Returning from abroad

wingAll good things must come to an end but returning from a stint overseas can be bittersweet. In a feature that first appeared in EncoreMatt Smith looks at the benefits and challenges of coming home.

Coming back after a lengthy stint working overseas isn’t always easy – and it’s not just the returning expats that find it tough going.

At the Mumbrella360 conference in June, Stuart Gregor, director of Liquid Ideas, expressed his frustrations with returning workers. “Does the fact that you’ve worked two years in New York or London mean that when you come back you have the right to patronise we who don’t travel? I say no to that. There’s a bit of that in our industry which is ‘I’ve had two years in London so I know everything now’ and it’s bullshit.”

When asked to elaborate earlier this month, Gregor was slightly more guarded. “All I said is it doesn’t matter if you come back from overseas with your crappy, fake Kylie Minogue transatlantic accent. You’re not the be all and end all of everything.”

While he says his initial comments were intended as tongue-in-cheek, Gregor suggests Encore talk to Matt Jones of Better Happy, the agency Liquid Ideas has an alliance with. “Why don’t you speak to Matt? He’s next door and just back from New York. He’s always complaining that there aren’t Eataly restaurants in Australia.”

Jones spent a lengthy stint in New York when he was transferred from the Sydney offices of Jack Morton in 2006 to become the head of strategy and planning. The position eventually became a global role, but he soon tired of living with a foot in two continents. On December 31, 2011 he quit, moved back home, and founded creative consultancy Better Happy.

“Coming back to Australia I can see how you could feel the smallness,” he says. “Clients are looking for better answers to questions, but there’s a frightening level of risk adversity. It’s a very conservative marketplace. It relies on the tried and tired methods, like media saturation.”

Yet Jones says returning to Australia can be just as challenging as maintaining a post abroad. “It’s also a

quite unforgiving place – there’s less places to hide in the business than there are overseas. If you do sloppy work you’ll be called out on bullshit a lot faster in Australia than you would be in the United States.”

While Jones says business at Better Happy is booming, he’d jump at the chance to head out to other markets. He says: “I would have stayed in New York if I could. Part of me regrets leaving. It was a life changing experience. You can only learn by continuing to immerse yourself in different cultures. I’d love to try and crack the China market one day.”

For Sunanda Creagh, moving overseas was the next step in her career as a journalist. She joined The Sydney Morning Herald as a cadet in 2004. After four years bouncing around various sections, she left to work for Reuters in Jakarta where she’d previously completed an internship as an undergraduate.

“I went from writing about urban planning at the SMH to writing about big issues like terrorism and bird flu,” says Creagh. “I got a taste of that and wanted more. I found it really exhilarating and exciting.”

Creagh found that one of the benefits of working in Jakarta was writing stories that she wouldn’t have the opportunity to in Australia.

“I covered a Presidential election, the aftermath of a bombing in the Jakarta Marriott Hotel, an earthquake in west Sumatra,” she says. “I talked my way onto a military plane and covered stories that were both exciting and tragic and resonated around the world.”

After two years working in Jakarta, Creagh returned to Sydney to settle and have a child. “I looked for another job for about six weeks. You start off really excited, then get sick of it. I was very lucky to get a job at The Conversation.”

Creagh says that while moving to Jakarta took her off the Australian career ladder, she does not regret the experience. She says: “If I had stayed at The Sydney Morning Herald I imagine I’d

be in a much more senior position with more pay by now. So there’s definite benefits to never going in the first place. Being overseas as a correspondent is a career goal of many journalists but few ever get there. I’d do it all again.”

For Lorenzo Bresciani, managing director of DDB Melbourne, the decision to move overseas was driven by a desire to work with the best. His stint abroad began in London working with DDB.

“London was really the home of strategy planning,” he says. “I had always seen lots of amazing and great advertising coming from the market. It was a chance to learn, and to be around and be a part of a great agency.” Bresciani spent six years working in both London and San Francisco, returning home to Melbourne last year.

He says that while the global economy has changed the industry dramatically in the time he was away, Australia still has some catching up to do. He says: “It’s now possible to do great ideas and cutting edge work from anywhere in the world, including Australia, but you still don’t get to do things the same way.”

“There’s been a lot of change in the Australian market, but there isn’t the amount of specialised agencies that there is overseas, nor the level of collaboration. There’s still people working in isolation. Agencies should be a lot more open plan and creative. It’s getting there, but whenever you’re changing the way people work there’s a possibility of resistance.”

Bresciani’s transition back into the local industry has taught him that while overseas experience is highly valued, presenting ideas he picked up abroad needs to be done carefully. He says: “I’ve never experienced negativity for leaving Australia to work, but it’s down to how you approach introducing ideas. If you try to push an idea on the merit that you learned it overseas, your approach is wrong.”

For many Aussies working overseas, the decision to return home can be a fraught one. Simon Wassef, now head of strategy at Sid Lee in Amsterdam, left his job at Sydney creative agency Host in 2008 to move to London.

“Not long after I started work in London, I quickly had both ad and media agencies in Sydney asking if I was interested in coming home,” says Wassef. “It’s flattering and definitely gives a different perception of you among your peers.”

After working with advertising agency Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO and later ideas and innovation company AKQA, Wassef decided to return. By the time he boarded the plane, talks were quickly advancing with potential employers. “I’m a forward planner,” he says. “If you tell one of your mates you’re coming back, you get calls pretty quickly. People hear you’ve been working overseas and you become a sought-after talent.”

Wassef says the difference between Australia and overseas was immediately noticeable.

He says: “I had two main bugbears when I got back. Firstly the tonality is all very much the same – ads either have to be funny, or have to talk to mums. There’s little variation.”

“The other is that most places will just work on the one campaign, and not focus on the entire product. In the rest of the world agencies focus on properties. Here the scale isn’t big enough, and the agenda is very different. It’s fun, but I wonder if there’s a next evolution.”

After a year in Sydney, he got itchy feet again. “I was a bit impatient. I got the opportunity to go back to Europe and I took it,” he says. “The opportunity was to work at Sid Lee as head of strategy and work on the Adidas account. You don’t have those opportunities in Australia.”

While for Wassef the opportunities abroad can’t be topped, for some it’s better to just stay put in the first place. Better Happy’s Jones says: “If we all ran overseas and did great work, Australia wouldn’t change. Australia shouldn’t be a second choice market. It’s an extraordinary and sophisticated market, with vibrant progressive cities. You can do innovative work here just as well as anywhere else.”

Encore Issue 33This feature first appeared in EncoreDownload it now on iPad, iPhone and Android tablet devices.



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