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.

Generation Maybe and the Value of Passion

It has been almost three months since I took the daunting leap in the dark and decided to gain some work experience in the Big Apple. Things fell into places sooner than I would have expected, and after a few weeks of thoroughly evaluating companies and systematically applying for appropriate positions, I finally managed to overcome the most critical obstacle: getting a chance to become active within an industry I am highly interested in. In the meantime, I have been interning with an ad agency in Lower Manhattan for one month. Opportunities like this should not be taken for granted. I am well informed about the U.S. labor market conditions, especially for recent graduates. We are living in times when jobs do not grow on trees, even if classified as internships. A New Yorker friend of mine has always had encouraging words left for me, but she recently also pointed out that looking for a job in NYC, especially now (and especially for someone coming from abroad), is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

A report on the CBS Evening News confirmed this impression to some extent and aired the story of two young forward thinkers from California who created their own jobs. Originally, they planned on conventional careers in finance, but as they couldn’t find work once graduated from university, they tried their luck as urban mushroom farmers. Today, people call them the mushroom kings of California, as they became successful entrepreneurs making money with growing mushrooms in used coffee grounds. The success story began two years ago as an experiment in a frat house kitchen, without any substantial knowledge about mushrooms or agriculture. This year, they projected to do five million in sales. One of the guys’ comment: “It gets me up every single morning and keeps me here entertained, excited and pumped to make this a reality.”

Not the simple fact that they run a business on their own is particularly worth mentioning, but the fact that such people inspire a whole generation to wake up, take a different course, and, as CBS put it, find meaning in an age of austerity. Only a few weeks ago, Welt Online, the internet version of Germany’s renowned daily newspaper Die Welt, published a comment on today’s educated 20-to-30-year-olds: Generation Maybe, a generation with neither plans nor courage – socialized in the digital age and paralyzed by the endless variety of possibilities. I am part of this generation and I was able to relate to the presented issue instantly. Many of us have forgotten how to make decisions and have developed a strong aversion for change and progress. Among all the graduates with valuable university diplomas and a broad knowledge of languages, only very few are determined to pursue concrete goals and take corresponding steps. I comprehend this reproach very well, because I also struggle sometimes when confronted with similar questions, for instance, at job interviews. The author managed to put this circumstance in very precise words: “We are insecure. And we are afraid. We mark time and force ourselves upon a self-imposed immaturity.”

But what are we really insecure about and afraid of? I guess pursuing the stuff we really dig. Call it passion. I have always considered it a critical factor for success and satisfaction. Filmmaker Dan Perez, who indirectly initiated my decision to finally set up this website, features a guy called Kirk Nugent in his award-winning documentary film “P.A.T.H.”. Kirk is a motivational speaker who wrote a piece called “Pursue Your Passion”. It is poetry with a lot of pathos. To be honest, I was born with a way too rational mindset to succeed in identifying myself in such work completely (I know people who can though). Nevertheless, I appreciate the artistic value and I agree with the general idea – albeit with reservations. This is how he puts it [it is worth watching the video version though]:

I came to shine light into the dark.
Alike a dog against a hydrant,
I am leaving my mark.
We were not sent here to investigate someone else’s idea for what we should be.
The complacent life does not stimulate me.
So forgive me for feel no compassion for those poor souls who live to follow the fashion.
Because if you want to live a life that’s neither limited nor ration,
Then, by God, you must pursue your passion.
They will tell you that it can’t be done,
as though you were delivered onto this world for your song to go unsung.
Let the world scream that unattainable theme,
but for you, there is no such thing as an impossible dream.
Pursue your passion.
Steven Spielberg was kicked out of the University of Southern California Film School,
because his grades weren’t good enough.
Pursue your passion.
Michael Jordan was benched on his basketball team in high school.
Pursue your passion.
Larry Bird had problems making his team in high school,
and was benched his entire freshman year of college.
Now here is proof that greatness is born out of zero doubt.
In 1962, Decca Records dismissed four young musicians,
told them that groups with guitars were on their way out.
They left without a contract, but refused to walk on pins and needles.
Months later they released their first album and called themselves “The Beatles”.
Pursue your passion.
Colonel Sanders was 65 when he fried his first piece of chicken,
made millions after he told you it was finger-lickin.
Pursue your passion.
Lauryn Hill was booed at the Apollo.
Pursue your passion.
Luther Vandross was booed off the Apollo,
not once, not twice, but three times.
You gotta keep coming back, Ladies and Gentlemen.
Forget the limitations set by your fellow men,
because when you pursue your passion, provisions will be provided for your plans.
Let others lead small lives, but not you.
Let others sit around and settle for the crums, but not you.
Let other be volunteered victims, but not you.
Let others use their race, their gender, their sexual orientation as a crutch, but not you.
Let others be concerned about what the neighbors might think, say, or do,
but this is not for you.
This is about a lifestyle that uniquely fits.
Life is God’s gift to you, style is what you make out of it.
So whatever you are passionate about, the perfection of that craft can be learned.
So with obstacles of this world be not concerned,
because when you set yourself on fire, the world would come watch you burn.
So what are you gonna do?
What are you gonna do, now that you know that impossible is a word found in a dictionary, folks.
What are you gonna do with the rest of your life?
What two things do you wanna be said about you when you die?
Personally, I never listen to what the pessimists are telling me,
because I know that the richest place on the planet is the cemetery.
There you’ll find books that were never written,
loved ones that were never forgiven,
ideas that were smitten and dreams that were forbidden,
soil that was never tilled,
cathedrals that were never build,
restaurants that were never opened,
chefs who never knew that they were smoking,
paintings that were neither drawn nor hung,
songs, neither composed nor sung,
souls that left without doing what they really wanted to do.
So don’t you dare die with your greatness buried within you.
So today, declare that you refuse to lose,
because you can either live your dreams or you can live your excuse.
So even when I’m old and grey, I will still be commanding the stage,
my words will still be smoking off the page.
So understand, this ain’t no phase,
because every day I learn a new lesson.
And my best poem is yet to be written.
I’m not leaving till what I came to give has been given.
I’ll be 99 on the mic, still be ripping, still be spitting, still be giving, still be driven.
So let my tombstone read “Here lies Kirk and he died living”.
Pursue your passion.

I agree very much with Kirk’s underlying idea that a strong persistence in the pursuit of a personal passion can lead to results that one would had never expected before, but I disagree with his radical interpretation and his consistency with regards to people’s aspirations. I admire his positivity and I agree with a significant share of the content he comes up with, but I see crucial restrictions when it comes to three particular aspects: the absence of talent as a factor, the nothing-is-impossible-mentality, and the ignorance of pessimism.

People should not only consider what they are passionate about, but also what they are talented at. Not everybody can learn the perfection of the craft he is highly enthusiastic about. I find it very sad observing people who desperately try to pursue their passion, especially in the arts and entertainment business, although it is obvious that they have not gotten the relevant gift at the very beginning. People should consider both their passion and their abilities. Every profession requires this type of sound evaluation. There is nothing more self-destructive than ignoring the obstacles of this world by marching blindly towards unrealistic goals. Understanding every single obstacle out there is the first step though. The mental delusion that nothing is impossible makes people lose energy on things that cannot pay off. Furthermore, Kirk recommends not listening to pessimists in general. I do not agree. People should listen to optimists because they can motivate them, but they should listen to pessimists in order to be prepared for critical issues. Today’s globalized world offers a lot indeed, but it certainly has not turned into a place where everything can be accomplished by trotting up with the anything-goes-mentality. It makes people stand still.

Personally, I think that a better balance between all these aspects has become invaluable in this system. In my opinion, a larger portion of rational thinking, which is related to hard work by the way, is key within this mix. In spite of all the possibilities, we will never be able to participate everywhere. This is why we have to listen to many different opinions and then learn how to make clever decisions taking account of all the pros and cons. This process can become tedious and the corresponding decisions might be hard to make, but I am convinced that they lead to more beneficial experiences in the long run.

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!