A Brit In America

Although my documents call me a Brit, my folks were Polish. We Poles do good (as we say in Brooklyn) in America because we’re an exuberant, upfront bunch just like you—something which, in retrospect, seems to have stood me in particularly bad stead among the frozen wastes of the British temperament.

In U.K. client meetings, I would often have a different meeting in my mind than everyone else in the room, having taken entirely at face value the enthusiasm and politeness of the clients. Only to be told afterward by some account director—in the way I tell my 3-year-old that he needs to try and actually get it in the potty—that the real meeting was in all the unspoken undercurrents and that they actually hated me, my work and the horse I rode in on (as we say in Texas).

Over here, clients tell you stuff like that straight to your face. OK, it sometimes makes your bottom lip tremble, but get over yourself (as we say in the Bronx), this is the country of John Wayne.

I love that in America, there are animals roaming around that can actually kill you and eat you for food, often in your own suburban backyard. In England, we only see stuff like that on TV or in a zoo, though it’s doubtful that the toothless old geriatrics in British zoos could do much more than gum you.

While I apologize to anyone who has been attacked or eaten by a wild animal, it gives this Brit a frisson to simply be in a land so vast and untamed that it harbours such beasts.

I love baseball. I hated it when I arrived nearly a year ago, but now, watching the pitcher mesmerically, diligently, artfully work the strike zone has become my meditation, broken only by periodic application into the cake hole of the chili dog—another American thing I love, by the way. Needless to say, I follow the White Sox, the archetypal Polish blue-collar team (with a particular soft spot for the irritating antics of A.J. Pierzynski).

I love America so much, funnily enough, that one of the few things that irk me is Americans who don’t seem to have much time for America. I’ve come across quite a lot of those in New York and California and the mainstream ad business. They say, “You’re lucky you live here in New York and not anywhere in the rest of America—you’d hate it. It’s like a foreign country. We never go there.”

I go there a lot, and I love it. My grown-up love affair with America started at the end of a Greyhound bus journey in 1980 (ticket randomly bought from New York to New Berne, N.C.). I spent the best part of a year in the Southeast and loved most (as we say in North Carolina) everything I saw and most every person I met.

Much of the advertising here I don’t like (lots) can, I think, be traced back to very clever Americans with probably plenty of intellectual insight into real Americans, but, dare I say, no real interest in them.

These clever Americans often actually hail from wonderful places like Omaha, Neb., or Tuscaloosa, Ala., a fact they trot out when the occasion/client meeting demands. But everything about their physical and mental aesthetic, from the retro-Lou Reed look—black Prada T-shirt, unruly hair—to the apartment in New York’s East Village and the New York/ Los Angeles Times worldview, reveals their heart is on the coasts and not in the heartland.

There is an obsession in American marcoms with ROI. I think this is as it should be. Particularly if the idea you’re investing in is brilliant and magical. (Being playfully contemptuous, a US CRM giant whom I hugely admire calls this part “sculpting fog.” I am still debating whether to have “Fog Sculptor” on my business card—I love it.) Rigorous analytics plus brilliant creative—now there’s a great idea for an agency in a marketplace mainly populated, it seems to me, by agencies teeming with suits who don’t seem dedicated to either side of this equation.

Three other things I’ll admit to not liking if pushed are the astonishing heat and humidity, and the cryogenically freezing air-con developed to fight it. And the different time zones, if you haven’t worked them out.

I’ve been over here for business meetings in the summer for a day or two and noted the oppressive weather. But you try living here, buster! A month in New York makes Kuala Lumpur seem clement. I went over to see a client in Chicago last July. I arranged to meet him in the restaurant at 7 p.m. and got myself a nearby hotel so I could walk. Mistake No. 1: it wasn’t far, but by the time I got there I looked as though I’d swum—not the best look in a fawn suit and blue shirt. My guest hadn’t arrived yet, so I waited at the bar. Ten minutes passed, 20, 30. Now the killer air-con was taking hold and my clothes, once sodden, were developing this frozen crunchy thing. As was my once leonine, now frightfully spiky hair. After 45 minutes and still no show, I was furious. I wasn’t going to drink but now ordered a Belvedere and tonic—”and seeing as I’m going to be eating alone, make it a triple.” Drink came, downed almost in one. The charming bar lady seemed concerned by my demeanour. I told her I had flown in from New York and been stood up: my guest was supposed to be there at 7, and it was now almost 8. “No, you’re fine. We’re an hour behind New York.” At which bombshell my elbow slipped off the bar counter, the vodka taking instant debilitating effect of my suddenly Inspector Clouseau-like faculties just as my client walked in bright-eyed, smart, refreshed and clearly keen on drilling down (as we say in Chicago) into the strategy and the numbers.