Working abroad has the same allure that studying abroad does: the opportunity to immerse yourself in a foreign culture, get invaluable work experience and push your creative boundaries. Whether you’re working abroad through your agency network or setting out on your own, here’s some advice for landing an overseas job—and how to survive once you’re there.
Landing a work abroad fellowship program that’s sponsored by an agency or holding company can make the global transition easy. WPP has a dedicated fellowship program, while Publicis often transfers its workers around its agency network across the globe.
The WPP fellowship program, which started in 1995, lets employees work for three different WPP companies around the world for three years, learning a different discipline (advertising, PR, media or digital) in one-year rotations. WPP fellows have worked on projects with NGOs in Brazil, on Britain’s winning bid for the 2012 Olympics and with Hillary Clinton’s presidential election team.
“Moves are much easier within a network, and it makes the relocation process easier too,” said Jon Steel, director of the WPP fellowship program.
Last year, BBDO launched its Energy Exchange work abroad program, which starts its second iteration this month. The 13-week program is for employees with at least four years of industry experience and at least one year at a BBDO office.
Four agencies participated in the first version of the program—Energy BBDO in Chicago, BBDO Mexico, AMV BBDO in London and BBDO Shanghai. This year, six more have signed on, including four BBDO agencies in Spain, one in New York and one in Minneapolis.
“Year one proved our hypothesis that you could have a life-changing 90 days through the program,” said Tonise Paul, CEO at Energy BBDO. “Participants said it was a transformational professional and personal experience. You won’t get a lighter load; it’s actually harder than your regular job because you have to learn the agency, learn the culture and learn another language sometimes, and you have a real contribution to make.”
Scoring a spot in an agency’s fellowship program isn’t the only way to find a gig abroad. Ogilvy senior copywriter Jeremy Claud suggests using a recruiter, which allowed him to move from Mono agency in Minneapolis to Ogilvy in Paris two and a half years ago.
“I said, ‘I’ve never been to Paris; why not send my book there?’ You can shop around your portfolio and can get hired, as long as you have a book [the agency] is interested in,” Claud said. “I didn’t speak much French, but in my first interview, the creative director was amazed that I said I was willing to learn even though the position didn’t require the language. Showing that I had an interest in the culture and wanting to be a part of it helped.”
Debbie Bougdanos, evp and creative recruiter at Leo Burnett, who hires overseas workers to come to the U.S., suggests demonstrating your willingness to move as well as experience. “We look for relevant work experience, even if it’s just internships,” she said.
Securing that all-important visa
Before you arrive in your new country, the HR department at the agency that hires you should help you secure relevant visas and work permits.
“If a company knows what they’re doing, you should never arrive the first day at work with questions about your validity to be there,” Claud said. “Having all of the paperwork sent to the consulate in the country and the approval process [takes a while]. I got my offer in May and didn’t arrive in France until September.”
To help secure a work permit or visa, provide documentation, such as awards, publications you’ve been featured in or articles you’ve written, according to Steel. “The rules are changing all the time, so you have to have HR people who are focused on that,” he said. “Every time someone asks you for a document, provide it as soon as you can, because [processing] always takes longer than you think it’s going to.”
Because you’re leaving your home country behind, Claud emphasized the need to have a direct conversation with HR about what they can offer you as an expat, “There’s no such thing as a stupid question. The company should be able to help you assimilate to the culture.”
For workers coming to the U.S. from other countries, an H1B visa provides three years of work eligibility, which can be renewed for another three years for a maximum of six, but it’s chosen by lottery. More seasoned workers can get an O visa, for extraordinary ability, if you prove that you’ve won awards or you’re exceptional at your craft.
“Millions of people apply and only a certain number are chosen. It’s a crapshoot,” Bougdanos said. “The visa process can take six to eight weeks, sometimes longer.”
If you can’t secure a visa in the U.S., she suggests taking a job within the same network or agency in your home country, and then transferring to the U.S. after a year or two.
“Once you have a year under your belt, a transfer visa is easy,” she said. “Or, if you’re at the mid-point of your career, since you already have category experience, you should look for global brands that you’ve already worked with locally, and find agencies in other countries that are working with those brands. Although there are no guarantees, since getting a visa is never easy.”
Once you’ve secured that visa, see what services your HR department offers to help ease your transition, like language classes or helping you find an apartment and open a bank account prior to your arrival abroad.
Adjusting to the day-to-day realities of living in a foreign country can also be a challenge.
“Don’t be afraid,” said Andres Castro, an account director for BBDO Mexico who spent three months at BBDO Shanghai. “Try new food, walk the streets, get lost and talk to people. And, if you have enough time, learn the local language.”
Jesse Unger, a senior strategist at Energy BBDO in Chicago who spent three months at BBDO Mexico, said her time abroad was an eye-opening experience.
“I had worked on brands in Mexico before and always thought I had a grip on Mexican culture, but I realized I only knew about it in the context of focus groups and testing,” she said. “It’s amazing what you learn when you leave the research vacuum. Mexico City sounds so close, but Mexico has enormous cultural depth. If you don’t speak Spanish, you’ll definitely feel the culture shock.”
WPP’s Steel, who is now based in Perth, Australia, moved from agency Boase Massimi Pollitt in London to join Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco in 1989, where he stayed for 10 years.
“I figured because we all spoke English that I knew America,” he said. “On my first day at the agency, needing a pencil eraser, I asked my new (young, female) assistant if I could ‘borrow a rubber.’ Her expression, and subsequent awkward explanation, suggested that maybe we didn’t share a common language after all. Later that day, Rich [Silverstein] and Jeff [Goodby] put me on a red-eye to Connecticut, for a client meeting. The next morning, horribly jet-lagged, I sat at breakfast with clients who all wanted to talk about baseball. In my previous life, I had played cricket, and never traveled more than 20 miles to a client meeting. So, I made it my mission to be able to hold a knowledgeable conversation about baseball, football and basketball, studied American politics and watched a lot of TV. Maybe I was lucky that, as a planner, it was my job to ask dumb questions.”
Claud said that working to master French aided his adjustment to life in Paris.
“Even if you have a [language] teacher, if you don’t apply it yourself, you’re still going to fail,” he said. “The beauty about being in a country that doesn’t speak English is that the whole country is your classroom. Don’t be afraid to ask your colleague what to expect at a bakery or a market. You’ll feel weird speaking another language at first, but just go for it and be willing to make mistakes. For almost every country you can think of, there’s either a book or a blog written by an American expat about their experiences there, so those can be helpful to read, too.”
Getting used to French work culture also was an adjustment, he added.
“People really respect time off here,” he said. “When you’re on vacation, you’re on vacation. You’re not obligated to answer emails. In San Francisco and Chicago, I spent nights until five in the morning working with my team. That doesn’t happen as much here. But on the other hand, as far as efficiencies go, you don’t hear ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as quickly. In France, it’s a high debate culture. You’ll spend hours in meetings talking about something because it’s about the art of debate here. And, not being a French speaker at a majority French agency adds to the day-to-day roller coaster.”
Being an English speaker at a French agency has its benefits, though. “I feel more valuable here than I ever did in the states,” he said. “You get more responsibilities because you’re a rare commodity.”
Similarly, Steel said the work cultures of the U.K. and the U.S. differ in size, pace and attitude.
“It’s a cliché, but everything really is bigger in America,” he said. “And everything happened much faster than on the east side of the Atlantic.”
In the early ’90s, for instance, he worked with Goodby, Silverstein and Partners to help put ads on the air for Sega in 10 just days.
“In the U.K., 10 days after that client meeting, the agency would still have been arguing about why that request was impossible,” he said. “I had worked for an agency in London that approached the creation of advertising as one might craft wine—slowly and methodically. ‘Late but Great’ was the agency’s unofficial motto. In the U.S., it appeared that there was neither the time nor the patience for such an approach, and I had to develop a much more pragmatic style of planning than I had been used to.”
Working abroad is fantastic experience, if for no other reason than it gives you a completely different perspective on your own market, if you return to it, Steel said.
“It would’ve been easier for me to stay at the job I was in in London and be comfortable,” he added. “But I know that if I hadn’t done it, in five or 10 years time if I had a bad day at work I’d be wondering, ‘What if I had gone to California?’ You should never have that ‘what if’ feeling.”