The Musings Of An Opinionated Sod [Help Me Grow!]

Learn From My Mistakes …
April 18, 2013, 6:15 am
Filed under: Comment

So the very lovely [read: mad] folk at Campaign Magazine in the UK asked me to write a little piece about working overseas.

Obviously they know no one reads my blog because I’ve written a lot about this, including a rant only last week.

Despite knowing they were also asking two very professional, charismatic and lovely people to do the same [Gareth & Sarah Watson at BBH NYC], my ego felt it was still worthwhile to do, even if it meant I’d look a complete idiot in comparison … so in a desperate bid to fill another day on this blog, here’s what I said:

So how has a man from Nottingham ended up as a planner in China?

As much as I’d love to say it was down to a series of carefully crafted career choices enabling me to work in the most financially influential country on Earth, it was actually down to a bunch of happy – & not so happy – accidents.

After a few years of working in planning, I left England in 1995 to chase an Australian woman I thought I couldn’t live without.

Unfortunately, within weeks, it became apparent she could live ridiculously well without me so instead of going home to face the smirks of my friends, I decided to try & get another job in planning & see what happened.

That was 18 years ago and since then I’ve lived & worked in Australia, America, Singapore, Hong Kong & China.

Oh China.

Wonderful, mad, vibrant, crazy, brilliant, weird China.

A country of extremes & paradoxes where tradition & ambition struggle to live side-by-side.

It is, without doubt, one of the most magical & frustrating times of my career.

Magical because I really feel I’m learning, growing & developing.

I’ve ‘relearnt’ what ‘normal’ is … what ‘common sense’ is … what people’s frame of reference for pretty much everything – from food to shoes – is.

But it’s frustrating because things don’t always go as you want, plan or expect.

There’s the barrier of language & culture … the lack of trustable data … the general disbelief regarding the commercial value of creativity … the attitude that whatever the client wants to see, they get & a planning discipline that’s still relatively young.

But you know what, there’s nowhere I’d rather be.

Apart from being an amazing country that’s kindly giving me an amazing experience, I feel you can create something here … something big, exciting & meaningful.

Of course I know it’s not going to be easy, but in terms of potential, I honestly believe it stands more chance here than anywhere else, which is why I’d like to finish with the 10 things I’ve learnt to navigate working in advertising in China.

1. Do your homework: Don’t think you can learn everything in the first few months … you can’t, you’ll be spending too much time trying to work out how to open a bank account.

2. Never pretend you know everything, you don’t & you won’t & you’ll look a fool if you try.

3. Don’t relate everything back to your own frame of reference. Those little things you think are small differences, aren’t that little.

4. Listen and learn from people who know what’s really going on in societies heads. Remember few will be from adland & even fewer will be from your homeland.

5. Never say “you’re only going to be there for 2 years”. Apart from not sounding very nice to colleagues and clients, it means you’re not truly committing yourself to the country or the experience.

6. Respect the culture. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with all of it, but respect it.

7. Be inclusive, not exclusive but always lead by example.

8. Be open to change but not where your standards are concerned.

9. Explore, experiment & enjoy.

10. Have a very understanding wife.

41 Comments so far
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Your photo looks like you’re on the natgeo show, “banged up abroad.”

Wishful thinking.

Comment by DH

I thought that was a porn flick when I first heard about it. You can imagine my disappointment when I saw a show.

Comment by Billy Whizz

They should follow it up by asking your colleagues what they think of you and if those 10 rules are right or just space fillers for the article.

I’d read that.

Comment by DH

You would. I’d be too scared.

Comment by Rob

Is this article slightly different to the one that appeared in campaign?

If it is, is that due to editing by them or adding by you?

It’s very good, especially because you are so honest about the frustrations as well as the positives. And the 10 rules are great, though I must admit #1 was my favourite because it is so accurate.

Comment by Pete

Not enough editing.

Comment by Billy Whizz

I’ve read then side by side. They edited. Shame they lost the line where you say that you love being there despite the frustrations but then the rest of the article makes it obvious you do.

Comment by Pete

Wait, this was already printed? Where and when and why?

Comment by Billy Whizz

Comment by Pete

They got it wrong from the first paragraph when they described Rob as “talent”. Don’t know the other 2, but they sound scary serious. That is not a compliment.

Comment by Billy Whizz

You’re not alone Billy. One of my colleagues read the whole article before turning to me and saying:

“Did they run out of Poms when they asked you?”

Comment by Rob

Back to #1. It would be pretty insulting if someone was thinking about a new job, let alone a new job in a new country, and didn’t do some pre-work on what makes it tick. Does that really happen? How do they get a job in the first place?

Comment by Pete

If they know Rob has a job there, they’ll guess China will take anyone.

Comment by Billy Whizz

Charmingly written and informative. If I was a planner looking to move overseas, this article would encourage me to go for it.

Comment by Lee Hill

That’s very kind. I must admit, when I read Gareth and Sarah’s, I felt pretty silly because they were so articulate and informative – whereas mine was some rambling journey to nowheresville – but then I remembered how I write this blog and realised the silly ones were the very kind people at Campaign who asked me to do it in the first place.

Comment by Rob

That’s only because you already knew what you’d written. Lee is right. Deal with it.

Comment by John

There’s nowhere we’d rather you were.

Comment by John

Reverse postcards. Genius idea.

Comment by Rob

The hits keep on coming.

Comment by John

4,5,6 and 9 in particular are excellent. I can’t say I have experience of 10. Of the two of us who got married that day you got the better deal by a long shot!

Comment by Rob Mortimer

Yes, that’s a very shit thing Mr M. On the brightside, you and Andy will never run out of dinner party conversation.

Comment by Rob

That’s definitely a silver lining. Means I can steer the conversation away from how much he hates planners!

Comment by Rob Mortimer

11. Just now, try to avoid the pork and the chicken …

Comment by Ian Gee

And air.

Comment by Rob

And water, cooking oil, milk, eggs, beef (that is actually chemically treated pork), etc.

Comment by luoanlai

Pretty much the same thoughts that I had in my early days in Korea from 1994 onwards. Being oneself is probably the most important advice to offer and if the locals like you then you’re maybe going to achieve something. Conversely “ugly expats” crash and burn fairly quickly – especially Americans on short-term assignments with major corporates.

Comment by Neil Drewitt

Hi Neil, good to see you on here, though you might regret it within a matter of minutes.

To be honest, there’s a whole host of other ‘tips’ I could write, but inkeeping with your comment, the need to ‘prove your value’ within the first 6 weeks is vital. If people think you are just here for an easy ride, you are discounted but if you work hard and show you care and want to learn, you are embraced and given their time, knowledge and advice.

Of course, you should have that attitude regardless of the fear of being socially outcast, but I – as I am sure you – know there are many people who don’t follow that same attitude or behaviour.

Comment by Rob

Gareth has excellent glasses.

Comment by Marcus

Yep. Epic specs.

Comment by Rob

You have great hair. You’ve done something different with it, but I can’t quite put my finger on what.

Comment by Marcus

I parted it a different way.

Comment by Rob

That’s it!

Comment by Marcus

You changed the picture.
I would have too.
It’s a shame they edited you though.
You should share more stuff like this.

Comment by northern

You know I’m going to send you a Christmas card with that other pic on it. I might even make it a poster.

Comment by Rob

You’re riled

Comment by northern

#11 Consider everything you see which you can’t mentally process (immediately) as an anthropological experience

Comment by Wu Jessi

Thinking about writing some sort of opinion piece for about “hardship” postings (a curious phrase, since many ad folk in Asia tend to have “home help” and are ferried about by chauffeurs – or at least they used to be). Where do you reckon China stacks up against India or Korea (South), the two places I hear are as “hard” as anywhere, as a touch place to work as a foreign expat, Rob?

Comment by Robin Hicks

Hello mate – how are you?

Having read your comment, it appears people seem to judge hardship by 2 criteria: lifestyle and work life.

Because of that, I suppose the definition of ‘hardship’ is ultimately dependent on the individual rather than the country because your background, attitude, experiences and expectations all contribute to how you view your new environment.

I say that because China isn’t a hardship posting for me, it’s an excitement posting. I’m not just saying that – I mean it – I want to be here and for the record, I don’t have any home help or drivers etc and I absolutely experience the same frustrations and issues that come with working in this part of the World.

It’s too easy for people to focus on the negatives and while I fully accept my income etc is better than many, the reality is Shanghai is hardly a developing city – it’s up there with the most vibrant cities in the World and so anyone who thinks being here is a ‘hardship’ is – in my mind – never going to understand what living in a foreign country can give them, both in terms of experience and knowledge.

Happy to chat about it, but as I said, I would be loathe to characterize ‘hardship’ by country [especially when also including South Korea in that mix] and more by the individuals attitude and expectations.

Comment by Rob

I couldn’t resist commenting. Very well written!

Comment by Tanika Z. Hevey

Thank you for the nice words. You’re obviously mental, but in a lovely way. Ha.

Comment by Rob

[…] I explained what I was talking about – which was basically this [especially #8] – we watched the documentary, ‘Exporting Raymond’ which, for me, […]

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