Tips on working overseas as an ad creative
During your career, you are likely to work at many different agencies. Perhaps in many different cities. They will all have different creative processes and cultures, and each will help you broaden your skill-set as a creative.
At some stage though, you should definitely consider working overseas. Not just for the quality of your instagram feed. But creatives that have challenged their comfort zones with international experience are more adaptable, resilient, and yes, more attractive to employers.
Life is short, after all. (See the ad below for Xbox to see that idea dramatised perfectly). Working overseas could be one of the most memorable times of your life. But be warned, there can be pitfalls. So, if you’re interested in working overseas at some stage read on. I’ve personally worked overseas on several occasions, and so have many of my former colleagues.
This article is a compilation of the best advice from all of us.
Table of Contents
Always remember. Working overseas is a life experience. Not a holiday.
You still need to be making great work.
Don’t forgive an agency for not providing creative opportunities just because you’ve fallen in love with a city, country, or an attractive local. By all means, make the most of your weekends and your (typically more generous than in the USA) annual leave – but you are doing this for your career. Never forget it. This is a life experience that needs to to help you make steps forward.
If your portfolio isn’t improving every month you are there, be prepared to quickly move on. Unless, of course, you are gaining other valuable skills. Perhaps you are being given more responsibility in the department, or you are being asked to mentor more junior creatives. That’s worth hanging around for. But not for too long. You will always be judged on the quality of your most recent work, and if it is going backwards you will pay for it in the future.
Working overseas early in your creative career
No matter which country you live in, getting your first job can be hard. There is no single best way to get a start as a creative. Meeting the right person and being in the right place at the right time can be just as important as having an amazing portfolio and slick website.
But as a recent graduate, coming from the USA is a huge advantage. The American College system is expensive – but it is great. American creatives are among the best trained in the world. The portfolio schools and graduate programs available (and increasingly, undergraduate courses are getting much better as well) create some of the highest quality graduate portfolios in the world. (By the way, if you are looking to get a creative education, we recommend you take a look at our Ad School Buddy)
As you start your creative career, this is worth remembering. Agencies abroad will also be looking for junior talent, and the local junior talent might not have the same level of creative maturity in their portfolios. As long as you land a position at an excellent agency, it’s a real opportunity.
Access Big briefs, Big ideas and Big Budgets earlier in your career
If you begin your creative career in one of the enormous creative departments in New York or another major advertising centre, you might be a little disappointed at the opportunities you are given initially. Stories are often told of junior creatives being given access to a client’s photo library and asked to write a bunch of headlines for social content.
Now, if you have chutzpah and ambition – this can still be an opportunity. You should be proactively suggesting video ideas for that social feed as well as initiatives that build upon the given brief in interesting and compelling ways.
But many creatives who worked overseas early in their careers have found themselves working on bigger briefs for bigger brands much earlier than expected.
Of course, this depends on the country. It might be just as difficult to get access to the best projects in the agency if you’re in a major advertising centre like London, Berlin or Paris.
Some unexpected countries to consider
Places like Australia, New Zealand and Singapore have a well-deserved reputation for relatively smaller creative departments that provide junior creatives the opportunity to compete for big creative briefs in the department.
Have you ever noticed how many global chief creative officers come from Australia and New Zealand? They aren’t necessarily more talented. The truth is, they’ve just been making big campaigns for big brands for a lot longer. They were blooded sooner. And developed faster. Look at the career trajectory of David Droga for example. We have a complete history of his work and his thinking here.
Other countries to consider as excellent career-accelerators might be the Netherlands, Ireland, Sweden, Norway and Canada. Or go to France, Spain, Brazil or Germany if you can find your way into a great little agency.
But whatever you do, go where there are Big Opportunities. Anthony Hopkins describes it beautifully below in this ad for Barclays Bank.
Make sure your portfolio is great though
Overseas employers may have to jump through a few hoops to hire you. There might be visa issues that can be expensive and demand a lot of time from the administration staff at the agency. Make sure they are impressed enough to be willing to go through it.
If you are attempting to work overseas early in your creative career, you will need to have some stand-out work that’s moved beyond your student portfolio. If your first agency didn’t afford you the opportunity to make some great work, you’ll need to be creating work on your own initiative.
Take it to the next level. As Guy Ritchie so beautifully showed below in this ad for Nike.
Working overseas is the greatest lesson in humility you will ever have
If you are American, you already know America is a great country with a bunch of smart people. But any American exceptionalism you might harbor will quickly disappear. The people you work with internationally will be just as smart and determined as anyone you meet in an American agency. But they’ll do it with their own individual quirks.
You’ll learn things you never imagined you would ever learn. About all kinds of things both profound and trivial. The eyes you’ve been looking at the world through will change forever. Your life will be incredibly different. You’ll eat differently, you’ll commute differently. Embrace it. Your ideas about what creature comforts are essential will be completely different. (See the Heat Electric campaign below by Aardman Animations)
One day, you’ll return to your home country a better human being, as well as a better creative.
Working overseas helps you mature as a creative thinker - if you are open to it
You are forced to let go of your preconceptions. For every brief, you are going to have to learn about a target market from the ground up, which, to be frank, is exactly what we should be doing all the time.
I have a story about this, from working in Central Europe in the early 2000’s. At the time it was an exciting and lucrative place to work in advertising. Global multinationals were pushing into the region. I was a junior/mid creative at an agency that was part of a broader agency network for close to two years. So I had developed a decent understanding of the cultural context of the market.
As it happened, the agency network arranged a three-month job swap between a creative director from my home country and one of the local CD’s.
A brief came into the creative department for long-life milk. Something that had never existed before in the region. The new creative director was pushing teams to make visually spectacular magazine and poster ads – but despite nervous protests from all parts of the creative department, the only ideas he was interested in presumed knowledge of how long-life milk worked and why it was a good alternative.
When it came time to present the work to agency management and the account department, I have never seen such a negative reaction in a meeting room before. He was stunned to discover he sounded like a complete idiot to the locals. Luckily, some of the work we’d had rejected in the days before was quickly resurrected – and we were able to move forward.
He’d made an arrogant assumption about the market. He thought he had a natural instinct for people and how they like to be communicated to, but didn’t bother to find out whether his instincts were correct or not. Unfortunately for him – his visit was cut short by the agency. They wanted their own guy, who understood the market, back.
If you aren’t prepared to challenge your own pre-conceptions, you’ll always be a Johnny Foreigner (as explained by PJ O’Rourke for British Airways belo
Make an effort to learn the language
And start on the very first day you arrive. When I worked overseas, I met a guy who had been living in Central Europe for 7 years (he was from New Zealand), and could hardly speak a word. He never started. He just kept putting it off, and everyone was polite enough to speak English to him.
He was obviously planning on staying in the country for a long time (he had a wife and child there). But his career was limited. There were some clients he couldn’t communicate with, so his growth in the industry was unfortunately capped. Which is a shame because he was a great creative. Really talented guy.
Don’t make the same mistake.
You can focus on doing great work, and learn some of the language too. It isn’t binary. In my personal situation, I had a twenty minute tram ride to and from work everyday. That gave me 30 – 40 minutes a day to learn a few words. It’s all you need.
Once you do learn enough to get around, I guarantee new opportunities will open up. Your agency will appreciate the effort, and the staff in the agency that don’t speak any English will open up around you more as well.
The other language you should take pains to learn is the language of soccer. By all means, keep up with your favourite sports teams at home. But soccer is the best proxy for a global language there is. Pick a team. Go to some matches. You’ll regret it if you don’t.
Tap into the expat scene. But not too much.
In every major city around the world, you’ll find a vibrant community of people from the English speaking world. You’ll undoubtedly find a website that will advise you of get-togethers and events where everyone meets up.
The expat scene is great for things like Super Bowl parties and learning how to navigate visa issues, accomodation contracts and the like. But if you get too deep in the scene and only hang out with folks from your home country, well, it defeats the purpose. Broaden your horizons. You’ll be glad you did.
Making it happen
It isn’t necessarily an easy thing to make happen. But many people manage to do it, so yes, it’s possible. Make sure you have a plan, and that you’re prepared to keep trying.
1. Be part of a global network.
This is the easiest way to do it. However, you will have to have worked at the same agency for two years or more. And you’ll need to be a star performer in the agency too. It’s likely you’ll need to spend some of your own money to fly over to the country you’re looking at moving to so you can meet the creative director at the agency over there. You won’t be flown over at the agency’s expense unless you are at ECD level at least.
2. Pick a city and go visit for a week or two with your portfolio.
Keep your eye on award shows and use that to help you decide where to go. You want to go somewhere with a vibrant ad scene and some interesting agencies that are pushing the boundaries. If an agency is interested in you, you will need to quit your current role quickly (with a minimum of bridge burning, preferably) and move over as quickly as you can.
3. Quit your job and go on a grand tour.
This is what I did. I allowed myself three months to travel around Europe, arranging interviews in advance in every city that I was planning on visiting. My plan was to visit my favourite place first, and see if anything turned up. After a week, I moved on to the next city. And so on. Luckily, I found a job very quickly. And my adventure began.
Importantly, be prepared
Talk to locals in your target countries as much as you can. Reach out to them for advice. It might not be as easy as calling the Swedish Number below, but if you want some advice, there will always be someone in the know that will be happy to help.
Have an exit plan
If the opportunities are drying up, and you’re not gaining more valuable experience (for example, being asked to mentor juniors or taking the step up to an associate creative director for example), be prepared to pull the plug. So, you will need to be in constant contact with your network back home so you can jump on any opportunities that might arise.
The other option is to learn more about the advertising industry in your chosen city as well. You can always move to a better agency there too. But at some stage, you’ll want to go home. Being away for too long can hold you back.
It would be nice if everything magically worked out like the lottery (see the ad below), but it rarely does. There’s no substitute for planning and consistent communication.
The boring (but important) stuff
Although foreign countries often have more accessible health care programs than the United States, they might not be available to you as an expat. Do your research. You might need to pay a portion of your take home pay to be eligible.
Some countries charge expat workers a higher rate of tax than naturalised citizens. Be aware of how this will affect your take home pay. Depending how much you earn, you might need to lodge tax returns in your home country as well. It’s worth understanding these issues before you go. You also may still have student debt that you need to be managing as well. Make sure you have done all of your sums.
Rent and cost of living
If you are working overseas early in your career, you will not be receiving any special support from the agency beyond your working visa. Of course, you will want to make sure you live in a nice, comfortable place. But take care not to over-extend yourself. You’ll want to be keeping some money aside for weekends away, and whatever great adventures you can plan during your annual leave.
As well, even after you all of your travel, make sure you’re saving money too. This is an exciting time of your life, but as I wrote at the very beginning – this is a life experience, not a holiday. Your war chest should be improving every year. It’s no different when you’re working overseas.
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