Dear LSPs: You’re selling yourselves short

Four years ago, I wrote an essay titled “Transcreation is here to stay.” And in the essay, I explained why I felt this way: “Because translation sounds like a commodity; transcreation sounds like a service.”

I noted then that the marketing firm Hogarth was looking to hire a transcreation account manager, and that this development was a sign of things to come.

Indeed it was. Since then, we’ve seen a number of marketing and advertising agencies acquire translation agencies. In August 2017, the world’s third-largest advertising and public relations company, Publicis Groupe, acquired Translate Plus through its production company Prodigious. The press release gave special attention to transcreation services, noting: “A key aspect of this activity is transcreation, a specialism that consists in translating creative copy, which unlike traditional translation, requires several different translations of the same copy with back-translations and rational. This ensures the creative idea is optimally conveyed, while being culturally relevant locally.”

The CEO of Prodigious repeated the transcreation buzzword in his quote: “With our network of 40 production locations worldwide now complemented by 4,000 native-speaker copywriters and editors, 5,000 specialist transcreators, covering 200 markets globally, we are in a unique position to deliver on our promise.”

It’s interesting how Publicis stresses transcreation though it’s not at all surprising. Ad agencies are eager to reinvent themselves as their conventional business models are disrupted by internet advertising. Adding transcreation services is a natural extension. And doing so only further strengthens their relationship with clients as trusted global partners.

Meanwhile, translation agencies are finding themselves further removed from clients, relegated to acquisition target or, worse, purveyor of commodity language services.

I believe a big reason why so many translation agencies have been relegated to commodity status can be summed up by three letters: LSP. As in language service provider, a label that sells the industry short.

Let me explain. For many decades, there were translation agencies. This label made perfect sense to clients, even if a growing percentage of the services being provided fell under localization.

In 2005, we saw the emergence of the transcreation label. I’ll admit that I found this label awkward at first, but nearly every client I spoke with — particularly marketing executives — found the term to be spot-on.

This would have been a great time for translation agencies and localization agencies to market themselves as transcreation agencies. A handful did, but most began referring to themselves as language service providers.

But here’s the problem: marketing executives don’t think, “I need language services.” They think: “I need translation services.” Or, better yet: “I need transcreation services.”

Advertising agencies understand this. Marketing firms understand this. Because here are some of the questions they’re increasingly fielding from clients:

How successfully will our brand travel around the world?

What do consumers in these markets think of our products, packaging, website, logo, and so on?

Can you adapt our marketing and social content so we succeed in these markets?

These are all questions that LSPs have for years successfully answered, though they haven’t always been properly compensated for these services. Ad agencies and marketing firms most certainly will be properly compensated for these services.

Quite simply, LSP is too narrow a definition of what translation and localization vendors provide. It’s time to leave the LSP label behind.

It’s not too late for LSPs to “move up the value chain,” and some are doing just that. Recently I noticed that Lionbridge was using the transcreation keyword to advertise itself in Google search results. But too many agencies are still selling language when they should be selling global and local success.

And as for the marketing firm Hogarth (now owned by WPP, the world’s largest advertising and public relations agency), transcreation is no longer a job title but a core capability, included in the header of its home page.