Swiss University to NY’s AdLand: a Personal Recap of the Transition

This article was originally published at thisisdiversity.com

Becoming a part of New York’s ad game is certainly not an occurrence that could have ever been considered viable or even desirable from a personal perspective. Not only because of the US-specific administrative and procedural issues that every potential immigrant has to face in this country, but especially due to some usual assumptions and stereotypes regarding the New York advertising industry itself — quirky young professionals, obnoxious supervisors, and allegedly inspiring colorful expressions in the office environment. Another set of preconceptions, albeit significantly less daunting, stemmed from such TV shows as Mad Men, depicting the ‘old school’ realities when marketing executives focused on boozy lunches, classy dinners, attractive secretaries, and unlimited expense accounts.

I was born and raised in Switzerland, the very opposite of New York with regards to the pace of life and everyday dynamics. Working and living in the Big Apple was, at most, an exciting topic to fantasize about. As almost always in life, things turned out differently than expected. I hit the jackpot in the Green Card Lottery and found myself, just a few months later, in the Business Development department of an established multicultural marketing agency in Lower Manhattan. I got here as a recent graduate with some work experience that I acquired within the marketing department of a large, international consulting firm in Zurich. The company is known for its work-hard-play-hard culture. The successful accomplishment of their challenging internship gave me a certain feeling that nothing in my future career can surprise me anymore.

The actual naiveté of this attitude became obvious on my first day of work in New York City. Before I stepped in the office, I remembered the first week at my previous company back in Switzerland. It was characterized by individual meetings with the company’s directors who gave me detailed presentations about their scope of responsibilities and main challenges. During the first couple of days, I did not provide any operative work, but learned about the company’s rules & regulations, marketing guidelines, and organizational charts. My start in the American business was slightly different. This shall be understood as a non-judgmental understatement.

Reality hit me in the face immediately. The introduction consisted of a non-disclosure signature, a 10-minute walk-through, a 5-minute setup of my cubicle (that thing I had only known from Hollywood blockbusters before), and a five-second photo-session for my access card. My first thought included the impression of how efficiently advertising executives must be doing their job here. Subsequently, I was briefed on my scope of work and given the signal for getting started with my assignments. The phase of “becoming acquainted with the company” came to a surprisingly abrupt ending.

In the first three working days, I assessed the new situation with one positive and one negative attribute: fast-paced and impersonal. A few friends of mine who are familiar with both the European and the U.S. business environment confirmed that this might be an accurate observation. At that moment, I dropped every doubt that New York is exactly what I had described before I got here: one of the world’s most profitable marketing and media hubs, influencing business practices and management structures all around the globe. The knowledge and experience of the people I have worked with and their determination and rationality when it comes to making decisions is more than impressive. Even today, I consider this type of drive the ultimate cultural difference from what I had been exposed before.

On an interpersonal level, I made two general observations. Personal biographies do not play any significant role among colleagues. It is not about who you are and where you come from, but what you are capable of and what you are interested in. On the other hand, small talk, something that Swiss people have always been extremely bad at, is much more omnipresent. Personally, I have always admired people with the gift of being able to respond to every single topic somebody comes up with, regardless of the sense of such a discussion. These differences may base on the availability of corresponding fields of application. An example: if a meeting is set for 2pm, attendees in Switzerland would appear between 1:59 and 2:01 and the official part would begin immediately. There is no small-talk-window. In the U.S., this window is given naturally, because the team would assemble in a more random way, say between 1:55 and 2:05. And yet, interestingly enough, they would usually conduct more effective meetings nevertheless. The direct and straightforward communication style is a major strength of the American business culture. Many leaders and executives from all over the world will have to apply it more extensively in order to improve their overall efficiency.

As explained in the beginning of this article, I came to “the city that never sleeps” with mixed feelings, justified and unjustified fears, positive and negative expectations. Global Advertising Strategies is my first employer in this new world, and it provided me with an insight that I will take along with me no matter what direction my professional career might take in the future: nothing depends on expectations. It is all about the people one connects with and the quality of relationships one is lucky enough to establish. It does not matter how different two work cultures are if the involved individuals share a common understanding of the goals that are being pursued within the organization. Once an effort is made to understand the people, it becomes incomparably easier to overcome cultural differences. Chance brought it about that this philosophy is also one of the pillars of Global’s business model and a distinctive part of their expertise. Alongside such an expert, it is no wonder that I perceived my transition to the craziness of NYC’s ad game as much smoother than originally expected.