GaWC Research Bulletin 246

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This Research Bulletin has been published in Global Networks, 9 (3), (2009), 399-419, under the title 'Exploring Cultural Economies of Internationalization: The Role of "Iconic Individuals" and "Brand Leaders" in the Globalization of Headhunting'.


Please refer to the published version when quoting the paper.


Cultural Economies of Internationalisation: Exploring the Role of ‘Iconic Individuals’ and ‘Brand Leaders’ in Global Headhunting Firms

S. Hall*, J.V. Beaverstock*, J.R. Faulconbridge** and A. Hewitson**



Understanding the internationalization of producer services continues to attract considerable attention in academic and policy circles. Within geography, research has emphasised the different organisational strategies adopted by firms as they seek to develop and maintain a competitive position within an increasingly global economy. This paper develops this literature by adopting a cultural economy approach to argue that an important, yet comparatively neglected, aspect of the internationalisation strategies of transnational producer service firms is the role of certain ‘iconic individuals' and ‘brand leaders' in influencing both the geography and practice of internationalization by producer service firms as they enter new geographical markets. Drawing on empirical research into the burgeoning European executive search (headhunting) industry we identify a cadre of such individuals and brand leaders who are widely recognised by both colleagues and rivals as being significant actors in the internationalization of their industry in their own right. Two dimensions of the role of these ‘iconic individuals' and brand leaders form the focus of our argument. First, we argue that leading ‘brands' are key to opening-up and legitimising the activities of globalising firms. Second, we suggest that the individuals share remarkably similar professional biographies. This raises interesting questions surrounding their replicability amongst future generations of headhunters. We conclude by considering the significance of our findings beyond the headhunting sector.

Keywords Internationalisation, cultural economy, PSFs, headhunters, ‘iconic individuals', brand leaders



The internationalization strategies of producer services have been longstanding central concerns for economic geographers, social scientists and policy makers (see for example Bryson et al 2004; Roberts 1998; UNCTAD 2004). Stemming from the ground breaking work of Dunning and Norman (1983; 1987), geographical accounts of these processes of internationalisation have become increasingly nuanced, focussing particularly on the role of transnational producer service firms (PSFs) across a range of sectors including legal services, management consultancy, accountancy and executive search (on which see Beaverstock et al 1999; Jones 2005; Beaverstock 1996; Beaverstock et al 2006 respectively). These analyses have unpacked a range of organisational strategies and ‘spatial economies' (Yeung 2005) adapted by transnational firms as they seek to develop and maintain their position in the competitive global economy. However, less attention has been paid to the ways in which more cultural dimensions of PSFs such as corporate reputation, firm brand and significant charismatic individuals are important in overcoming the potential difficulties firms face in processes of internationalisation.

In many ways this oversight is surprising since the value of carefully managing brands for corporate success is widely acknowledged in both academic and practitioner circles (see for example Kellner and Lehmann, 2003). Indeed, several leading PSFs have become household names and prominent individuals across a range of sectors frequently feature in the mainstream media as well as the specialist business press, not always in ways that they might wish (the most notable recent example being the highly publicised interrogation of leading private equity partners by the UK Treasury Committee in July 2007). Moreover, there is a growing literature examining how corporate reputation and brands can be leveraged to increase shareholder value and market share (Madden et al 2006). However, whilst this literature explores how brands and corporate reputation are important in terms of customer growth, less attention has been paid to the role of corporate reputation and brands in processes of internationalisation and it is here that this paper takes up the story.

In particular, we consider how adopting a cultural economy approach to corporate brands and reputation can develop geographical understandings of the internationalisation of PSFs. Cultural economy is a diverse, inter-disciplinary field (for reviews see Amin and Thrift 2004; Du Gay and Pryke 2002) although these is an emerging consensus that adopting such a perspective

“serves to show […] the ways in which the ‘making up' or ‘construction' of economic realities is undertaken and achieved; how those activities, objects and persons we categorize as ‘economic' are built up or assembled from a number of parts, many of them supplied by the disciplines of economics but many drawn from other sources, including, or course, forms of ostensibly non-economic cultural practice” (Du Gay and Pryke 2002:5).

Within this broad intellectual agenda approach, we follow calls to acknowledge the ways in which economies are made up through a complex interplay of cultural and economic factors to focus on just one dimension - the role of firm reputation in ‘making up' processes and practices of internationalisation. Indeed, firm reputation is a set of practices that follows the premise of cultural economy and demonstrates the ways in which cultural and economic practices are inextricably linked. Moreover, firm reputation is contained within geographical accounts of internationalisation (see for example Dunning and Norman 1983, 1987; Bryson et al 2004) although it has rarely been placed at the centre of analyses. In order to develop understandings of the role of firm reputation in internationalisation we draw on work primarily from management theorists that has emphasised the role of reputation in fostering trust between clients and PSFs but has not been considered in relation to internationalisation (for instance, Sturdy 1997; Clark 1993, 1995). Using this literature as our starting point, as well as the broader cultural economy literature on brands (Lury 2004), we identify two important dimensions of firm reputation for PSFs – the brand of the company in question and the role played by very successful individuals within the sector, what we term iconic individuals. Crucially we then explore how these dimensions of firm reputation matter geographically by bringing work on reputation into closer dialogue with existing understandings of the internationalisation of PSFs. As such, we are less concerned with the ways in which brands and corporate reputation are used to shape consumer behaviour and more interested in they ways in which leading brands and individuals are drawn on by other firms within the same sector as they seek to internationalise their operations.

We make this argument through an empirical focus on the executive search (headhunting) industry in Europe. Our focus on headhunting is significant for three main reasons. First, in terms of internationalisation, only a small number of studies have been conducted into this industry (see Boyle et al 1996; Cuthbertson 1996; Faulconbridge et al 2008) despite the growing attention that has been paid to other labour market intermediaries such as temping agencies (Ward 2004; Peck and Theodore 2001) and labour guilds for those working in the ‘creative industries' (Rantisi 2002) as well as the growth of headhunting as an industry in and of itself. Second, headhunting is a comparatively ‘young' professional service, emerging out of the USA during the 1950s boom and only having a significant European presence in the last 25 years (Faulconbridge et al 2008). Third, we explore how headhunting firms have faced a series of potential hurdles in achieving their European internationalisation strategies and consider the ways in which corporate reputation (including corporate brands and ‘iconic individuals') have been important in terms of finding solutions to these issues.

We develop our argument over four further sections. The following section reviews extant understandings of the internationalisation of PSFs, focussing particularly on the role of corporate reputation in such processes. The third section of the paper locates Europe 's executive search industry within this literature, identifying the hurdles the sector has faced in its recent internationalisation strategies. Next, we explore the cultural economies associated with the internationalisation of executive search in Europe, considering how leading headhunting brands and iconic individuals have been mobilised by firms in an effort to overcome the potential difficulties associated with entering new geographical and sectoral markets. Finally, we conclude by reflecting on the importance of this argument for debates surrounding producer services in geography and the broader social sciences.

Conceptualising Corporate Reputation and Internationalisation

PSFs have been widely acknowledged as central actors in processes of globalisation for some time (Held et al 1999; Sassen 2001). This has been reflected by a growing literature that explores both how and why such firms internationalise amongst economic geographers, as well as management and social scientists more broadly (for reviews see Glückler 2006; Faulconbridge et al 2008; Jones 2003). The starting point for much of this work has been Dunning and Norman's ‘eclectic' Owernship-Location-Internationalisation (OLI) paradigm in which it is argued that firms will internationlise if they have competitive advantages over host firms in each of the OLI competencies. We do not have the space to review this approach in detail here (although see Dicken 2007) and instead focus on how it has been developed by geographers in ways that inform our argument surrounding the role of corporate reputation in processes of internationalisation.

Here the work of Bryson et al (2004) is particularly significant. They have developed the OLI paradigm with specific reference to producer services to argue that ownership advantage (in their terms firm-specific advantage) is based not only on the knowledge of the firms' labour force but also on the reputation of the firm. Considerable research attention has been paid to both aspects of this firm-specific advantage within geography. In terms of the role of a firm's labour force in processes of internationalisation analysis has focussed on the ways in which the bespoke, knowledge rich products typically offered by producer services such as legal or financial advice are best offered through face-to-face, ongoing client-provider relationships. As such close proximity between the two parties is often sought by PSFs (Jones 2007; Donaldson 2001). In terms of reputation, it is argued that well-known and highly regarded reputations (at both the level of the individual working in the PSF and the firm as a whole) are important in fostering the trust-based relationships between PSFs and their clients that are necessary in the knowledge-rich, highly competitive environments in which PSFs typically operate (see for example Glückler 2006). Moreover, these trust based relationships are particularly important when PSFs are entering new geographical markets in which their services have not previously been widely available since they have to educate their potential clients in the value of their services (Faulconbridge et al 2008; Coe et al 2006).

However, more detailed treatments of the role of reputation for PSFs are found beyond the literature on internationalisation, perhaps being most fully developed at the intersection between management studies and economic geography. Most notably for our argument in this paper, Glückler and Armbruster (2003) develop the seminal work of Granovetter (1985) on embeddedness to identify three related types of reputation in relations to PSFs. First, they identify what they term ‘public reputation' defined “as the perception of a […] firm's past performance” (Glückler and Armbruster 2003:279). This form of reputation is typically accorded to large firms within any given market and cannot be devolved down to the reputation of any one individual within the firm. One of the main ways in which such a reputation is (re)produced is through the media including trade journals that ranks firms in any given sector (for example The Lawyer; The Banker) as well as the mainstream press. However, as the name suggests, public reputation centres on publicly available information and is therefore available to all rival clients. As such, in terms of fostering trust based relationships, public reputation is not sufficient alone for potential clients in determining which PSF to use, particularly if the potential transaction is very high-profile or innovative.

Second, Glückler and Armbruster (2003:279) identify ‘experience-based trust'. This dimension of reputation focuses on the individual relationships that develop between economic actors working in PSFs and their counterparts in (potential) clients. According to this argument, positive experiences from previous transactions are more likely to allow the fostering of ongoing trust based relationships going forward and, therefore, future transactions between the two actors' firms. However, Glückler and Armbruster (2003) go on to suggest that this mode of reputation is also not entirely unproblematic since such relationships demand ongoing management and inputs (see also Wenger 1998). Furthermore, given the specialist nature of many of the transactions undertaken by PSFs, clients may use their contacts to hire people they know rather than necessarily the most appropriate person for the particular transaction they have in mind.

Given the limitations of both public reputation and experience-based trust, Glückler and Armbruster (2003) seek to reconcile these dimensions through what they term ‘networked reputation'. As they argue (2003, 280)

If a trusted party cannot provide the resources that are needed, their relations can be used in order to obtain trustworthy information about parties one is not connected to. […] This mechanism communicates certainty through an already established networks of trusted relations and thus helps to access additional resources.

As such, clients have the benefits of the wide range of potential providers opened to them through public reputation and yet can use some elements of experience-based trust to make their decisions using more than publicly available information, thereby overcoming some of the weaknesses of relying solely on either public reputation or experience based trust.

This analysis is instructive in the ways in which it teases out the different elements of reputation for PSFs. However, it focuses on how reputation is used to foster client relationships. In contrast, in this paper, we develop these insights by considering how different elements of corporate reputation are used by other PSFs in the same sector as a legitimation strategy for their own corporate practices as they seek to internationalise their operations. In so doing we bring together understandings of corporate reputation and the literature on internationalisation to foster a cultural economy approach to the internationalisation of PSFs. In particular, and following Glückler and Armbruster (2003) we focus on two particular dimensions of reputation. First, we consider the role of the public reputation of PSFs within the sector in which they operate (rather than their reputation amongst potential clients). Second we develop the ways in which ‘experience based trust' focuses on individuals to consider the role of strategically influential individuals in shaping the processes and practices of internationalisation amongst PSFs. We term these individuals ‘iconic individuals' and define them in section four below. In so doing, we follow recent work on the performative qualities of the economy (MacKenzie 2006) by suggesting that corporate reputation does more than simply reflect previous successes. Rather we want to suggest that the reputation of certain firms and individuals legitimises their particular corporate practices that then become used by other firms as they seek to internationalise and enter new markets. Before turning to the empirical details of our argument, it is important to detail the methodology used in the research we report on.


The research drawn on in the rest of this paper is based around 41 semi-structured interviews conducted with research consultants working in 21 of the leading headhunting firms operating in Europe and the professional bodies that represent these firms. All these firms operate on a retained basis in which they charge fees to their corporate clients, regardless of whether the search is successful or not. Interviews took place between June 2006 and March 2007 in Amsterdam, Brussels, Frankfurt, London and Paris, and all bar one was recorded and fully transcribed. Interviewees were drawn from a cross section of career stages including senior executives (who importantly for this paper were often the founders of the firm) to mid-career partners and early career researchers. A member of the project team also attended the Association of Executive Search Consultants Annual Researchers Conference in London in September 2006 and participated in and observed discussions about the industry that were conducted there. This interview and observational data was triangulated with content analysis of secondary data sources such as the mainstream and specialist press as well as trade publications, notably annual reports from The Executive Grapevine.

Internationalisation and Europe's Headhunting Industry

Headhunters position themselves as specialists in the finding and recruiting of the most suitable individuals for senior managerial or board level vacancies across a range of economic sectors. As such, these firms differentiate themselves from other labour market intermediaries such as temping agencies through their focus on elite labour. They typically target those people who are not actively in the market for a new position (Jones 1989) leading to them being referred to as match-makers in international executive labour markets (Finlay and Coverdill 2002). Rather than focussing on the practices of headhunters per se (on which see Jenn 2005), this paper is concerned with the internationalisation of the industry in Europe from its American heartland. Faulconbridge et al (2008) argue that this process began comparatively recently when the so-called ‘big four firms' in the US began to enter European markets, typically though London from the 1960s onwards (Heidrick and Struggles [1968], Spencer Stuart [1961], Russell Reynolds [1971], Korn Ferry [1973]). This was accompanied from the late 1960s by the indigenous growth of European firms from the late 1960s onwards not limited to London but also including other typically capital cities (Alexander Hughes [1965], Goddard Kay Rogers [1970], Saxton Bampfylde [1986]). Finally, Faulconbridge et al (2008) argue that from the 1980s we see the Europeanization of the industry. This refers not only to the increasing presence of headhunting as an industry in Europe but also the ways in which the practices of headhunting itself had to adapt to the changing cultural and regulatory norms surrounding hiring in Europe as opposed to the US (see also Britton et al 1995). Maps 1 and 2 clearly show this pattern of headhunting firm office growth in Europe between 1980 and 2005. Moreover, in addition to charting the historic pattern of internationalisation within the headhunting industry, existing studies have also pointed to the emergence of a range of organisational corporate forms (Faulconbridge et al 2008).

Map 1: Number of top 50 global headhunting firm offices in Europe city, 1980.
Source: The Executive Grapevine

Map 2: Number of top 50 global headhunting firm offices in Europe by city, 2005
Source: The Executive Grapevine

However, the studies discussed above exploring the internationalisation of headhunting firms, in common with studies of the internationalisation of PSFs more generally, has focussed on patterns of office change and the ‘spatial geometries' (Yeung 2005) adapted by firms. Whilst this has allowed a detailed picture of the growth of headhunting in Europe to emerge, we want to argue that this is only part of the story. In particular, care must be taken not to ‘black box' headhunting firms such that they appear to be atomistic actors that internationalise in a rational way encountering few impediments or difficulties along the way (see also Glückler 2006). Indeed, in what follows we consider the difficulties that headhunting firms face as they have sought to enter new geographical markets that often do not have a history of headhunting as a professional service – something that continues to be a challenge to the industry today as it seeks to enter current emerging markets in South East Asia and Eastern Europe before considering how corporate reputation and iconic individuals are used to help overcome these difficulties within internationalisation strategies.

Hurdles to Internationalisation for Headhunting Firms

Four potential hurdles in terms of internationalisation for headhunting firms stand out as being particularly significant. In what follows we consider each of them in turn. Moreover, whilst we focus on these impediments in terms of the headhunting industry in particular, they also resonate with other producer services more generally including management consultancy, legal services and advertising (on which see Jones 2003; Beaverstock 2004 and Faulconbridge 2006 respectively). First, unlike the original professions of the law and the clergy and newer professions such as accountancy, headhunting is an example of a relatively ‘unbounded profession' (Glückler and Armbruster 2003, see also Dent and Whitehead, 2002 on the nature of professions more generally). This means that to practice as a headhunter, individuals currently do not need to register with a professional body. Indeed, membership of the main professional body representing headhunters internationally, the Association of Executive Search Consultants, is optional and operates at the level of headhunting firms rather than individuals. As such, headhunting and executive search are not protected titles and theoretically any firm or individual could trade as a headhunter. This results in significant ‘image problems' for headhunters as the following response from one of our research participants demonstrates

executive search is not a standard profession and a lot of people are in that area because they think it is quick money and they spoil everything, they spoil the image of the industry, they spoil even some clients because they pay a lot of money and don't get anything, so professional standards are important, for instance if you place a candidate for a certain role a good executive search firm would never touch that candidate again but a lot of mavericks would call that candidate two years later again and move him to another firm Consultant 3, Frankfurt

As this example demonstrates, our research participants frequently spoke of the difficulty and importance of presenting a ‘professional' image to potential clients. This is particularly important when entering new markets currently in Eastern Europe and South East Asia where potential clients have to be educated as to the perceived benefits of using a headhunting service as opposed to keeping recruiting as an in-house business function through personnel or human resource departments. The following response was indicative in this regard

[I went to] India and I had to sell the idea of search, had to sell the idea of retainers, had to convince people that having a contingent element in the fee was not a good idea, that is a very simple by the way, the sell being do you want me to tell you everything, the good and the bad about candidates or do you want me to sell them, they took that it was at the CEO level. They liked what I was telling them about the process of creating these vertical markets, which at that time was all the rage in India. Consultant 3, London

In addition to educating potential new clients on the perceived value of headhunting and what it actually involves when attempting to establish a headhunting office in a country that has little or no prior experience of the industry, the second significant hurdle for headhunters in terms of their internationalisation strategies lies in the fact that the boundaries between headhunting and other industries, particularly other producer services are not always clear. In their work on management consultancy, Glückler and Armbruster (2003) term this the problem of an ‘unbounded industry'. In part, the fuzzy boundaries of headhunting reflect the history of the sector itself. The industry started as internal departments within management consultancy firms in the US in the 1950s. Individual headhunters then left these firms to establish their own headhunting firms. One of the earliest and most significant examples of this devolution of headhunting out of management consultancy was the departure of Gardner Heidrick and John Struggles from the management consultancy firm Booz Allen Hamilton in 1953 when they sought to educate potential corporate clients in the value of a dedicated executive search firm through the distribution of business cards in the MidWest of the US.

However, these fuzzy boundaries have never really been neatly defined and as such, headhunters have faced the need to legitimise and define their industry both from other labour market intermediaries and producer services more generally. On the one hand, headhunters have sought to point to the ways in which the specialist knowledge they bring of the elite labour market and their significant contacts through previous searches means that search is not best undertaken by internal human resource departments or ‘lower end' labour market intermediaries such as temporary staffing agencies that are beginning to try to enter the middle management search market (on which see Ward 2004; Coe et al 2006). However, as the following example demonstrates, the headhunters we researched still felt that clients needed education in this respect

if you are recruiting a finance director for example, a finance director probably lasts 5 or 6 years in the job, the chances are that the HR department has never recruited a finance director, I've got somebody here who recruits 25 finance directors a year, finding the right finance director is business critical, why on earth give than job to someone who has never done it. Look what is the most important thing for nearly every organisation, its having the right people in the top jobs, if you haven't got that you're stuffed aren't you and if you have then you will be alright, it is the thing that matters. You ask your lawyer to advise you on law, you ask your accountant to advise you on finance it would be extraordinary not to let somebody advise you on recruiting, what an extraordinary thing to do in house. What is so odd is that people still do do it, they're bonkers [sic]. Consultant, London 6

On the other hand, headhunters themselves are increasingly offering a range of services beyond simply executive search including: training seminars for potential headhunting candidates; support services following the appointment to ensure that the outcome works for the client firms and consequently that the headhunting firm itself earns its fees; and consultancy on important business subjectivities such as ‘leadership' and ‘talent management' (see for example Heidrick and Struggles 2005). Nevertheless, offering this increasing range of services in an effort to promote the headhunting business model is not without its problems. Following the scandals surrounding corporate America in the early 2000s and the introduction of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in 2002, issues of conflicts of interest between different departments within the same firm have to be carefully managed. This is particularly the case in headhunting when the confidentiality of the search is absolutely vital, as discussed later in this section.

The third, and related, potential hurdle that faces headhunting firms as they seek to further internationalise their business models lies in the fact that the service that both a potential corporate client and a potential candidate (the headhunted executive) receives is very loosely defined – what Glückler and Armbruster (2003) term ‘unbounded product standards'. Indeed, whilst our research did point to common aspects to any one search these were very much only minimum standards. Here is not the place to go into details surrounding the specificities of the headhunting process (on which see Finlay and Coverdill 2002; Jenn 2005). However, one example illustrates our point. The first stage of a typical search involves researchers and consultants in headhunting firms using their existing knowledge and contacts to draw up a list of firms where potentially suitable candidates might be found as well as detailing the background of the candidates. However, precisely how this is achieved is vary variable with some firms relying more heavily than others on emerging online networks such as and whilst others prioritise personal contacts (see also Faulconbridge et al 2008). So some consultants favoured a combination of databases and previous contacts as illustrated below

the database is always a very good starting point. So you then start thinking who will help me identify who are the people who will help me identify who are the right people for this position, so you will draw up a list of sources and ask these sources where they think it is most likely to find a candidate, so you will talk to sources and say OK we are working on this kind of assignment, we know you because you have been a candidate, or a client some years ago, so these people will direct you to possible other sources and maybe he brings you in contact with somebody else who may have a name, so basically it is networking which is critical in what we do and of course we also do cold calling. Consultant, Brussels 6

Meanwhile other headhunters privileged personal contacts as this example demonstrates

I go to the candidates because if they all came to us it would cost a fortune. So when I do a worldwide search I just take a round the world ticket, which costs 6000 euros for business class, and they are not allowed to move, I go to their base, period. So it doesn't cost anything to the client except my travelling and hotels, then in 10 days because it is a minimum of 10 days with the ticket, I have seen virtually all the candidates and the search is finished Consultant 3, Brussels

This variability in the nature of headhunting as a set of practices is potentially difficult if headhunters are seeking to enter a new market where the industry is not widely used since different firms will be educating potential corporate clients in different styles of headhunting which may make it harder for client to know precisely what they would receive if they were to being to enrol headhunters in their executive search needs.

The fourth and final potential hurdle to internationalisation for headhunters lies in the ‘transactional risk' (Glückler and Armbruster 2003) of the ‘product' they are offering. In common with producer services more generally, the specialised, bespoke nature of the service offered by headhunters means that deep, trust based relationships need to be fostered between headhunting firms, candidates and corporate clients. However, this is particularly acute in the case of headhunting since confidentiality is absolutely critical to a successful search. Candidates details must not become public information since by and large they are typically not on the job market and corporate clients do not want shortlists of potential candidates becoming public knowledge, particularly to shareholders where hiring the ‘wrong' candidate can be penalised by significant share price falls in financialised economies (Froud et al 2006). Such trust based relationships are particularly difficult to cultivate from scratch when entering a new geographical market as the literature on trust points to the importance of ongoing shared interactions and common histories and languages (Gertler 1995, 2003; Malmberg 1997). Therefore, this represents a further potential impediment to internationalisation for headhunting firms. In what follows we consider how headhunting firms have used leading firm reputations and iconic individuals to try and overcome these potential limitations to internationalisation.

Cultural Economies of Internationalisation Amongst Headhunting Firms

Despite these potential hurdles to internationalisation, the headhunting industry has clearly managed to increase the geographical scope of its operations in Europe from the mid 1960s onwards (as evidenced by the maps presented earlier in this paper). Whilst in what follows we concentrate on the cultural economies associated with this internationalisation we would not want to suggest that these are the only mechanisms that have been used in practices of internationalisation. For instance, and following the OLI paradigm, in some ways headhunting firms are following their PSF clients as they themselves have internationalised their operations (see Faulconbridge et al 2008). As such, our argument in this paper focuses on supplementing existing accounts of PSF internationalisation through an attention to the cultural economies associated with processes of internationalisation that have been comparatively neglected in accounts to date. We focus on two related dimensions of corporate reputation: leading headhunting brands and the role of leading ‘iconic' individuals. We consider them in turn below, although as will become apparent, there are considerable overlaps between the two.

Cultural Economies of Internationalisation amongst Headhunting Firms: The Role of Corporate Reputation

As with other professional services, there is a clear hierarchy of headhunting firms with a relatively small number of firms frequently topping league tables based around annual revenues, number of offices and number of consultants produced by trade publications, most notably The Executive Grapevine (see Table 1). Following Dunning and Norman's (1983) ‘eclectic' paradigm, these leading firms use their name as a brand to leverage advantage in terms of internationalisation as they sought to increase their European operations. As the following examples demonstrate, this typically took the form of what Glückler and Armbruster (2003) term ‘public reputation' with well-known clients reading trust off established brand names amongst headhunting firms

That's why blue chips [companies] use blue chips right? Heidrick and Struggles is a name that has been established for 53 years, we are the number 1 in search, we started search, juist the power of the brand opens doors Consultant, Brussels 2

Table 1. Top 10 transnational executive search firms by number of offices.
Source: Executive Grapevine (2005).


 Worldwide revenues (US$)

 No. European offices

 No. worldwide offices


 No. Consultants

MRI Worldwide





Korn/Ferry International





Heidrick & Struggles International





Spencer Stuart





Egon Zehnder International





Russell Reynolds Associates





Ray & Berndtson










EMA Partners










Our research also suggests that firms are well aware of the potential power of their brand in terms of developing their international operations and undertook activities specifically aimed at managing and increasing the exposure of the brand as this example demonstrates

We did a survey, for example, on corporate governance so that we could contact all of the CEOs in Belgium and we sent them the report and its gets press coverage so the name of Ray and Berndston gets more credibility and so they feel comfortable when somebody calls Consultant 3, Brussels

to build the brand and to really work at the top today is seen as much more of a profession, in the old days I used to think it was great fun to compete with these one off firms, by and large what they were selling was price and they were trying to be generalists and you kill them as a specialist, you know everybody, you know how the business works so that whole perspective has changed Consultant 2, Frankfurt

This type of brand promotion focused on ensuring the firm brand appeared professional and trustworthy in an effort to overcome the ‘image problems' facing headhunting as potentially a very expensive alternative to in-house HR departments.

However, beyond this relatively straightforward use of corporate reputation, rather than headhunting firms only using their own brand to establish trust based relationships with clients, other firms used the names of leading headhunting firms as a benchmark against which to compare their own activities. Here the aim was to compare themselves favourably to their better-known competitors to prove their own credentials as ‘professional' and ‘trustworthy' headhunting firms. Two very different firms were particularly drawn on for this type of ‘benchmarking'. First, Egon Zehnder which in many ways is a unique headhunting firm. It was founded by Egon Zehnder in Zurich in 1964 and remains fiercely individualistic. For example, it is the only leading transnational executive search firm not to be a member of the professional association for headhunting – the AESC and was formed in Europe rather than the US as is more common for the leading firms currently operating out of Europe. In terms of the ways in which other firms drew on the power of the Egon Zehnder brand, most commonly they focused on the fact that the company had a long and successful history within Europe and this longevity was used as a mark of quality as the following examples demonstrate

Today Egon Zehnder is clearly the market leader by a wide margin […] the model [here] is similar to what Zehnder has – you need to be locally connected otherwise you will never be a player Consultant 1, Frankfurt

You need to be known in this business, Egon Zehnder they are known but they are 50 years old, we are just 15 years old. Consultant, Paris 5

So, rival firms to Egon Zehnder used the Egon Zehnder brand as a way of favourably positioning their own operations to potential clients as they sought to develop their own European operations. In terms of the qualities they identified within Egon Zehnder, research participants focused on the professionalism of Egon Zehnder as a company based on a well-established history within Europe in an effort to overcome the fact that headhunting is a relatively ‘unbounded profession' (Glückler and Armbruster 2003). This focus on the professionalism of Egon Zehnder is particularly interesting given the fact that it is not a member of the AESC, something that the AESC would dearly like to change. However, it is almost as if Egon Zehnder use the very fact that they do not need to be in the AESC as a mark of their trustworthy, reliable reputation.

The second most significant brand that headhunting firms operating in Europe used as a benchmark against which to compare their operations was the US firm Korn Ferry which has a very different organizational culture to that found in Egon Zehnder. Korn Ferry was founded in 1969 in the US by Lester Korn and Richard Ferry and as such is much more typical of the types of firms that have driven the internationalization of the industry into Europe in the last fifty years. It predominately operates as a wholly owned firm such that its board of directors dictates the priorities and strategies for the majority of its transnational offices. However, when entering some potentially higher risk, new international markets such as in South America, it has adopted a range of other ways of managing offices including the alliance, the satellite and the affiliate office structure (see Faulconbridge et al 2008). Moreover, whilst Egon Zehnder prides itself on its established European history, Korn Ferry privileges what headhunting terms a ‘scientific' approach to executive search. This reflects a key debate amongst headhunters surrounding the most efficacious way of conducting search with an increasing sense that purely relying on personal contacts and a database of potential candidates is not satisfactory. Rather databases of potential candidates are carefully managed and updated and combined with acquired experience of the sector the search involved through investment in research departments within headhunting firms as the following example demonstrates

we have better research than Egon Zehnder, they then say yes but we have a database that has existed for 40 years, we say you are lazy you just rely on your database, we go beyond that because you can't have them all in your database Consultant 4, Brussels

As such, Korn Ferry's widely acknowledged leadership in headhunting search processes and practices means they echo the so-called McKinsey effect in management consultancy (see Sturdy 1997). Other firms increasingly benchmark themselves against Korn Ferry in terms of their headhunting practices, particularly in terms of entering new geographical markets as this example shows

When we go into let's say the Czech Republic […] it is not yet a sophisticated executive search market yet, the market the region is struggling to get on its feet to meet European standards – they grab on any straw they can, therefore sometimes it's a bit of a cowboy attitude. Then in comes Korn Ferry who come in and follow very strict rules and ethics so we have to educate the market Consultant 9, London

As such, names such as Korn Ferry are used not only by Korn Ferry itself but also by other firms to signal to potential clients the quality and reputation they can expect from the executive search process, thereby attempting to more tightly define precisely what headhunting is and overcome the problems of ‘product intangibility' (Gluckler and Armbruster 2003) that headhunters share with other producer services. In this way, headhunting brands are used as key educational tools in markets that do not have well-established headhunting sectors. However, it is not only the brands of particular executive search firms that are used in this way. Certain individual headhunters are also important and it is to these ‘iconic individuals' that we now turn.

Internationalisation and the Agency of ‘Iconic Individuals'

The relative recent growth of headhunting as a producer service allows us the unique opportunity to consider the role of individuals who founded the first headhunting firms in the subsequent internationalisation of the industry beyond its US heartland. We term this cadre of founding figures within the industry ‘iconic individuals', reflecting their disproportionate impact on executive search. Similar figures can be found in other producer services, often through examining the names of firms that reveal the rounds of mergers and acquisitions that are central activities within processes of internationalisation (think for example of the banks Rothschilds and Cazenoves or the advertising firms Bartle Bogle Hegarty and McKann Erickson). As such, it is surprising that the role of these ‘iconic individuals' has been comparatively neglected within extant geographical understandings of the internationalisation of PSFs.

In terms of headhunting the most significant iconic individuals revealed by our research are listed in table 2. As this table shows, the majority of these individuals began their careers in one of the ‘big four' firms (Heidrick and Struggles, Spencer Stuart, Russell Reynolds and Korn Ferry), sometimes as founders. The notable exception is Egon Zehnder who lent his name to his firm although as noted above, this uniqueness of Egon Zehnder fits its business model where independence is highly valued. As such, there are strong links between these individuals as they have often been colleagues or worked for one another. Moreover, at the most basic level, these individuals are important figures in the growth of headhunting simply because they worked in leading firms and/or went on to found firms who have facilitated the growth of the industry. This was widely commented on by our research participants

There are a few icons like Jurgen Mulder and his team who was originally a Spencer Stuart guy, who moved in to Heidricks, he sold the firm to Heidricks because he realised he was too domestic and needed an international angel, so there are quite a few icons, but the business was dominated by on the one hand individuals who knew people at board level, on the other hand there were a few groups like Jurgen Moulder where they had teams together Consultant 1, Frankfurt


Table 2. Career biographies of iconic individuals in Europe 's executive search industry.
Source: Fieldwork.


First position as Headhunter

Date and name of executive search firm founded

Current position

Jurgen Mulder

Spencer Stuart

Mulder and co, 1978. Acquired by Heidrick and Struggles, 1997


Eric Salmon

Egon Zehnder

Eric Salmon, 1990

Chairman, Eric Salmon

Egon Zehnder


Egon Zehnder, 1964

Retired 2000

Russell Reynolds


Russell Reynolds, 1969


Richard Boggis-Rolfe

Russell Reynolds

Led buy-out of Odgers, Ray and Berndtson in 2000

Chairman and Chief Executive of Odgers, Ray and Berndtson

Lester Korn

Korn Ferry

Korn Ferry, 1969

Chairman Emeritus Korn Ferry

Richard Ferry

Korn Ferry

Korn Ferry, 1969

Founder Chairman, Korn Ferry

However, they are also important in more subtle ways in understanding the internationalisation of executive search in Europe. Two dimensions stand out as being particularly significant in this respect. First, their own preferences in terms of where they wanted to open offices or felt they had particularly expertise have left unique footprints of offices across Europe as exemplified in the following two examples

I remember that [Ray] Berndtson started it [the headhunting industry in Germany ], he came from Brussels to Frankfurt and he was one of the first Consultant 3, Frankfurt

Because it is a huge market in Europe, Eric Salmon himself had been responsible for the Mediterranean countries with Egon Zehnder, so it was mainly countries like France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and that was the reason he started immediately in Paris and Milan. Consultant 3, Frankfurt

This second example is particularly interesting since Eric Salmon's personal experience at Egon Zehnder was instrumental in determining the fact that Eric Salmon as a firm started in Paris and Milan rather than other European cities. This suggests that internationalisation understood as an economically rational process in for example Dunning and Norman 's (1983) OLI paradigm represents only part of the story. Certain dimensions of internationalisation arise out of individual decisions that then leave a material office footprint which is subsequently incorporated into a transnational business structure.

Second, the success of these ‘iconic individuals' was used by other research participants to legitimate certain headhunting practices associated with overcoming the hurdles associated with internationalisation identified above. In particular, working for these individuals was used as a proxy measure for promoting an individual's professionalism in the absence of formal professional accreditation as the following example demonstrates

When I started I was the personal assistant to Mr Russell Reynolds in New York [who founded the headhunting firm Russell Reynolds] … he wanted to prove we were or we are a consulting business like every other … in 25 years I've never made a single phone call asking for business, but this is the pure training of Mr Reynolds who felt that in this business you don't need to ask for work otherwise you are doing something wrong Consultant 1 Paris

Moreover, individual headhunters were well aware of the potential value and brand of their own name and used this to position themselves in relation to particular candidates

Of course, you speak to a secretary and you say it is Filip Lerno from Heidrick and Struggles could you please ask him to call me back, what it is it about, just tell him it is Filip Lerno from Heidrick and Struggles, and if they don't then they are ignorant Consultant 2, Brussels

As such, newer entrants into the industry are beginning to position themselves as potentially the next generation of ‘iconic individuals' who are likely to shape future rounds of internationalisation into emerging markets in Eastern Europe and Asia.


This paper has adopted a cultural economy perspective to develop geographical understandings of the internationalisation of PSFs. In particular, and through an empirical focus on the internationalisation of the headhunting industry in Europe from the mid 1960s onwards, we have drawn attention to the ways in which headhunting firms use the corporate reputation of leading firms and ‘iconic individuals' to legitimate headhunting as an industry and educate new geographical markets as to the potential benefits of employing a headhunter in their executive searches. These legitimation strategies have been important in allowing headhunting firms to overcome the potential hurdles they faced in their attempts to internationalise – difficulties that were particularly acute when compared to other producer services given the relatively recent ‘invention' of headhunting as a standalone producer service industry. In the rest of this conclusion we reflect on the importance of this argument for debates surrounding producer services in geography and the broader social sciences.

At a theoretical level, our analysis points to the importance of continuing to develop geographical work that has sought to open the ‘black box' of the firm (see for example Taylor and Asheim 2001; Clark and Tracey 2004), particularly in terms of the central role played by certain key actors within firms. Indeed, our research suggests that attention needs to be paid to the ways in which such actors are not only influential in terms of the firms they work for but also for other firms in the sector they work in as these competitor firms use the work of ‘iconic individuals' as a benchmark for ‘best' or ‘good practice' within the sector to justify their own activities. As such, certain individuals become sources of legitimation for particular corporate practices, something that is important as firms seek to enter new geographical markets. In a similar vein, we have explored how the practices of certain leading headhunting firms have been at least rhetorically replicated by competitor headhunting firms in an effort to overcome the ‘image problems' that have plagued the industry since its inception.

At an empirical level, our argument has focussed on the European headhunting industry from the 1950s until the present day. However, there are numerous opportunities to develop our arguments. Two avenues stand out as being particularly significant. First, until comparatively recently, headhunting has had an only marginal presence in Eastern Europe. However, this is beginning to change with Eastern Europe and Asia-Pacific becoming important emerging markets (see for example Lau 2007). Here, further research is needed to consider how the cultural technologies used to legitimate headhunting in western Europe travel and are translated to very different socio-economic settings. Second, we have focussed on the headhunting industry although there are obviously important questions surrounding the extent to which corporate reputation and ‘iconic individuals' are being used as legitimation devices in other producer service sectors. There is circumstantial evidence at least to suggest that similar processes are at work in other sectors, most notably the well known ‘McKinsey effect' in management consultancy although further research is needed to compare how the cultural economies of internationalisation vary both by producer service sector and geographically. Indeed, given the attention PSFs themselves are paying to their own corporate reputation and their ‘iconic individuals', this is a topic that geographers and social scientists more broadly can ill afford to ignore in studies of the internationalisation of producer service firms.


The research presented in this paper was funded by the ESRC (RES-000-22-1498). We also acknowledge the headhunters who freely gave up their time to be interviewed as part of the research.


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* Sarah Hall, Jonathan V. Beaverstock, School of Geography, University of Nottingham, E-mail:

** James R. Faulconbridge, Andrew Hewitson, Department of Geography, Lancaster University


Edited and posted on the web on 29th October 2007

Note: This Research Bulletin has been published in Global Networks, 9 (3), (2009), 399-419