Shortly after the Brexit referendum in 2016, here at George P. Johnson we decided to open an office in Norway. Happily, the office has since gone from strength-to-strength, growing 62% in the last year alone. It’s given us a window into the post-Brexit future, and as far as we’re concerned, the situation is far better than many are making it out to be.
With around 150 staff in London, 25% of whom are EU nationals, you might expect us to be nervous, but Norway’s combination of an outward-looking approach, vibrant economy, high standards of living and a relatively clear and simple regulatory environment in which to do business (World Bank “Ease of Doing Business, 2019 ranks Norway No. 7) provides a useful model for British businesses to follow.
Learnings from Norway
There are two key aspects to taking your business into any new market: the cultural and the operational. The cultural side of things will have an almost instant impact on how you do business, but clearly the operations side is the one most affected by the UK’s post-Brexit future.
Norway is a very well-connected EU trading partner. As a current member of the Schengen Area, its immigration boarders are open to the majority of mainland Europeans, in a similar way that they will be in Ireland post Brexit. While common languages and legislation eases the work between our British and Norway offices, Norway has clear red lines that anyone wanting to do business in their market must adhere to. But as long as you’re aware of them, and operate accordingly, they are very much open for business. Both within the EU, and outside it. That last part is key.
From a cultural point of view Norway has a legacy of being outward looking, it’s been interesting to see this dynamic at work first-hand. There are many similarities between our British and Norway offices, despite the fact that the London team is 10 times the size.
Norway is great at leveraging the resources it has at its disposal, both within its own boundaries and internationally. It has identified its strengths, built industry leading capability on home soil, then sold this into new markets. This offers an interesting parallel, because it’s exactly what British companies will need to do more of post-Brexit. British businesses will need to learn how to be both strong on home turf and entrepreneurially confident elsewhere.
Genuinely attractive markets
Don’t be afraid of markets that might appear challenging from an initial cost-base point of view. Opening our Norway office was a relatively intuitive decision. Such an expensive place to operate might not be an obvious choice for expansion, and for us an important founding client was the initial reason we established GPJ Oslo, but we were also taking a longer-term holistic approach. Norway is only expensive as a function of its successful and growing economy, which means a high standard of living. This in-turn leads to high levels of entrepreneurship, all of which delivers a strong business development pipeline throughout the Nordics – which our new office is benefiting from.
Viewing low cost markets as attractive is an arguably dangerous and short-sighted approach, despite the fact this may seem like a winning strategy for some exporting British companies post-Brexit. Businesses like ours need to be where the high value clients are. If you are selling world class expertise, not products, then geographical distance doesn’t work. Being aware of this and acting accordingly will be even more important in the months and years ahead.
Attracting diverse international talent
Talent is absolutely key to the success of our business. The experience of opening the Norway office has shown us how openness, with a less restrictive approach to moving in and out of the country, can be employed outside of the EU to enable business success. Similar arrangements are going to be possible for Britain.
Freedom of movement is an important issue for us, and our wider industry. Talent access challenges are understandably a concern, but I believe they will end up being less problematic than is currently being portrayed. Marketing and communications businesses naturally have a diverse mix of nationalities when it comes to their employees. Potentially closing our doors to the rich and vibrant EU talent pool we’ve previously relied on is a prospect that we do not relish. But all is not lost, because Norway shows how it’s possible to attract top talent by offering a high quality of life and interesting businesses to be part of. Post-Brexit Britain can do the same.
Reasons to be optimistic
Brexit doesn’t need to be as prohibitive as the worse-case scenarios are portraying it as being. We’re, in general, optimistic, notwithstanding the short-term uncertainty. It’s important for our industry to get this right and looking at markets like Norway for inspiration can only be useful. What matters is continuing to make people feel welcome and avoiding legislation that makes doing business in different markets (EU or elsewhere) challenging.
There are lots of steps we all can (and should) be taking now to prepare. Start with over-index on how to manage changes in your business, both in relation to your current team and clients. Then take it from there.
When it comes to Brexit, the industry press has been focusing on business operation cost challenges, such as agency logistics. That’s understandable, but we need to look at the bigger picture. These challenges, while worth acknowledging, are being overplayed. If you operate internationally today, you’re already ready. We deliver around 25% of our client work outside of the EU from London which has given us all the experience we need to cope with the impact of Brexit.
Brexit is clearly complex and emotive – and there are lots of perspectives to consider. From an agency business perspective, we didn’t celebrate when the referendum result was revealed, but we were able to quickly and comfortably adapt. There’s a Norway model that shows how our industry can thrive post-Brexit.