch, and New Yorkers. I find you easy to work with because I never need to guess at what you’re really thinking. What you just said a second ago, “I’m not saying you can’t write, I’m just saying your approach is completely wrong.” Case in point.

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Alexandra: Oh jeez, how embarrassing. Ok, I’ll admit that we’re relatively direct, but at least you know where we stand! And while Australians tend to be enthusiastic conversationalists, the Americans are at a different level! Although, I would say that Australians are more likely to debate in ‘polite’ conversation (obviously I’m generalising because you’ve given me an earful more than once).  Largely I think this comes down to etiquette, which has an impact on business relations, and this certainly extends to media relations.

Andrei: Oh man, this could open a giant can of worms. I’m going to get myself in trouble.

What I’ll say is that Americans tend to be open about some things, but there are other topics that while not taboo, can make for awkward cocktail conversation. In general, we tend to be pretty comfortable talking about things like how business is going, our outside interests, or views on the future of an industry or business. Americans tend to be pretty quick sharing their opinions, but with people you don’t know well though, things tend to stay on the surface.

However, compared with some of our colleagues from around the world, I don’t think Aussies and Americans are too far apart. I think Americans tend to have a stereotype of being brash and perhaps self-centered, at least in some of the continental European countries.

Alexandra: Talking about Europe, have you noticed many differences in the agency business?

Andrei: Yes and no. When you look at our IPREX partners — so that’s 1,800 employees across more than 100 offices — I think there are some themes. In general, it seems like the Americans have been a bit quicker to integrate functions under one roof. So for example, offering graphic design, marketing, advertising, research, PR, etc. That said, I look at some of our European partners, like MC2 in Manchester or Operate in Copenhagen for example. I’m blown away by their shops. They’re incredibly ambitious.

I think labour laws play a part too. In some countries, once you hire it’s extraordinarily difficult to part ways with an employee if things aren’t working out. So to add an entire new line of business? It’s riskier than it would be for me in the U.S.

I’m interested in your take though. What difference have you observed?

Alexandra: I would say from an Australian perspective we’re behind the US as well, but we’re at least seeing our smaller agencies truly integrating new services. For example, over the past few years Wells Haslem Mayhew has completely integrated social media, graphic design, and video into our service offerings, and we’re continuing to build on these non-traditional PR services. It’s all very exciting for us and our clients.  And it’s great having our IPREX partners to watch and learn from, helping us to stay ahead of the curve in Australia. To wrap things up, thank you for taking the time to chat and to put together this conversation for readers of The Shell.

Alexandra Mayhew is Co-CEO of Wells Haslem Mayhew and IPREX Asia Pacific President.

Andrei Mylroie is a Partner at DH in Spokane, Washington and IPREX Global President.