Makin' Ads Abroad

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MAKIN’ ADS ABROAD Stories and Advice For Anyone Wanting to Work at an Ad Agency Overseas

About eight years into my career I had the opportunity to work in Europe. I’d been working as a copywriter for one of those huge global agencies that has offices on every continent but Antarctica, and I decided to look into transferring within the network. Several people I’d worked with – or at least admired from afar – had worked all over the globe: Mark Figliulo, Kash Sree, Greg Stern to name a few. Each one seemed to have been overseas early in his career, and it was difficult to imagine that not being a factor in their success. I ended up spending two years in Europe, seeing my ideas translated into French, Italian, German, Spanish, Polish, and a bunch of other languages I’ll never even try to speak. Parts of the experience were fantastic. And parts of it were as far from fantastic as I was from Target, BBQ, or a decent peanut butter sandwich. My experience isn’t absolute. “Overseas” a big place with lots of ad agencies. But it is my experience. And if you find anything I have to share insightful, I’m glad to have helped.

BEFORE YOU GO, KNOW WHY YOU’RE GOING According to sites like, working overseas can really advance your career. I’m not sure that’s an ironclad guarantee, but I know it’s a better reason to go abroad than just wanting to have an extended vacation. If you just want to see Paris, Sydney or Singapore, you’re better off taking a vacation or buying a timeshare. Working overseas can be great, but it’s still work. Once the honeymoon is over, you’re still going to have to buy laundry detergent, find parking spaces in crowded lots, buy insurance, and haggle with the phone company that messed up your bill.

ONLY THE PRO-ACTIVE SHALL PASS I think there are really only two ways to get a job overseas: 1. Be a part of a global network (with more than just a couple years invested in the company) and transfer to another office. 2. Pick a city and either move there, or make several trips developing a strong network there. Unless you’re ECD-level or an industry superstar, don’t expect an agency to fly you out for an interview. Chances are they’ve got a pool of local talent to draw from. You’ve got to be on their radar and significantly more qualified than any of their other options. My friend Claire, who became an award-winning art director in Southeast Asia says, “Getting a job 'there' is the same as getting a job ‘here.’ Network like crazy to obtain one or two good overseas contacts and have a decent portfolio. Then set time to fly there with your book.”

GO FOR YOUR CAREER, NOT YOUR PASSPORT A lot of people looking to go overseas will say, “I want to work in (insert geographic location here).” A smarter thing for your career would be to say, “I want to work for an agency that needs a young creative director with a few awards under her belt.” Or “I’m looking for an agency that needs someone with digital experience to take their operation to the next level.” Position yourself and your career for growth. Otherwise, you’ll just be on an extended vacation.

THERE’S A HUGE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN GETTING AN EXPAT PACKAGE AND GETTING A JOB OVERSEAS Some people are asked by their companies to go overseas. That means uprooting families, saying goodbye to friends, and shouldering more than a few hardships. To make going overseas more attractive, some companies offer these employees amazing benefits packages, pay for their children to attend international schools, and near-regal housing. Some companies will even pay the mortgage on the employees’ stateside homes while they’re away (and if an employee rents it out, that’s just extra income). Those people are usually brought over to run an entire company. But if you simply raise your hand as someone willing to be a copywriter or art director in a foreign country, don’t expect any of that. You’ll get a salary, standard benefits, and maybe a perk or two in your contract. I was lucky enough to get a company car with all servicing and even gas paid for. That was awesome. But pretty unusual.

UNDERSTAND YOUR CONTRACT BEYOND THE SALARY Your contract can be your lifeline. And because you’ll be entering uncharted territory, you’ll need to know everything you’re entitled to. How much tax will you be paying in your new country? Will you have to file income tax, or will you be taxed at source? Will you be paid in US dollars or the currency of your new country (the latter, most likely). While you might have a retirement or savings plan, it’s not going to be called a 401(k). It will feel 401(k)-ish, but it will act differently. Your contract should help you understand it. The health and insurance plans are probably going to be different than what you’re used to, as well. Make sure you’ve got those things covered.

IF YOU’RE AN AMERICAN, THIS WILL BUG YOU As of this writing, the United States is the only developed nation that taxes its citizens on foreign money they earn overseas. If you earn $80,000 or less, you won’t have to worry about that. But you’ll still have to file income tax in the States. There are a few exemptions and qualifications to this. Just make sure you know what the most recent ones are. I considered hiring a tax attorney who specialized in expatriates, but I ended up using Turbo Tax, and never had any problems with it. Never had any federal refunds either, but I was happy to break even.

NEGOTIATE FOR AS MUCH AS YOU CAN, AND CLAIM IGNORANCE IF YOU GET RIDICULOUS I knew how much I was worth in America. But I didn’t know how much I’d be worth in Europe. So I went to The Economist’s Big Mac Index. Big Macs were 64% more expensive in the country I was moving to, so I took the maximum amount I thought I could get in the States, and multiplied that by 1.64. Without knowing it, I’d asked for almost three times what the agency was willing to pay. I’m pretty sure I heard the guy fall out of his chair when I gave him my opening number over the phone. I claimed ignorance, and the agency helped me reach what we both felt was acceptable, based on how much I should expect to pay for an apartment, monthly groceries, etc. And I honestly think by opening astronomically, I led them to raise my salary a bit. Here’s another tip: I asked for annual airfare back to the States for me and my family, which I was granted. But a friend advised me to have it written in my contract that I’d receive the money, not the tickets. “There may be a year when you can’t go home, or don’t want to,” he said. “But if you have the money in hand, you can do whatever you want with it.” So I had my contract revised so the agency would pay a couple month’s rent on my apartment each year instead. Not something I would have thought to ask for. But I’m glad I did.

KNOW WHAT YOU WANT AND BE WILLING TO QUIT IF YOU’RE NOT GETTING IT Some people fall in love with their new city and let their careers take a backseat. That’s fine. But you’re sacrificing growth. Hypothetical situation: Creative powerhouse moves to a new city with a rich culture, beautiful surroundings, and mind-blowing weekend recreation. The agency isn’t great, but the city is, so things even out. Right? But four, five or ten years later, said creative hasn’t appeared in any international award shows, or produced anything book-worthy. Then said creative tries to return to their home country (or worse-case scenario, is laid off in a foreign land), and doesn’t have anything to show for their last several years but a really amazing photo album. Unless you want to settle in for good, don’t let an overseas career path take you on a sightseeing detour, no matter how gorgeous the scenery.

CULTURE SHOCK WILL HAPPEN NO MATTER HOW WELL-PREPARED YOU ARE “You’re so lucky to be married to me, because I can’t think of a single friend of mine who would do this for their husband.” This is what my wife said to me on our second day overseas. Between the two of us, we had already lived four years in Europe. She’d lived in Italy and Germany, and I’d lived in Hungary. We knew we’d have language barriers. We knew the electrical outlets would be different. We knew we weren’t going to be able to TiVo Iron Chef America. And we still had culture shock. It just happens.

DON’T TRY TO IMPORT YOUR OLD LIFE The people who struggle the most in a new country are those who try to live like they did in their old country. If you’re American, just accept that you’re not going to drive your SUV to Target to pick up Oreos that are 20% off. Reinvent yourself and adapt.

LEARN THE LANGUAGE, BUT DON’T MAKE IT YOUR TOP PRIORITY I once heard a French co-worker tell a Spanish coworker, “Being born with English as your mother tongue is one of the biggest blessings you can have.” English is the international language of business, and whether you’re Swiss, Polish or Brazilian, fluency in English will help you immensely. But that can make the mother-tongue English speakers incredibly lazy. I knew people in our European office who’d lived in-country for more than half a decade without learning much more than bonjour and ça va? What a shallow experience. That said, I had decided when I arrived that I had moved to produce great advertising and advance my career, not learn a foreign language.

BEFORE YOU GO, HAVE AN EXIT PLAN It’s rare in advertising that you’d be able to arrange some kind of foreign exchange program – one where you go abroad for a few years and then come back to the same office and city you came from. More likely, the foreign office will foot the bill to get you over there, and that’s it. It’s not in their interest to put a return ticket into your contract. From the day I arrived, I was aware that if I wasn’t producing outstanding work and continuing to build my portfolio, I could be marooned in Europe with no lifeboat back to the U.S. Having an exit plan means knowing if and when to quit. It means keeping connected with your network back home. It means knowing what your career goals are for at least the next one, three and five years.

INTERNATIONAL ACCOUNTS ARE VERY DIFFERENT THAN NATIONAL ACCOUNTS In the States, I’d worked on several national accounts. We’d come up with the idea and the execution, and the client would implement it across the country. The commercials I made that ran in Florida were the same ones that were running in Oregon and Ohio. That’s not my experience with Europe. For the majority of our international clients, we would come up with the concept in English, and they would then deliver the advertising to their offices in various countries who would a) translate my copy b) abandon my copy and write their own c) mess with the layout d) decide to run their own locally produced concept instead.

IT ISN’T ANY EASIER TO PRODUCE GREAT WORK OVERSEAS Before I left, my ECD, who’d spent three years in Tokyo told me, “It’s incredibly tough to do great work overseas.” Sure, I thought. He obviously hadn’t seen the number of international winners in the One Show. But there’s as much bad advertising in Europe, South America and Asia as there is in the States. It’s only the best stuff that gets into Cannes and the One Show. There’s an ocean of forgettable advertising on every continent, and odds are, you might end up working at one of the agencies that produces it.

STEREOTYPES ARE TRUE After I arrived in Europe, someone sent me the following: Heaven is where… The police are British The cooks are Italian The engineers are German The lovers are French And everything is run by the Swiss.

Hell is where… The police are German The cooks are British The engineers are French The lovers are Swiss And everything is run by the Italians.

Nothing was said about the Brazilians, Japanese, South Africans or Australians. But there’s a reason stereotypes exist. That reason is that by and large, they are quite accurate. (And of course, Heaven and Hell are both full of loud, zealous, and fat Americans.)

DIFFERENT COUNTRIES HAVE DIFFERENT WAYS OF THINKING AND YOU CAN’T PROVE TO THEM THAT THEIR WAY IS WRONG (An Observation in Four Anecdotes) ANECDOTE #1: My experience at ad agencies in America is that if someone has a truly great idea, the mandate from the ECD is to “make it happen.” That might mean putting in a few extra hours, or the agency putting up a little extra money. It might also mean learning that it wasn’t all that great of an idea to begin with. But things happened. My experience at an ad agency in Europe is that if someone had a truly great idea, the mandate tended to be, “Let’s show this to Person A, and if he likes it, we should schedule some time to present it to Person B. Pending their approval, Subcommittee 1.a will review and then…”

ANECDOTE #2: One of the principles at my agency told me he’d tried to implement a monthly “Above and Beyond Award” to recognize employees who had really made a great effort to take the agency to the next level. But he had so much backlash from native employees insisting, “You can’t ask people to go ‘above and beyond’ what they’re contractually obligated to do,” he discontinued it after a few months.

ANECDOTE #3: One of our agency’s managers told me a story of arriving in Paris on a Friday for a presentation Monday morning. That afternoon, he realized the team needed some technical materials for the meeting and asked the office manager to deliver them. “That’s not possible,” he was told. Their AV staff had already left for the weekend. He asked the office manager if she knew anyone else who could provide what he needed and was told, “Not at this hour.” Being self-reliant (as successful agency managers tend to be) he insisted, “It’s not impossible. Get on the phone and call people. There’s surely someone, somewhere in Paris who can do this for us.” She did as he asked and found what he needed for the presentation. But only after pointing out, “That’s not a very French way of thinking.”

ANECDOTE #4: I remember attending a presentation on how different countries do business and communicate according to different cultural customs. But the German who gave this presentation was completely unaware that the French and Finnish members of the audience were thoroughly turned off by his strident attitude.

AGENCY CULTURE IS NOT THE SAME AS FOREIGN CULTURE You can love your new city and be miserable in your agency. You can also love your agency and hate your new city. I’ve learned that not everyone in advertising loves advertising. Some just see it as a job to do, and are out the door at 5:00 pm sharp (or 17.00, depending on how you keep the clocks). I’ve also met people who found their city dull, boring, and couldn’t wait to return to their native land (even though their native land sounded pretty dull and boring to me). Make the most of the situation. Change what you can. And know how long you’ll put up with whatever it is you can’t.

OUTSIDE AMERICA, EVERYONE SMOKES They just do. It’s amazing.

EXPATS ARE MAGNETIC TO EACH OTHER Because expats are all swimming in the same foreign waters, they tend to grab onto each other to stay afloat. In larger cities, you’ll find expats have their own literature and festivals and radio stations. Expats will read each other’s blogs even when they’re in different countries. While abroad, I read expat blogs from Singapore, Dubai, Morocco and Budapest, and saw a bit of myself in all of them. Tap into that expat community and you won’t be lonely for long.

LOVE THE PEOPLE It’s easy to go into a new environment thinking you know better. Hopefully, one of the reasons you’re brought onboard will be your experience and your point of view. But that doesn’t mean you’re above those around you. If you think the natives of your new country are backward, slow, and don’t have a clue, you’ll spend your whole time looking down on them. Which can be a seriously distorted perspective. If you love the people, you’ll love the culture. And your experience will be a lot more enjoyable.


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Š 2010 Greg Christensen This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. To view a copy of this license, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, California, 94105, USA.