First impressions count, as they’re often all that matters


Back in 2013,  the cult series The Americans premiered on UK television – and I was completely hooked.

It told the story of pair of Russian spies who were embedded in America, complete with false identities and real children. They ran a travel agency, and were typical suburban Washington residents.

Except that behind the façade, they were carrying out covert operations, feeding back vital information to the KGB in Moscow. It was set in the late 70s/early 80s, with low tech/no tech, big hair and a fabulous soundtrack. 

I watched seasons 1 and 2 on ITV, the UK terrestrial channel. And then something weird happened. The third season went out on another channel, and I completely missed it.

It was only when I stumbled on the fourth season (halfway through) that I realised The Americans hadn’t disappeared without a trace, but simply moved across the airwaves.

Except now, it was too late to catch up. I’d also got Netflix by this time, and was deep into the world of House of Cards, so I had other intrigues and storylines to occupy me.

So I left it.

Lesson 1: be where your users expect you to be. Or let them know you’ve moved. 

Fast-forward several years, and it’s Emmy time. Claire Foy is crowned Best Actress in a Drama Series for her stunning performance in The Crown on Netflix.

And Best Actor? That’s Matthew Rhys, aka Philip Jennings in The Americans.

And that was enough of a trigger to pique my interest again. What had I missed out in seasons 2-6? Why had I not tried to catch up earlier? What was the cheapest way to binge on all the episodes I hadn’t seen? A few clicks later, I discovered that Amazon Prime Video had seasons 3-5 included, so up I signed. 

Now I’ve just finished season 4 and am heading into season 5. If season 6 isn’t added to Prime anytime soon, I’m considering paying for a season pass (three times the cost of a month of Prime Video, but I’m considering forking out the money as I have to finish what I’ve started). 

Lesson 2: often, all it takes is a little nudge to make people act. And FOMO (fear of missing out) is a powerful motivator. 

The Americans is compulsive viewing, driven by the constant threat that Philip and Elizabeth Jennings live under of having their cover blown. Their backstory is superficially plausible, but really doesn’t stand up to closer scrutiny. They have no near relatives, and their history only goes back so far before it peters out.

But what matters is outward appearances, and those are pretty convincing. A nice house in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, two kids, two cars and a dull but steady routine.

They’ve even befriended the CIA counterintelligence officer Stan Beeman who lives across the street. He turns up regularly – and often unexpectedly – to join them for dinner, cadge a six-pack when he’s run out, or invite the Jennings’ teenage son over to play board games. 

And throughout, he’s blissfully unaware that his all-American neighbours are actually the very spies he spends his days trying to catch. 

Lesson 3: a good story, confidently told, is always convincing.

There is one deliciously ironic twist about The Americans. They’re supposed to be Russians impersonating Americans, though we all know they’re not. They rarely speak Russian, and when they do, it’s just a word here and there that’s probably been practised extensively to sound halfway convincing. 

But here’s the thing: though Keri Russell who plays Elizabeth was born and raised in the US, her on-screen husband (and off-screen one too) Matthew Rhys is actually from Wales. He was born and raised in Cardiff, and is bilingual, having attended Welsh-medium schools. So he’s a Welshman, pretending to be a Russian, pretending to be an American. 

And though it’s unlikely that a Russian who didn’t leave the USSR until he was in his twenties could sound so convincingly American, Rhys has no such problem. So much so that when he made his acceptance speech at the Emmys, people were tweeting in amazement that he wasn’t actually American.

One even wondered in bafflement why he was speaking in a ‘bad Welsh accent’.

Lesson 4: perception is reality. And people see what you want them to see (so what is that, exactly?)


As I head into season 5 (I’m in unstoppable binge mode now) I’ll be keeping an eye out for any slip-ups in both their cover and Rhys’s accent. Though so far, both have been pretty much impeccable.

And I’ll be reflecting on how as marketers, we should all embed ourselves with our audience, speak their language, tell them what they want to hear, and show them what they expect to see.

Because when it comes to telling a convincing story, Philip and Elizabeth have pretty much got it nailed. 

For now.