Trading Places

Melissa Richter studies consumers as a senior brand planner at Fitzgerald + Co. in Atlanta. So it’s no surprise that, when given the opportunity last year to spend five months working at a different McCann Worldgroup agency, she turned Mexico City into a classroom, learning more about the country’s people and culture every day.

During her time at McCann Erickson’s Mexico City office, she didn’t just take tours, visit museums and speak Spanish. She also ate grasshoppers and cow brains, became the first woman to play on the agency’s soccer team, and regularly asked as many people as she could about their families, their jobs, their music and their thoughts on Mexicans who move to America. “You could do focus groups every day, but you don’t know the context from which they’re speaking,” says Richter, 29, who worked on accounts such as MasterCard and Chevrolet in Mexico. “You can say family is important to Hispanic society, but there’s so much more texture to that.”

Richter participated in one of only a handful of formal agency exchange programs that allow employees to maintain their salaries while working temporarily in overseas offices. Others include Saatchi & Saatchi, which launched its own just last year. DDB offers short-term opportunities lasting less than a year as part of a broader career-mobility program, officially launched in late 2003. And TBWA\Chiat\Day is planning a program, but would not give details.

Work-abroad opportunities offer individuals career development, but agencies benefit, too. The programs are used, for instance, to retain top talent, create interoffice knowledge sharing, and groom future leaders to think with a global perspective. In fact, gaining a competitive edge for his shop is why McCann Erickson chairman emeritus Eugene Kummel began “exporting” staffers to other offices in the 1960s, when he was president of McCann International. “The enormity of the success a person could enjoy when they’re exposed to other markets was just extraordinary,” he says.

Called the Human Futures Development Kummel Exchange Program, the initiative accepts about 15 employees each year for four-to-six-month stints at McCann agencies across the globe. Staffers can apply if endorsed by their supervisors, and those accepted are matched to agencies needing their expertise. “Any stretching of the mind is good for advertising people,” Kummel says. “Multinational campaigns are prevalent now, and [executives] need to be open to that.”

Jenna Naughton, management supervisor on Microsoft at McCann in San Francisco, worked on the account from the São Paulo, Brazil, office. Now, she says, “I can think, ‘That’s a viable direction that can span multiple markets,’ or, ‘Perhaps that’s too much of a U.S.-centric perspective.'”

McCann’s program isn’t actually an exchange, where a participant replaces another, but that’s what happens with Saatchi & Switch. Those who have been with Saatchi for at least a year and who receive approval from supervisors can log onto a Web site to search for potential “switchers.” Saatchi pays return airfare and a $2,000 supplement. In addition to job functions, participants commonly switch homes for the four-to-six-week period.

“It’s a great golden ticket,” says Tiffany Graeff, strategic planning director in Saatchi’s New York office, who found a Parisian planner willing to make a month-long swap last August. He picked up the day-to-day planning needs of brands she worked on, while Graeff kept up with clients and worked on long-term projects.

Though French was new to her, she worked collaboratively to solve problems with the office’s other planners, a method she tries to employ more today. “I found the ways they work [in Paris] were a little more fluid, in that they’d sit down and discuss a problem,” says Graeff, 29. “Having that interaction keeps you grounded and moving in the right direction.”

Like Graeff, Richter recommends the work-abroad experience to others. “To have insight into the [Hispanic] market is very beneficial to our current and future clients, and also for me as a planner. It was a great confidence-builder,” Richter says. “It was like living a dream, and I wouldn’t change a minute of it.”