Staff Reporters
Oct 5, 2010

Nine expats share their first impressions and experiences

Moving to Asia-Pacific for work is bound to be an exciting, thrilling adventure. Or is it? Nine expats working across the region share their experiences here.

Nine expats share their first impressions and experiences

Lynn Anne Davis President, Asia-Pacific, Fleishman-Hillard International Communications
Total years in Asia 13
First post Hong Kong

Choosing an overseas assignment was the best decision I ever made. It started by raising my hand for a new assignment. I was in Fleishman-Hillard’s global HQ in the US and craved change.  

Back in 1997, I was one of only a few international transfers in our firm’s history. Today, we exchange around 40 staff a year between offices and regions on a short and long-term basis. Cross-pollinating talent and experience has obvious advantages for our clients and people.

Hong Kong is a soft landing for expats. Its infrastructure makes it easy to hit the ground running (and never stop). It’s all business. People love networking. It’s simple to connect. With the right attitude and appetite to learn, working in Asia is incredibly enriching.

There is little push back or cynicism about bold ideas that aren’t born here, which leads to many that are. There are more opportunities to try new things. The markets are young. People are open-minded. The ways forward are still being invented every day. It’s amazing what can be achieved without the obstacles that come from pre-conceptions and assumptions.

The Asian work ethic is intense and unstoppable. There is no way our firm could have grown as big or as fast as we have in Asia-Pacific without it. Entrepreneurism is truly a way of life here. My only regret is not making the expat leap sooner.

Scott Kronick President, Ogilvy PR North Asia
Total years in Asia 19
First post Taiwan

I say the American dream of opportunity, growth and optimism is alive and well in China today.
I first came to Asia in 1991. At the time I went to Taiwan to serve as group account director, Ogilvy PR. I came to Asia with a personal mission to bridge cultures using communication and I have had countless opportunities to do so.

In 1995 I moved to Beijing to establish Ogilvy PR’s offices in China. In the beginning there were three of us. We made a plan to hire journalists and officials looking for work in the private sector. People with great attitudes we could train. We then identified clients who we felt had solid China plans and sought them out to establish our firm.

At the time of arrival people used to say a China day was when you had your best day and worst day on the same day. This has changed as the environment has become somewhat more predictable. I still believe the action is here, though. I could not have dreamed of a better life than I have had in Asia at Ogilvy.

Matthew Godfrey CEO, Y&R Asia-Pacific
Total years in Asia 15
First post Ho Chi Minh City

In 1996 I arrived into a Singapore agency - a zoo for notable industry characters like David Mayo, Greg Paull, Chris Leong and Peter Skalberg all reporting to the cheerful eye-bags of Chris Jaques.

If you crossed the movie The Hangover with an episode of The Office you’d get an inkling of the work environment. I remember discussing a new concept called ‘email’ following the short-lived revolution of ‘the colour fax machine’. So it’s fair to say that information technology and a greater focus on quality has thankfully upgraded agencies in terms of professionalism.

Not a moment too soon.

Singapore, at that time, was regarded only a career stepping-stone on your way to London or New York, where ‘serious business’ was done. Singapore has emerged as a true global city and an essential part of the Asian growth story that every major brand needs to capture. It is now a true destination for careers and creativity.

So Singapore has dramatically changed while agencies have perhaps only evolved. The Boston Consulting Group now ranks Singapore as the most innovative country on earth. It’s now time for agencies to live up to this. I’m looking forward to it.

Charles Cadell CEO, Lowe Lintas Asia
Total years in Asia 17
First post Bangkok

It took only five years training in London’s ad-scene to get dispirited by their myopic world-view. The next 14 living across various Asian cities has helped me get over it. Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, Hong Kong, China, Malaysia and now, at last getting a bite at the main Asian prize (in my book), India.

Without doubt, India is the most exhilarating, frustrating, enriching, complex and toughest assignment I have ever held. One needs a God-like sense of serenity just to survive each day.

Trying to unravel the religious, political, cultural and caste codes to comprehend what makes individuals and organisations hum is of Gordian complexity. For the advertising expat, it is India that is the riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

And you learn alone. In all of Mumbai there are less than 1,800 expats ­­- including kids. In all of India there are less than 15 expat MNC CEOs. In advertising, only ever one.

But what a gift. The riches of this country, its people and its craft are still only very vaguely appreciated by the world at large. Creatively it is an unfound El Dorado that will shortly burst on the world stage. There is no place I would rather be as an ad-man.

Mark Ingrouille CEO of Publicis Thailand and COO of Publicis Asia-Pacific
Total years in Asia 20
First post Singapore

There is no doubt Thailand has changed. The smiles are a little harder to come by nowadays. It’s become a little more nervous, a little less confident, a little more introspective.

This is my third stint in Bangkok, 11 years out of my 20 in the region. I first arrived in 1998 after seven years in Singapore and found it hard to cope with the chaos and randomness of the Thai capital. But I soon grew to love the place: its quirkiness, its energy, its inventiveness. Characteristics which add zest to our creative industry, and frustration to working here.

For a short while, Thailand was standing tall in the world of advertising. Many agencies were winning awards. This has lessened of late.

For an expat working in the Kingdom there are many lessons to learn. First, is never to accept anything at face value. The face is always a facade and figuring it out can be a challenge. Especially at first. Typically, expats come to Thailand and after six months think they have it figured out. After a year, they’re not so sure. After a couple of years they’re sure they’ve got nothing figured out about the place.

Sure, sometimes I miss the directness of Hong Kong or even Singapore. Or the familiarity of London, my home city. But the rewards here can be great, especially the allegiance of your people. Because once you have won their hearts, you have won them forever.

Daniel Gordon Jones MD, DDB Vietnam
Total years in Asia 7
First Post Vietnam

When I first arrived in Vietnam it was hot, noisy, and crowded. Streets were crammed with push bikes, food stalls and people were everywhere. Eleven years later, the streets full of bicycles are now motorbikes; car ownership is steadily increasing with the road infrastructure struggling to keep up and in Vietnam’s major cities the sky is the limit - literally - with new shopping malls and shiny new towers rising up.

In 1999, there were three local TV stations and cable was available to foreigners only. Now there are 50-plus local channels on cable, which is affordable to most households. There were two mobile service providers, now there are six. There were five or so national banks and now there are 20 odd including four 100 per cent foreign owned - bringing with them credit and convenience to aide growth.

Advertising in Vietnam is still a comparatively young industry in a country with a very young population. Seventy per cent of Vietnam’s population is under 30 and hungry to learn. Unfortunately, creativity has taken somewhat longer for the Vietnamese to get a handle on, and even now we only have a small number of stars in the creative community.

Like any culture, I believe the key to success is truly understanding the differences and nuances in the culture. Vietnamese are resilient, energetic and resourceful people who, after many adversities, are eager to be part of the global community.

An Englishman, I arrived thinking I could teach the locals a thing or two about advertising , but  I learnt quickly - and am still learning - just as many life lessons from my peers.

Paul Loosley Director, Axis Films Malaysia
Total years in Asia 32
First post Malaysia

I arrived in Malaysia in 1978. The ad industry was vibrant and fun. Everyone really liked being in the business. Clients wanted, and were given, bold campaign thinking; ads on TV, print and cinema strung together. Awards were opportunities for the whole industry to celebrate the work, have a great time and threw bread rolls at one another. No one cared too much about who won or lost and what was happening in other markets. And anyway it was all forgotten on Monday.

It’s not as much fun any more. I have tried to figure out why. Apart from the obvious woes like financial pressures on publicly listed agency conglomerates and advertisers, the fee system and agency service unbundling, my only conclusion is that there is no longer the same cohesion, cooperation and trust in the industry here there once was.

In other markets - Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore - media folks seem to be able to work better together. But these days, in Malaysia, the well-being of the whole industry appears to takes a back seat to individual interests. There are few if any shared terms of business; there is no attempt to conserve or promote the local flavour of Malaysian advertising over imported ideas either culturally or officially; local awards seem to be relegated to second best and there is no industry-wide means of educating new entrants into the business. 

It’s not that Malaysia has ad people who are less smart, less committed or less adventurous than they used to be; far from it, there are some crackerjack folks; keen, enthusiastic and talented. It’s just that they need to be encouraged, supported more and marshalled together under a single banner of Malaysian Advertising. I think. Or perhaps I’m just getting old.

Dave McCaughan Director of strategic planning, McCann Worldgroup Asia-Pacific
Total years in Asia 23
First Post Bangkok

Definition of being an expat: when you’re living inside a culture that is as foreign to you as you are to it.

In that sense my first experience happened when I joined McCann in Sydney in 1986. I was a children’s librarian from Parramatta. A rare Westie born, bred and proud.

Over nine years, dozens of missions in Asia eventually grew into a permanent move to Bangkok in 1995 as the only planner servicing eight countries, then shifted base to Hong Kong in 2000 and Japan late in 2003.

Years ago I read a famous American futurist on why he lived in Japan - “I write about the future, if I want to know what will happen in five years time I study Japan today”. This always made sense to me.  It’s the place where more new ideas, more trends, more gimmick products and real breakthroughs come from than any other. It’s a country of the absolute latest technology, and a history of always having been so. It’s defined by perfectionism, a business style unlike any other and an advertising scene that seems strange and yet predicts so much of what we see happening elsewhere.

Fifteen fantastic years as an expat regional planner - learning why the West isn’t so normal. n

Michael Wood CEO, Greater China, Leo Burnett
Total years in Asia 6
First post Hong Kong

Starting in New Zealand, my career has taken me to Australia, the US, Vietnam, Taiwan, Canada and now Greater China.

My first-ever visit to Hong Kong was in 1989 when I was working on Cathay Pacific. Landing at night I thought it was straight out of Blade Runner. The neon signage, the heat and humidity, the endless stream of people and traffic 24/7.

I moved to live here from Chicago beginning 2004. The major change over the past 20 years is Hong Kong has moved from being the gateway for the world to China, to being the gateway to the world for Chinese people and corporations.

This can be seen in the continued strength of the retail, real estate, hospitality, financial and leisure sectors.

Hong Kong is still the central hub for business in Asia. Still a creative powerhouse, it’s a perfect test market for concepts to be launched in developed Asian markets.

It is a sophisticated market with a deep penetration of all mediums and the ability to measure and model different communication mixes.

This article was originally published in the October 2010 issue of Campaign Asia-Pacific.

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