Life as an expat account man in the US
A view from James Hidden

Life as an expat account man in the US

Ogilvy Chicago's James Hidden shares his tips for agency folk thinking of relocating to the US and explains why he's embracing the American dream.

Life in the US feels like the very definition of the phrase beloved of British backpackers in Thailand, "same-same but different".

Brexit is sort of like Trump. Baseball is sort of like cricket. And it’s often said that Britain and the US are two countries divided by a common language. This, I can confirm, is 100% true. I learned very quickly that when someone says, "Hey, how are you?", they don’t want or expect an answer. It’s a synonym for hello, not a question.

I learned that football is not football. Chips are not chips. That "quite good" in the US actually means "very good" - just imagine the confusion that creates when giving feedback in a creative review.

Linguistic challenges aside, I quickly fell in love with my adopted home and have had a huge amount of incredible experiences, both personal and professional. I’d heartily recommend that more agency people roll the dice and give the US a whirl. But what have I learned? What should any account person, junior or senior, know before they go?

Same-same but different is true of agency life, too. The language is same-ish, agency life is similar, the work is comparable, yet at the same time there’s an inherent different-ness. Take job titles. Not for the US the simple concept of an account manager managing the account, or an account director directing the account. Over here, your worth is judged by the number of words in your title. "SVP, group director, senior partner, global."? Not a list of a team of people, but just one person.

Colleagues and clients will think you’re at least 25% more intelligent than you actually are, all thanks to your mere British-ness.

What else? You’ll get on planes like buses. Focus groups in Dallas one week, production in LA the next, a conference in New York the following. And as a result you’ll soon realise why (comparatively) fewer Americans have passports. Why would you leave when there are so many wonderful sights and destinations in your own backyard?

You’ll overcome your (well-earned and well-honed) English cynicism and embrace people being, well, nice. Colleagues and clients will think you’re at least 25% more intelligent than you actually are, all thanks to your mere British-ness. Not without reason did the brilliant WorkWankers blog coin the perfect "chief accent officer" archetype. My advice? Embrace it.

What about the work itself? Again, same-same but different. There’s arguably more science, rigor and process to agency life in the US, which is not always a good thing.

The most junior brand manager will have an MBA, but not always an understanding of the creative process. There’s more testing than any agency would like. There’s perhaps less appreciation for the sheer craft of the work than in London. Working long hours and not taking vacation (sorry, holiday) is a badge of honour.

So why do it? Here's a little anecdote to help answer that question. My old boss in Chicago, a fellow expat, told me that I’d realize how small the UK really is when I moved to the US. With my London-centric mentality at the time, I sneered at the thought, but he’s right. The sheer scale of the country means bigger budgets, more innovation, more opportunities to try new things.

This "land of the free, home of the brave"-spirit, rooted in the American dream, means there’s a passion to not accept mediocrity, a passion to better yourself, to persevere and succeed. It’s an attitude that’s infectious to even this most jaded and cynical of Brits.

But it’s by no means perfect, and by no means "better". There are fundamental divisions in American culture, as illustrated by political issues ranging from healthcare to racial division to gun control. And I do miss London agency life. I miss the craft, the refreshing lack of process, the willingness to embrace scrappiness, the passion, the sarcasm, the creative work. But I’m a better account person for having worked here. Maybe a better person, full stop.

So, same-same but different. Immeasurably, gloriously, positively different. An experience that has given me a more informed and more rounded perspective on our industry.

And in a world where brands are global, international holding companies are dominant and trends, tastes and consumers cross borders, agency people with global perspectives are hugely valuable.

So do it. Take the plunge. What’s the worst that can happen? You go home with a richer CV. To agency life in beautiful, maddening, wonderful London.

James Hidden left a business director role at The Red Brick Road in London to join Ogilvy & Mather in Chicago as executive group director.