How to See the World as an Agency Pro: Tips for Landing a Job Overseas

And how to survive abroad

You can see the world by working in advertising. Here's how. Photo: Getty Images; Stickers: iStock
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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.

Getting 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.

“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.”
Ogilvy's Jeremy Claud

“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.

Animation: Yuliya Kim

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 have experience under your belt, getting a visa can be a little bit easier—although there are no guarantees, since getting a visa is never easy.”
Debbie Dougdanos, evp and creative recruiter at Leo Burnett

@ChristineBirkne Christine Birkner is a Chicago-based freelance writer who covers marketing and advertising.