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.

An Unforeseen Dinner for One

MTA subways tend to be packed in the morning and evening rushes, conditions a Swiss guy with some China experience lumps in with those in Shanghai and Beijing. Commuting seems to be a highly individual and personal thing here in New York, little short of a private occasion. People, albeit permanently compelled to fight for space shoulder to shoulder, seem to use this timeframe as a slack to recover from the energy killers on its both ends: work and family. The faces look tired, but relieved. It is not uncommon to find oneself in a completely crowded, but amazingly quiet subway car.

On one of those Friday evenings, riding the 7-train back home, I was standing there, tired, groggy, lost in thought, holding on to the pole. After a while, two students standing right next to me asked me something. Silence. I didn’t pay attention, so they repeated their question whether I would consider it weird if somebody offered me two packs of cupcakes, right now, just like that. They came across as if they worked on a psychology project at their institute, so I tried to give them an honest answer to this short description of a rather hypothetical situation: “Yes, that would be somewhat creepy.”

Next thing I held in my hand was a plastic bag with – guess what – packaged cupcakes. Although my new friends (reading from their faces) expected a more enthusiastic response, they apparently decided to complete their planned mission. The explanation was that they had eaten half of the stuff in the afternoon and that they were about to throw it away anyway. I overacted my confusion, had a quick chat, thanked, and decided to give the cupcakes a shot. Back home, I began with a thorough examination.

Being approached by strangers in the Big Apple is anything but unusual. It happens all the time out in the streets and public squares, which is a big difference to my home country. It was the first time though I experienced it in that unique sphere of MTA subway cars. Having the common-sense-mode on, I see such encounters as a positive thing, – especially in times that are characterized by a black eye, a hopefully-not-broken-but-certainly-sprained toe, and other minor and major personal worries. It was a night I just chilled and then passed out, but I will remember it as an evening I had a fine dinner consisting of four high-calorie cupcakes coming out of nowhere.

Goodbye to the Land of Cockaigne

Some days ago, I stumbled upon an article on a Swiss newspaper website outlining the macroeconomic reasons why Switzerland – the country I am leaving in two days for an unspecified period of time – will be the ultimate paradise for its citizens in 2012: Welcome to the Land of Cockaigne! The main insights: the national currency remains strong, lower import prices are being passed to the consumers, consumption grows, wages increase, inflation becomes negative, interest rates remain low, and the wealth on real estate property increases due to higher prices that, in turn, are driven by ridiculously low interest rates. Moreover, unemployment is expected to remain relatively low, which leads to the result that the Swiss total income stays high. The article came with an illustration of Scrooge McDuck taking a header into gold coins – obviously the allegorical portrayal of a typical Swiss.

Sure, the drawn analogy is oversimplified and brazenly exaggerated. No, the vast majority in Switzerland does not own a Maserati, and horses don’t belong to the category of usual birthday gifts, and yes, there is a poverty line, and all the nasty spin-offs of a regular society do exist indeed. And yet these obvious generalizations have to be adjusted drastically with regards to a global perspective. I have been to many places all around the world and must say – and this is not a major insight anymore – that many Swiss complain at a very high level. The economic circumstances make a very bearable living available, even for weaker social classes. And Mr. and Mrs. McDuck…well, they get themselves those thoroughbreds on a regular basis, just like everywhere else. It is safe to say though that the average citizen’s living standard ranges somewhere between the temporary bottleneck and a freaking amazing decadence.

So people keep asking me – particularly my relatives in Croatia – why I would want to leave such an environment and instead take the risk of staying unemployed for several months, put up with all the administrative drama, and use up my very modest savings for some affordable hovel down in Brooklyn or Queens. First of all, I was lucky enough to have found myself among the 50,000 winners out of 14,768,658 Green Card lottery entrants. However, this is a basic prerequisite, not an actual reason to go. I have outlined the reason in my previous post. In an economic system that is becoming increasingly global, it is getting proportionally important to develop a global mindset. Going out there and trying to manage the usual challenges in a different cultural framework can only be rewarding. Recent graduates do not really have much to lose: a few months of a lifetime and some money, if the worst comes to the worst.

So one question remains: Why New York? Basically because it is New York. Shanghai radiates an equally strong magic in my opinion, but in a clearly different way. With regards to the Big Apple, there was an amazing video published online last year: A Year in New York by Andrew Clancy, which I consider one of the realest city reflections ever. Everybody who has ever been there will understand:

A Year in New York from Andrew Clancy on Vimeo.

The pictures speak for themselves. So why wouldn’t I be determined to say goodbye to the Land of Cockaigne at least for a while? Special regards to all its residents!

When an imminent leap in the dark initiates blogging

With regards to blogging, there has never been the slightest ambition, desire, or enthusiasm on my side. I still consider it ridiculous at times. It is just a personal perception indeed, but the obnoxious category of people which I like to call self-absorbed blowhards seems to be growing disproportionally in the world of weblogs. Why would I want to become part of it? Of course, I am not referring to the thousands of highly insightful blogs kept by marketing managers, filmmakers, photographers, musicians, entrepreneurs, and other professionals with some relevant knowledge in the according fields. Many bloggers share very valuable information and try to claim attention in a less pushy way. However, the truth is that blogs should not be understood as online newspapers, magazines, or similar, let’s say, web 1.0 models on professional and centralistic content creation. I studied the recent media market dynamics extensively, but I have to admit that it took me a while to sincerely accept blogs to be there for exactly the reason that anyone can start writing them. The individual motives may be diverse. I decided to give it a shot despite the latent, but still existent skepticism. My personal motive is an imminent leap in the dark.

A few months ago, I successfully completed my Master’s program in Media & Communications and Business Administration in Zurich (annotation for my international fellows with moderate geographical knowledge: yes that is Switzerland, not Sweden). As luck would have it, I won the U.S. Green Card Lottery (officially: Diversity Visa program) just after my graduation. This opens doors, at least many bureaucratic ones. The United States of America might not be the the single and only leader in the global economic system anymore. However, U.S. American business practices and management structures still have a huge influence on companies all around the planet. In order to grow personally and professionally within one of the world’s most profitable and creative marketing and media hubs, I decided to venture this radical step and move to New York City. I talked to people in that field telling me it was a tough market to get in, especially for someone coming from abroad. And especially in a time when thousands of local professionals have lost their jobs. There is no doubt about that. Nevertheless, negative estimates of a certain situation should not necessarily dilute the belief that it is usually more revealing to get an idea of this situation right on site.

Therefore, I worked on a plan that is not really a plan in fact: moving to the megacity, trying to seize opportunities, and being open for any type of progress. I am not a fan of writing personal blogs (and will never become one), yet I have set up this category called the big apple from scratch for three particular reasons: 1. To share information, opinions and experiences with people who are interested in such endeavors and related issues,  2. To establish a stable site that may be leveraged in the future to gather relevant knowledge on marketing, advertising, social media, business, and related topics, and 3. To keep my friends and family posted on my personal situation, especially the ones I won’t have extensive email or phone contact with.

My posts will be kept short and won’t be published on a regular schedule. The blog is about to be relatively footloose in the beginning, as I will be more than busy with – as the award-winning filmmaker Dan Perez recently told me – keeping on keeping it real in NYC. Nevertheless, I will be very glad to respond to any type of advice, suggestion, or question you might come up with!

See you in the city that never sleeps!