Coming to America – a footnote

After more than 2 years working in the US, I will be returning to the UK in 48 hours. During those 2 years I have been asked pretty much once a week: “what is the difference between working in the US vs the UK”.

It’s a complicated question, and my experience isn’t broad enough to really put it in a neat summary, but here is a brief 5 point summary to capture some thoughts on what is most different.

1. Working: Hard vs Always

‘So, does everyone work really hard over there?’ Well, I work in advertising, and I do a lot of pitching, and I think it’s fair to say that anyone who is doing that works pretty hard everywhere in the world – and the US and the UK are probably the two most competitive markets, so it gets pretty extreme in both.

If I was to define the difference, it’s that I have yet to experience in the US quite the level of intensity and speed of collaboration that I experienced in the UK in a comparable scenario. Sometimes it feels like American groups across agency and clients take the long road – long meetings, complex processes, many disciplines creating a lot of work rather than rolling up their sleeves and committing to collectively take as many shortcuts as possible (which is one definition of working hard.)

The big difference is that apart from a few entrepreneurs and manic CEOs, I haven’t found many Londoners who view their weekends, holidays and nights’ sleep as fair game for working time. On one project I worked for 4 consecutive weekends, and regular 16 hour days – and this wasn’t viewed as a titanic individual effort, but just keeping up to speed.

In fact, my penchant for weekends free of email and 2-week holidays once a year can come across as pretty eccentric in the US.

2. Money: Embarrassment vs Riches

Londoners might stereotype Americans as pretty brash individuals who can never stop talking about money. Americans might stereotype Brits as charmingly over-apologetic Hugh Grant-a-likes. And there’s actually a lot to this comparison.

In this, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s actually the Brits who are a little strange in this respect – I don’t think American businesspeople have any particular compulsion to talk about money (when doing business, discussion of money probably comes with the territory.) On the flipside, many Brits seem to have a pathological aversion to even mentioning money, whether it’s budgets, salary, investment or taxation.

This is particularly a challenge in the innovation space – some Brits seem to think that the brilliance of an idea should be enough to carry it, and that is shouldn’t be sullied with commercial considerations. Whereas American innovators are much happy flitting between funding rounds and engineering scrambles. Which is one reason why the ideas:businesses ratio tends to be much healthier on the western coast of the Atlantic.

At this point, a blast of the US intro to the Apprentice as a money-flavoured sorbet.

3. Innovation: Thinking vs Doing

Within my own field of media thinking, there is no doubt that the UK leads the world. Pretty much every agency I know in New York has a British Head of Planning, Strategy or Innovation. The Brits just seem a lot more comfortable with random digression and with highly conceptual or theoretical thinking in the workplace, even in fields like advertising where it is clearly a highly valuable commodity everywhere.

The downside of this approach is that it is easy to feel that concepts are being sullied by their contact with the real world and with the action plan. This is accompanied by a fear of failure that doesn’t exist in the same way in the USA. It’s fine to try something that might be a bit wrong, learn from it, try again, fail again, and eventually strike it lucky. A four time failure who wins in the end in the UK would be perceived as a comical story of the plucky underdog. In the USA, that’s just a success story.

So innovating through thinking vs innovating by doing – it’s fair to say that a bit of both is probably the best place to be. Which, to anticipate my conclusion, is probably why teams that mix the two cultures tend to be so effective.

For a shorthand, a UK strategist is likely to say ‘I just want to think about interesting problems’ – their US equivalent is more likely to say ‘I just want to do cool shit.’

4. Job titles: Descriptions vs Definitions

Nothing is more amusing to the Brit abroad than having a meeting with a VP, and SVP, and EVP, a Managing Director and a President. In our minds, this is a shorthand for obsession with hierarchy, and whilst the UK is hardly Sweden for egalitarianism it is fair to say that the sight of a young graduate employee with their arms around the CEO is far more likely at a British Christmas party than its US equivalent (if there even is one.)

However there is a broader truth behind this – I don’t know how much of it is a function of scale, and how much is a function of culture, but US job roles tend to be a lot more specific, whether by discipline, department or hierarchy. There is also much more of an expectation that you will keep to your role, and that your work will be defined by it.

This is great for accountability, but it can be pretty inflexible when it comes to working collectively. This is why after much deliberation Jumptank elected the inscrutable, hierarchy-busting title of Partner. This came in useful many times in driving collaboration without borders.

5. Opening a conversation: Apology vs Storytelling

I have a somewhat hackneyed presentation opening/ice breaker that goes: “I have to start with a quck apology. Because I’m English, and that’s what we do.” Look, I even did it then – I totally undermined myself before I even said what I wanted to say. Now I’m going to have to think of something else, but it served its time for a few cheap laughs.

I have had UK colleagues emerge shocked from meetings at their US counterparts’ enthusiasm about talking about themselves, and had US clients totally misunderstand my stream of caveats and seek to reassure me that the work was really good and I should stop apologising. I have also interviewed candidates in New York who have spent 20 minutes telling me their life story and their many successes before I have even asked a question.

Neither of these are optimal, clearly, but one thing that has astounded me (mainly in the bar rather than the office, but it stretches there too) is the incredible ability of the average US working male for storytelling. For a Brit, a story told in public tends to last 3 minutes and end in an ironic observation about life. Here, I have been told stories that were an hour long, stretched over many years of experience and extracted at least three peaks of hysterical laughter.

This is a skill worth learning, in business as in life.

US vs UK: who wins?

If the answer isn’t totally obvious, both cultures are wonderfully mad, unique, dynamic and frustrating. If there is one thing I have learnt it is that the two in combination are a force to be reckoned with, and I am proud to have had great experiences in both countries and hopefully learnt from them too.

Goodbye America, and see you soon.

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Coming to America – a footnote

  1. Walt

    This is all great. But I still do not know the true origins of “taking the piss.”
    Please solve this upon your return. We will miss your smarts and companionship. Be well, spend more time with your family (now that weekends are free) and stay in touch. – Walt

  2. Joe

    Muy interesante!
    Why do you think Brits do the best off the wall thinking? Is it something to do with the education system?
    I agree that we need to banish fear of failure from the creative industries – it doesn’t prevent total crap from coming out anyway – but I think that social media and particularly 1-click publishing is doing a lot to break down this essentially adolescent unwillingness to risk that bane of the Brit, embarrassment.
    A very thought provoking piece on some pretty well-trodden ground! Thanks… again.

    • Thanks Joe!

      That question again is one I’ve been asked a lot, and I don’t have a particularly good answer to it, apart from than to say it is somehow inherent in the culture.

      The specific kind of thinking that Brits excel at I think is critical thinking – looking at all existing ideas or assumptions with a highly sceptical eye, stripping things back to their base principles, and then creating an alternative theory.

      I guess, at its best, this is reflected in the British educational system – encouraging students to be critical and think for themselves rather than to learn anything very specific or useful! But I’m an ex-historian so I would say that.

      • NY Observer

        In my experience Brits don’t have any particular talent for critical thinking vs Americans. If anything it’s the reverse. America still has very real ‘culture wars’ requiring people actively engage in some thorny debate vs the temperate and somewhat disconnected and irony-infused view of the world many Brits in their home country display. I think what you’re describing is a difference in talent in UK and US media agencies, specifically. Most of the best advertising talent wouldn’t consider joining a US media agency for a second unfortunately, as they’ve yet to develop genuine cultures of innovation and creativity and are seen by many as the ‘bottom feeders’ of the business. In this environment it’s very easy for an Oxbridge-educated ambitious Brit to erronously believe Brits are more widely somehow superior as critical thinking, innovation, or whatever. Admitedly in the blog post you point out you are comenting on your specific area but the reply above indicated to me you feel it’s a broader trait. BTW – I enjoyed the post.

      • Hmm…I tried to be clear that I didn’t think Brits were better at innovation. That, if anything, was the point of the post.

        I guess I did assert that critical thinking is a strong attribute of Brits, and I guess I think of temperate, self-questioning, nuanced thinking as good critical thinking, as opposed to some of the stormy retrenchment of the US political debate. Though as I said, extreme critical thinking can be the enemy of decisive action. But obviously that’s all a matter of opinion.

        BTW I think viewing media agencies, in whatever country, as ‘bottom feeders’ is a bit archaic, having seen all sides of the profession…

        Thanks for reading

      • Nubby

        I think NY Observer nailed it. Britain is a small country whose best talent likes moving to America. It doesn’t mean they’re necessarily and better.

      • I didn’t say they were better – I love America and Americans, and have the utmost admiration for its achievements, which in recent decades clearly dwarf those of the UK. I said that on a cultural level around innovation each country has unique attributes and areas of expertise, that are surprisingly different and highly effective in combination. Maybe you should read the post again.

  3. Richard Elliot

    Really interesting.

    It’s made me think about about my time in Australia and I haven’t thought about it as deeply, but here goes:

    1. Working: Hard v Down the beach.
    The culture of having a work life balance in Oz is pretty strong. People leave ontime to go home to their family or off to a sporting event. They’ll pitch in when a project deadline is looming, but it is seen as heroic.

    2. Money: Not talked about v sometimes bewildering attitudes
    Over my time in Australia this has changed, but it is a very cash culture. Lots of people pay by cash where Brits would pay by card. There is also a tendancy to work out a bill exactly when it arrives with people paying their share. There’s no ‘we’ll just split it equally’.
    I don’t have the experience of investment decisions. No one talks about salaries in either country.

    3. Innovation: Thinking vs Bodging
    This is a very limited view, but in my experience, Australian business didn’t bring together the bredth of people and experiences together to achieve innovative solutions. It was a little backward and you’d try things to get it working..

    4. Job titles: Descriptions v Nothing
    Corporate role titles were banned in my organisation, there were no VPs, Directors etc…. This lead to a strange situation where people gave themselves their own. Lots of people called themselves ‘Senior this’ or ‘Global Head of that’. The main downside I could see of this was that there was no structure for people to aim or strive at in order to progress their careers.

    5. Opening a conversation: Apology v American?
    There was definitely a certain brashness, directness and political incorrectness about the Aussies. Not extreme, but a little confronting for this Pom.

    As an aside, after three years away I’m finding lots of mini culture shocks back in London so it will be interesting to hear what your experiences are.

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