"does anyone have a rubber?"
Dead silence descended on the set of the commercial. Brendan Donovan, an art director with Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners who made the request, hails from New Zealand. He hadn't realized that in the United States, the preferred word is eraser. "As a foreigner, you always keep everyone amused," he smirks.
Marcus Jackson, an art director at Ogilvy & Mather/New York, can relate. "'Go where?" he wondered when he recently heard a colleague say, "Don't go there." Jackson, an Australian, was unfamiliar with the hip way of saying, "Let's not talk about that." But then, he has wowed peers at O&M with a few cool phrases of his own, like "get rooted"-a more polite-sounding "fuck off"-and "ken oath," an enthusiastic way to say "yes." As in, "Does your work deserve a Gold Lion?" "Ken oath."
Foreigners have arrived in droves at U.S. ad agencies-small surprise, when you think about it. Advertising, along with much of the entertainment industry, is in the vanguard of creating images and icons that translate easily into other cultures. It stands to reason that non-Americans, with their first-hand knowledge of those cultures, can help bring a more global sensibility to U.S. ads, particularly those for multinational clients.
There's a considerable talent pool from which to draw. Students in non-English-speaking countries are usually taught English at a young age. The difference between rubbers and erasers aside, creatives from English-speaking nations have even less trouble adapting here. And culturally? Large parts of the world are rife with Yankee culture, due to movies, sitcoms and MTV. The superficiality of much of that entertainment notwithstanding, it's not a bad prep school for those aspiring to work in American advertising.
Still, for foreign creatives in the U.S., getting the hang of the national mores, hangups and obsessions-plugging into the mind of the American consumer, as it were-is no walk in the park. It can be hard work, or just plain baffling.
When Sigward Moser transferred from Grey's Dusseldorf office to its New York headquarters eight years ago, the agency hired an English tutor and allowed Moser, now creative director at New York's Communications House, to spend half-days studying at the New York Public Library. Shortly after starting his art director job at DDB Needham/New York, Irishman Michael Furlong immersed himself in books about Stan Musial and Hank Aaron, to prep for an American Express campaign about America's favorite pastime. As part of his own American initiation, Australian Tim Brown, an art director at Saatchi & Saatchi/New York, had to figure out what a Peach Bowl has to do with football. Still, the 29-year-old can now mention to his mum back in Sydney the names of famous people he'd never heard of just a month ago, including Puff Daddy and Rush
Globetrotters 'R Us
A lot of foreign creatives now working in the U.S. were doing cutting-edge work and making good money in their own countries. So why did they pine for an existence here?
For some, the answer is simply wanderlust. Many creatives think of themselves as world citizens; quite a few have worked on three continents by age 30. Mark Schattner, 35, a CD at DDB Needham/New York, worked at both O&M and DDB in Melbourne, McCann-Erickson in Singapore and Leo Burnett in Hong Kong. Australian-born Sally Overhue, 30, an art director at Cliff Freeman & Partners, was employed in the Sydney office of the now defunct Omon, and at O&M in Singapore. But Judyth Greenburgh, a native of England and an AD at Anderson & Lembke/San Francisco, may get the globetrotter award. At 33, Greenburgh has worked at Saatchi & Saatchi in both London and Frankfurt, Leo Burnett in London, Young & Rubicam in Amsterdam and Cliff Freeman in New York.
Still, a desire to see the world doesn't account for creatives' trek to America, specifically. What does? Swedish-born Steve Trygg, chairman and chief executive officer at Anderson & Lembke/New York, believes that size matters, after all. "If you're a successful ad guy in Sweden, it's like being the king of Kalamazoo," he says. "You're still in the minor leagues. You look at all these awards books, and you want to be in the place where advertising was born. It's like any other industry; if you're a stockbroker, you dream of Wall Street; if you're an actor, you dream of Hollywood; if you're in advertising, you want to work on Madison Avenue, at least figuratively."
And America is still the land of opportunity. "New Zealand is just this small island nation at the bottom of the earth," says Brendan Donovan, he of the rubber. "More people ride the subway every day in New York than live in the whole of New Zealand."
The U.S. is also widely seen as the world's trendsetter when it comes to the business of advertising, particularly in areas like research, marketing and new media. "The work might not be the most daring in the world, but it's the smartest," says Tito Melega, an art director from Argentina who now works at Fallon McElligott in New York. "Here, there's just a broader understanding of the whole advertising process."
The country's melting pot character also holds appeal for non-Americans who want to work abroad. "America is one of the easiest countries to adapt to because it's made up of foreigners," believes copywriter Alon Shoval, an Israeli-born British citizen who worked at Y&R/Paris and Wells BDDP in New York before recently joining GSD&M in Austin as a creative director. (Adapting wasn't so easy in some respects, Shoval adds: his small, cockroach-infested Upper West Side apartment didn't quite stack up to his large garden-view flat in Paris.)
"People are just a lot more positive and open-minded here," finds Aussie Lynda Knight, an art director at Wieden & Kennedy. "And there's not the bitchiness among agencies that you have in other countries where people are constantly fighting over little pieces of business."
Though everyone acknowledges that a lot of the world's best ad work is made in America, some foreign creatives are disappointed that creative excellence turns out to be the exception, not the norm. Steve Trygg, who oversees Anderson & Lembke's offices in New York, San Francisco, Amsterdam and Hong Kong, says he "was shocked when I first started watching television here and saw all the shit that was produced. I realized that those One Show books weren't necessarily representative of the overall advertising in this country."
And then there's a certain style and character to advertising in the U.S. that takes some getting used to. Trygg and others note that no other country has such a titanic obsession with heroes and icons, and nowhere else does advertising so blatantly appeal to people's fears.
"In this country, there's such emphasis on achievement, possessions and having the resources to take care of one's family," notes Michael Furlong. "Much of the time, advertising uses fear to drive those points home. Many car ads, for example, appeal to peoples' fear of not being good parents by focusing solely on the vehicle's four air bags rather than any other product benefit."
Here, creatives say, there's an overriding need to knock people over the head with a message, to make a point again and again. That kind of overt salesmanship is considered bad manners in other countries, according to DDB Needham's Schattner. Though he believes that the work here has become less intrusive and more entertaining in recent years, he had a real disdain for the "jokey headlines and in-your-face" style of American advertising when he first moved to New York. Coming from Australia and having worked in the even more visually-oriented Singapore ad scene, he was used to a subtler sell. "In Europe and other countries, selling is more about giving products a personality and bonding consumers to those products," he points out.
"In France, you put a naked body in an ad, in Holland you use fancy type and in England you make them laugh," jokes Judyth Greenburgh. Seriously: "Selling is much trickier abroad," she says. "It requires creatives to develop a lot more tools and jump through a lot more hoops to reach people, which maybe gives the work a bit more originality."
Relax, Don't Do It
Agency cultures and methods of cooperation also differ from country to country. "I came here and decided to do it like we did it in the old country," says Trygg, who still believes that 30 is the ideal number of employees in an agency. At Anderson & Lembke, everyone works in a cubicle and there's no hierarchy among creatives. Also, smaller individual units within the agency maintain sole responsibility for certain clients, which Trygg says eliminates "bad creatives hiding behind the work of good creatives," another complaint voiced by some foreigners working for big clients at American shops. And everyone at A&L gets four weeks vacation when they start.
The four-week vacation might take some time to catch on. In fact, the most common observation from foreign creatives and, of course, foreigners in general, is that Americans work too much. As the saying goes: Americans live to work; Europeans work to live.
"Here, people have this thing about always being in the office," notes Shoval about New Yorkers. "No one even goes to lunch. When you finally do get away for a two-week holiday, everyone wants to know where they can phone you."
"In Europe, the pace is more reflective of the lifestyle," believes copywriter Lynnette Cariapa, a British citizen born in India, currently freelancing at BBDO West in Los Angeles. "People close down their shops in the middle of the day and enjoy a meal with their families. At agencies, people take days off to celebrate their anniversary or relax at a cafe in the middle of the day. They work less, but it doesn't really affect the creative."
Whether they're at work or not, foreigners can also bring a certain naiveté and curiosity that only outsiders can provide. For example, even in his days as a college student in Indiana, Tito Melega visited farms and went fishing with the locals to make sure he got an accurate taste of Midwestern life.
Understanding what Americans are made of remains a challenge. "In Sweden, you talk about 'the Swedes,' and everyone knows what that means, but you can't do that here," Steve Trygg points out. "There's no such thing as a typical American. Someone from Louisiana is much different than a native New Yorker."
Maybe. Then again, Paul Malmströom and Linus Karlsson, the famed Swedes at Fallon McElligott who were recruited based on their wacky work for Diesel jeans, had been warned that their equally eccentric work for Miller Lite might not fly in some parts of the country. However, nationwide focus groups revealed that twentysomething males pretty much all think alike-surprise-wherever they live.
Some foreign creatives were surprised to notice that their perceived exoticism earned them a bit of star treatment. Not only does the accent make them sound more intelligent; in Malmströom and Karlsson's case, it gives them a more captive audience.
"Because our English isn't perfect and we sometimes have a hard time expressing ourselves, people always concentrate more on what we're saying and the idea we're trying to get across," Malmströom confesses. "An American's idea might be dismissed right away with, 'That's bullshit.' "
Collectively, these are all pretty good reasons to stick around. But they fade next to this more compelling notion: that anything-well, a lot-is possible here. As Brendan Donovan notes, "America is the only country where you can't see the horizon." Or, spoken like a humble Midwesterner, Malmströom says, "Where else would they hire two farmboys from Sweden and give them complete responsibility for an account like Miller? This really is a brave place."
Damn Yankees. That's pretty much the attitude of the English when Americans arrive to work in their country, according to art director Libby Brockhoff.
Brockhoff, who moved to London three years ago, ought to know. A veteran of agencies like TBWA Chiat/Day and Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, she worked at GGT before starting her own shop, Mother, with several Brits. "They take the piss out of our language," says the Georgia-born Brockhoff, borrowing an expression that basically means Americans sound like uneducated slobs using phrases like "You guys," and "You know what I mean?"
Luckily, what Brockhoff-who now peppers her own conversation with plenty of "brilliants"-lacked in sophisticated discourse, she made up for with her book, filled with work for Snapple and Nynex. She says her English peers also appreciated her "energy and entrepreneurial spirit." Brockhoff, in turn, says that she admires the intelligence and strategic thinking of the creatives in London.
Another Chiat alumnus, Marty Cooke, worked at the agency's offices in Toronto and London before returning to the U.S. and a CD job at Merkley Newman Harty in New York. Cooke didn't have quite the same experience as Brockhoff in London, since coming from another Chiat office, he says, "was like I was carrying a big flag from Rome. Everyone was ready for what I had to say."
The same was true in Toronto, though Cooke says he quickly got over the assumption that our northern neighbors are just like us. "We're about the individual; they're about the collective. We're about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; Canadians are about peace and government." Those differences were reflected in the strategy for a Nissan campaign that Cooke says was about social responsibility and "building cars everyone could live with."
Brockhoff and Cooke praise the advantages of living abroad, particularly the ease with which they can drive to another country for dinner, or ski in the Alps on the weekend. But for Cooke, the time away from home also made him see how attached he was to his own heritage. "I look at how the Brits can turn over every rule creatively and still think the Queen is OK, and then I realize no matter how open-minded I am, I'll always be an American," he says.
"Besides," adds the Tennessee native, "they have no clue how to make fried chicken over there."