A shock to the system, a boost to the career

FCB West's CCO on how taking a big risk by moving abroad for a job could do wonders for your professional life and bring new opportunities

After 17 years at one of the most celebrated agencies in the US, I was feeling stagnant. I’d grown up happily at Goodby Silverstein & Partners in my beloved San Francisco. But I was feeling limited and itching for something more.

I was about to join a well-known East Coast creative agency when I got a call from a recruiter who found me on Linked­In asking about my interest in an agency across the world that I had never heard of. An agency, in fact, that had only one client in a category hit hard by the recession. Seemed crazy. But if I wanted change, this certainly was a meaty one. I also figured that if I failed over there, no one would blame me for not having turned around the European economy.

So I went all in, uprooting my family to become the chief creative officer at WPP’s Blue Hive, an arm of Ogilvy & Mather creatively responsible for Ford in Europe. At first, it was a shock to the system. I was overseeing advertising that had to engage folks in 22 countries, and everybody was at odds. It wasn’t only about the colliding worlds of traditional, digital and social but also about German versus Italian, Anglo versus Continental, European versus American. And getting everyone united toward one common goal: great creative that would reinvigorate a tired brand.

The Brits wanted witty writing with authentic casting, while the Italians wanted cinematic visuals with gorgeous models. Sometimes I felt like a United Nations hostage negotiator more than anything. Understanding and respecting local cultural insights and then evaluating them against the needs of a large client that can’t afford a bespoke solution in every country, while constantly pushing the creative, was a way bigger challenge than I could have found at home. I learned from the much scrappier creatives coming from smaller markets such as Israel, Ukraine and Greece. I came to understand how new and different problems lead to new and different solutions.

I suppose these new arrows in my quiver started to show. I started getting calls about enormous global gigs that wouldn’t have come to me previously. In taking such a huge leap, I’d acquired new skills that were desperately needed by clients and agencies both at home and abroad.

But home is where my family wanted to go. So, after three years in Europe, I returned to San Francisco to join FCB West, where I’ve been tasked with bringing the creative momentum the network is enjoying around the world here. Knowing how to engage in other markets will be key in helping our clients seize opportunities around the world.

What would I tell a creative who gets a call about a gig overseas? Do. It.

You’ll love the big new muscles you will grow and the difference it will make to your career.

Karin Onsager-Birch is chief creative officer of FCB West.

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