Making it overseas

Making-it-Abroad-SFWIs the best way of being successful in Australia not be here at all? In a feature that first appeared in EncoreLee Zachariah speaks to Aussies making it big abroad.

I always wanted to work in New York,” says Julian Cole. “I thought it was the number one place to work in advertising; a lot of the best campaigns were coming out of there. So I moved over and was lucky enough to have a couple of interviews in the first couple of weeks.”

Cole’s story is indicative of the somewhat contentious idea that the best way to be successful in Australia is to not be in Australia any more.

Many professionals across film, television, journalism and advertising have made the move overseas, leaving family and security behind in search of new opportunities.

Cole immediately signed with the New York arm of global agency BBH and acknowledges that the move might have been less risky for him given his solid resume. “I felt like I had a couple of case studies under my belt. It just felt like the right time. But I also have friends who have come over, they’ve been at the start of their careers, and they’ve been able to pick up work. Especially going into in-demand positions, which are usually around the digital area. It definitely does help if you’ve got a portfolio of work.”

Film-maker and VCA graduate Richard Gray recently moved to Los Angeles, and has alternated between making films in Australia (Summer Coda, Blinder) and the US (Mine Games, The Lookalike). When Summer Coda began screening in Palm Springs and LA, it seemed like the perfect time to make the move. He says: “It was always the plan, it was just picking the best time. It had taken seven years to get Coda up and although we were making a living within the broader industry in Australia, we wanted to focus solely on film.”

In 1994, Matthew Godfrey was 26 and working at ad agency Y&R in Sydney when he was offered a move to Vietnam as part of his career development. “Legends of our agency such as Alex Hamill had gone to Asia in the early ’70s and recommended it to me as both a career and life accelerator. The opportunity to run an office in a country that was opening up like Vietnam was too good an opportunity to miss. It both challenges you and stretches what you are capable of achieving. That was more than 19 years ago now and I still see those opportunities every day across the region. It’s never dull or predictable and the region is now an even more important part of the world economy and global growth plans.”

“I was really bitten by the travel bug,” says Amy Fallon, an Australian journalist who worked in London for five years before moving to Uganda. “I wanted desperately to live overseas. The idea of working on Fleet Street was exciting. But for me it was also about having a cultural experience, making new friends and being able to travel around Europe and to other parts of the world more easily from Britain.”

Former Australian TV host Eden Gaha is now the president of production company Shine USA. He notes that working in the Australian media gave him, out of necessity, a lot of experience across a range of roles. “I started out as an on-air host, but also learned to edit, shoot video and produce,” he says.

“We were very hands on, as we didn’t have the staff or the size that a lot of bigger American productions have. When I first arrived in the US, people had very defined skills – you were an editor, a cameraman or a producer. So I was fortunate to have a wide range of skills and was able to move up the ladder fast.”

That’s a sentiment shared by Cole. Recently promoted to communications planner, he recognises that this role is more defined than his equivalent back home. “In Australia, that would probably be rolled into three different titles. They might call it an account planner, which would have a brand planner, a comms planner and a digital strategist all in one. In America the budgets are so big, they can account for having someone who specialises in brand planning and comms planning and digital strategy. Therefore, you can get a little more specialised in what you do.”

Perhaps obviously, the most noticeable difference in markets such as America and the UK is size. The media industry is simply bigger over there, and that may inform the countries more optimistic approach. “I guess it’s a better business in the US all round and that brings more opportunity,” says film-maker Gray. “There’s also more positivity and general belief that you can actually make it happen, which leads to a more enjoyable and productive experience. We’ll never stop making films in Australia, but we do find the industry to be quite dog eat dog. We’ve also had more success raising investment to fund our features in the US,” Gray adds. “It’s something they’re far more accustomed to doing, and they better understand the models. That’s not to say there’s no hope at home, it’s just a greater challenge.”

“The media scene in the UK is bigger, it’s more diverse, it’s definitely more competitive,” says Amy Fallon. “Obviously there’s more national papers, there’s more tabloids. There’s also a lot more news agencies and the magazine industry is dramatically different. There’s a lot more of these ‘real life’ publications, as they’re called. As an Australian, you’re a little fish in a very big pond.”

“Culturally the American TV industry is a bit more buttoned up,” says Gaha. “When I worked in Australia, it tended to be more relaxed. So I’d say there are positives and negatives on both sides.”

When our ex-pats are asked if they plan to return to Australia, their answers are broadly yes… in theory. The idea of coming home is appealing, but so is the pull of the work. The unspoken implication is that there are opportunities in Australia, but it’s not the most likely place to find them.

“Everyone agrees that Australia is one of the world’s best countries,” says Godfrey. “But for now, Asia has much to offer both me and my family.”

For established professionals looking to make the move, Cole reiterates that developing a speciality is key.

“You’ve just got to be ready for the differences of the industry here. Coming from Australia, where you’re trying to be everything for everyone, you’ve got to figure out what you want to specialise in.”

Uganda-based Fallon agrees that having a job lined up before you go is the ideal scenario, but probably not a practical one. She says: “It gives you peace of mind, but I don’t know how realistic this is in the current economic climate. It’s very hard to get a staff job, contract or permanent position. Still, you have to try.”

The advice for those thinking of heading abroad is that you should throw caution to the wind and book your ticket now. “If you believe in yourself enough, you can make it whereever you go,” says Gaha, who made the move without having a job lined up. “An opportunity helps, but working without a net is truly exhilarating.” Godfrey agrees. “If you’re young, stop thinking about it, just get on a plane and go do it. Be prepared to start anywhere on anything to simply get involved. Then work your way up. The worse that can happen is that you’ll have an amazing six months and be back in Australia with stories to tell.”

“If you really want to go, set a date and do it,” says Gray. “Don’t miss that date. You’ll work it out when you get there.” But, he adds pragmatically: “Buy a bed and a blanket before you buy a TV and Blu-ray player.”
Encore Issue 14

This story first appeared in the weekly edition of Encore available for iPad and Android tablets. Visit encore.com.au for a preview of the app or click below to download.


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