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Crossing Cultures

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Nearly every morning, Karen Youngs' colleagues at Castells & Asociados greet her with hugs and kisses. The warm Latin reception took some getting used to when Youngs joined the Hispanic agency two years ago, but now she loves the friendly environment.

"There's something to be said if you can work from nine to ten hours and still want to go out [with colleagues] after work," says the shop's director of creative operations.

Youngs is among the 10-15 percent of staffers at Hispanic agencies who are Anglo, according to Aida Levitan, past president of the Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies and chief communications officer at Bromley Communications. Lured by growth in the segment—Hispanic advertising is a $3 billion market that's expanding at an annual rate of 17 percent in terms of agencies' aggregate dollars billed, according to the AHAA—Anglos say they find a more relaxed atmosphere than general-market shops and also a more emotional one.

"When you're scheduled to be at a 2:30 meeting, it's OK to show up at 2:55," notes account planner Sharon Brunot-Speziale, who worked in marketing at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra before joining Lapiz in Chicago six years ago. "I don't have that sense of urgency and Type A behavior that I've had in other positions. [Meetings are] a more relaxed coming-together to share information."

At Castells, Youngs also has noticed that Type A behavior is out of place. "In the general market, people say, 'I need this, and I need it now.' Here, that doesn't work as well," she says. "You need to work with people a little more rather than strong-arm them." She's also found that communication is usually very direct. "There's less beating around the bush," Youngs says.

Chris Day, group director, promotions and public relations at The Cartel Group in San Antonio, has found that the "emotional side of business" comes out more frequently than in the general-market world. "It's OK to convey emotion about a certain program or effort," he says. "It's one of the main reasons I like operating here. Sometimes [the emotion] does go overboard, but generally I think it's an asset."

Like many Anglos who have joined Hispanic shops, Brunot-Speziale was concerned her colleagues would question why she was hired over a Hispanic. "Nobody ever challenged me with that," she says. "It was a personal barrier to get over. What I kept coming back to was I knew I had value here."

Anglos say the transition to Hispanic agencies is generally an easy one. "Once you prove [to clients] that you do have the deep understanding of the market, [ethnicity] normally becomes a non-issue," says Day. "In the long run, it's always become a non-issue. If someone in the ethnic market tries to 'break into the general market,' they frequently feel they have to prove themselves. That is the case here, but we're talking about it from the other side."

Day, whose wife is Hispanic, speaks conversational Spanish, but knowing the language is not always essential. Brunot-Speziale does not speak Spanish but regularly meets with members of the local Latino community. "The majority of the time, they speak English too," she says. "I have gone by myself and had success and failures, and gone with a co-worker who is fluent [in Spanish] to give me extra support."

For both Brunot-Speziale and Youngs, the biggest downside to not being bilingual has more to do with internal communications. When her colleagues chat in Spanish, "it can put me off a little bit, but I know I'm at a disadvantage, coming over as an English-speaking person," says Youngs. "I need to take more initiative to learn Spanish."

Lured by the caliber of the client roster—which includes Miller Brewing Co.—Curt Young joined LatinWorks in Austin, Texas, two years ago as manager of business development and says that "operationally, you'd never know the difference" from a general-market shop. One twist: General-market agencies are potential clients, too, expanding his universe of prospects.

LatinWorks CEO Manny Flores has found that for many Anglo clients, working with Anglo account executives gives them "a certain sense of a comfort zone." Nearly a third of Flores' 38-person staff is non-Hispanic, lending the agency a broad perspective that lets it "live, speak and work in both worlds, and that really gives us a competitive advantage in the market," he says.

Plus, Flores admits, "Hispanic talent is tough to come by—let no one say otherwise." The talent pool varies depending on location and agency reputation, among other factors, but it's also a boon for shops to add general-market expertise in jobs that don't require Spanish speakers, notably in the media, production, traffic and administrative departments.

"Being general-market-trained in those areas is a tremendous asset," says Liz Castells-Heard, president and CEO of Castells & Asociados in Los Angeles, whose 45-person staff includes five Anglos.

Staffers with general-market experience "bring other perspectives, and hopefully we'll get to learn from their experiences there," adds Janie Noriega, human resources director at San Antonio-based Bromley, where the 120-person staff includes 18 Anglos.

Castells-Heard notes, however, that while she hears from many Anglos seeking jobs, she's not interested in hiring anyone who's just looking to be a part of the next big thing. "I have to feel they want to get into the [Hispanic] business," she says. "It has to be the right fit—and part of that is almost an embracing and passion for the culture."