Close-Up: Can UK creatives make it in the US?

Crossing the Pond can be a tricky career move for British creatives. John Tylee finds out why.

In quitting CHI & Partners to take creative command of DDB in Chicago, Ewan Paterson joins what has always been a trickle rather than a flood of British creatives seeking to make their mark Stateside. On the face of it, this seems curious. The UK and the US having long vied with each other to be the world's best when it comes to creative advertising. So why haven't more Brits tried building their careers within the advertising superpower?

"Going to the US is a very big move," Paterson agrees. "But you might just as easily ask why there's only a handful of non-UK creative directors working in London."

For those who have crossed the Atlantic, fortunes have been mixed. Mark Tutssel, Tim Mellors and Mark Wnek slotted comfortably into their respective roles at Leo Burnett Worldwide, Grey Group and Lowe North America.

However, Paul Silburn, now in joint control of the creative department at Saatchi & Saatchi in London, was fired after just 11 months as the executive creative director of Fallon in Minneapolis. "Professionally, I'm disappointed," he said at the time. "Personally, I feel very happy to be going home."

Certainly, adjusting to a very different way of working can be difficult. And not just because of what can be an unforgiving environment, in which the threat of being fired is ever-present.

Not only do creatives have to come to terms with the scale of the US industry, but they have to be very quick learners when it comes to US culture. The worst thing you can do, according to UK agency figures with extensive US experience, is to barge in expecting to show the Yanks how it's done.

At the same time, British creatives in Manhattan can delude themselves into believing that they're in the true heart of the US. "Everybody in New York comes from somewhere else. It's not the real America," Sir John Hegarty, Bartle Bogle Hegarty's worldwide creative director, who spent more than two years working in the city, says. "This is a country of more than 300 million people, many of whom work in very different ways."

Overcoming the unspoken feeling among many US clients that British creatives don't really understand Americans can be hard too, Hegarty suggests.

What makes it even harder, Andrew Robertson, the New York-based Briton running BBDO Worldwide, adds, is that newly arrived UK creatives don't have a knowledge of things such as US sport and the top TV shows against which they can pitch their ideas.

"In the UK, you know how to argue the points," Hegarty says. "In the US, you don't have the reference points. It doesn't mean you can't do it - but it's something of which you have to be very aware."

Also, as Hegarty points out, the British preoccupation with being small and agile doesn't cut any ice in a country where big is beautiful, $25 million ad budgets are chickenfeed and 40-strong agency groups working on a single account are commonplace.

"These are fiefdoms that know how their clients think and won't take kindly to any creative director coming in and trying to change everything," he declares. "You have to start at the outer edges and work towards the centre."

Small wonder that most US executive creative directors are likely to be more business-minded than their UK counterparts. "For one thing, they have bigger departments to manage," Robertson points out. "For another, they're expected to be involved with clients' business in a way that, perhaps, wouldn't happen in the UK."

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Network head - Andrew Robertson, chief executive, BBDO Worldwide

"I don't think it's the fear of crashing and burning that's stopped a lot of UK creatives making their mark in the US. It's more to do with them feeling more comfortable in their own environment.

"Coming to work in US advertising means learning new stuff because of the scale of the industry. Clients expect to see a lot more alternative ideas than is usually the case in the UK.

"What's more, it can be hard for UK creatives at first because they don't have knowledge of the cultural touchstones such as baseball and the top TV shows. These things can be quickly learned - but you have to be conscious of them."

Creative - Sir John Hegarty, worldwide creative director, Bartle Bogle Hegarty

"The reason so few UK creative directors go to work in the US is because the US already has lots of very good ones of its own. I also think it's enormously hard for a UK creative to gain the authority he needs when dealing with US clients. They make all the right noises but you know they're really thinking that the British don't understand Americans.

"You also have to come to terms with a much more open culture. Everybody is enthusiastic about everything and then you may find they don't really like an idea. You have to be able to get below the enthusiasm to understand the real game."

Creative - Paul Silburn, creative partner, Saatchi & Saatchi

"The first thing you have to come to terms with is the amount of time you spend on planes because your clients are likely to be spread across the US.

"The other problem is hiring the right people. In London, that's quite easy because you have a good idea of who you want and whether or not they'll be a good fit. In the US, that's a lot more difficult.

"Fortunately, Ewan (Paterson) has already worked for DDB and understands its culture. But he'll need to get some loyal and trusted people around him. It won't work without the right chemistry."

Creative - Ewan Paterson, executive creative director designate, DDB Chicago

"I'd be worried about going to the US to join a network I didn't know - but that's not the case. Not only did I work for DDB for ten years, but my boss will be Bob Scarpelli, who I know well.

"I'm eager to get immersed in US culture as quickly as I can. Obviously, I don't know much about US sport or who the country's hottest comedian is but creativity is about ideas and it's not as though there won't be others around to help me.

"I know it won't be like the London ad world but the thought of producing work on a much larger scale is very attractive."