Are you ready to get outside your comfort zone, stretch your abilities and embrace a new culture? If the answer is yes, then an international career might be for you.
The benefits are vast, from the chance to understand a new market inside-out to accelerating career progression, but there are challenges as well. Working in a new market requires curiosity, patience and an appreciation that what you learned at home may no longer be relevant.
Adrian Farina, head of marketing for Europe at Visa, started his marketing career at Pizza Hut in his native Argentina, before becoming an assistant brand manager at Procter & Gamble (P&G). After two years in Argentina he moved with the FMCG giant to Venezuela, Brazil and Chile.
The language barrier in Brazil proved the biggest leap in terms of cultural context. Farina invested time and energy trying to understand the culture, putting himself into high-speed mode to learn Portuguese so he could fully embrace his new environment.
“Going doesn’t mean staying in a hotel, going means spending time on the streets seeing how people shop, consume and have conversations,” Farina says. “If you can do that first hand without needing a translator the better, because you can capture the nuances.”
His next move was to Miami to become regional CEO at Saatchi & Saatchi X, working across Latin America, the Caribbean and US Hispanic market, which meant adapting to North American business culture.
While Latin cultures place value on small talk and personal relationships, Farina found the US much more driven and functional, even when it came to recruitment.
“North America tends to be more, ‘what’s in it for me?’ and more about the candidates and how this is going to build their career or portfolio, while Latin America is still a lot about people aspiring to belong to established brands and companies,” Farina explains.
Despite the differences, it is crucial marketers don’t impose their own biases onto the new market. He suggests that if you are not conscious of culture when providing feedback to an agency, for example, you could get “into a very nasty place very quickly”.
Delphine Buttin, associate brand director of P&G-owned Japanese cosmetics brand SK-II, agrees.
“SK-II is a Japanese brand, but we have French, Indian, Japanese, Korean, American people, because everyone brings something to the table. The biggest challenge, however, is to never insert our own culture into a campaign,” she explains.
Keen to explore the booming Asian market, Buttin left her role as senior global associate brand manager at Escada fragrances in Geneva seven years ago and headed to Singapore.
Her goal was to work in high growth, developing markets where consumer trends were transforming at speed, rather than stick to the mature European market.
First, she had to get to grips with the cultural differences across Asia. Chinese consumers, for example, are very digitally focused and influencer-led, while Japanese marketing is much more reliant on traditional channels such as TV and print.
The need to understand the nuances of each market allowed Buttin to get closer to her consumers than she believes would have been possible in a global role.
“We have really integrated ourselves into the Asian market and what it means to win in Asia, versus working for a brand that is completely global and everything is so high level up that you don’t really touch the consumer,” she states.
I value that even in my exec committee meetings I bring a different perspective to the conversation.
Tricia Weener, HSBC
Buttin explains that working in Asia has helped her learn how to think big and constantly reinvent her marketing approach because trends move so fast. She describes the ability to transform consistently as a muscle you need to develop, which would not have been possible had she stayed in Europe.
Another marketer attracted to a career in Asia is Tricia Weener, global head of marketing for HSBC B2B. The bank’s focus on international business was a big factor in her deciding to join HSBC back in 2009.
Having fostered an interest in Asia since her teenage years and attracted by the region’s entrepreneurial spirit, Weener moved to HSBC’s Hong Kong office in 2013, initially as head of marketing, commercial and global banking and markets for Asia Pacific.
There were nuances she had to get to grips with from both a customer and business perspective. In Bangladesh, for example, she found that it is customary to invite people to an event just two days before and to expect them to turn up late, so the event should be planned to start around an hour after the suggested time.
Weener also notes the tremendous respect for hierarchy in Asia and the difference in team dynamics.
“People [in Asia] aren’t used to being asked their opinion. They are used to being directed, so it’s about being aware of that if you do direct, rather than asking a question, and learning how to get the most out of people,” she explains.
“It’s about ensuring they feel their views and opinions are valued and you want them to make decisions. That was quite an important experience for me to go through.”
Time to flex
Flexibility and resilience have been key skills to develop for Avon vice-present of global facecare and personal care, Anna Chokina. She began her marketing career at P&G in Moscow before transferring to Cincinnati, which meant moving from a large developing market to the company’s headquarters in the US.
“You have the CEO sitting there, so in terms of access to best practice and the best in marketing and FMCG, that was it. I really hit the Holy Grail,” she recalls.
“I was amazed by how accessible the general managers were and how I could learn from some R&D people who had been there for 20 years. For professional development you can’t beat that.”
Moving to new markets means getting to grips with both cultural changes and a new level of talent, which can make marketers question their own performance.
Going abroad means spending time on the street seeing how people shop, consume and have conversations.
Adrian Farina, Visa
“All of a sudden you are in the middle of the pack, you are not the top-performing individual in your peer group and that’s a useful experience. But it can be difficult to accept that you used to be a top performer in Moscow and you are now average,” Chokina explains.
“It took me a couple of years to become a top performer in the US and it took me even more to be a top performer in the UK, because the cultural context of the UK was even more different to my home country.”
The change in the communications style was a big factor. Whereas communications are very direct in both the US and Russia, this manner is often regarded as abrasive in the UK.
“It was no longer OK for me to go into a meeting and say what needs to be done. I had to communicate it in a way that is implied,” says Chokina.
“You also have strong talent. My personal opinion is that marketing talent is stronger in the UK than in the US because technical skills are stronger in the UK. I had to grow professionally and from a personal leadership standpoint, the stretch I had when I moved from the US to the UK was bigger and it took me longer to catch up.”
The ability to adapt to new business climates is also necessary when working with agencies. Farina explains that in Brazil agencies are in high demand and so do not have patience for “bad or boring clients”, which forces marketers to prioritise exciting projects.
In other Latin American markets, where agencies are led by strategists not creatives, creativity can come secondary to meeting business objectives. It is about understanding the position advertising and marketing holds in pop culture in a specific market, suggests Farina.
“In Brazil and Argentina, advertising and marketing are part of pop culture. People know and consume it, therefore there is a high demand for quality,” he explains.
“Whereas in other markets, you would call it more traditional, less sophisticated, more rational, more direct and there is less need to elaborate the message because you can risk confusing consumers. You need communications that are a bit more functional and that forces you to adapt how you evaluate creative.”
Operating outside your comfort zone can be daunting, but it may help stave off any sense of complacency.
Having worked in the US and the UK, Chokina returned to Moscow to become marketing director for snacks at PepsiCo. During this time she was approached to become general manager for L’Oréal in Russia.
“I was 36 and I was thinking ‘if I’m so complacent now and if I’m choosing comfort over a possibility then something is wrong’. I took the L’Oréal offer just to get rid of those complacent thoughts of staying in my comfort zone,” she explains.
The first six months at L’Oréal were “very tough” culturally, working for a French organisation in Russia. She found French business culture less organised, but also extremely hierarchical, an experience that encouraged her to form strong bonds with the head office in Paris.
Chokina’s move back to the UK almost four years later to join Avon was focused on her desire to build a new skillset and continually stretch herself, this time working on a direct-to-consumer business model.
“I felt like professionally I had exhausted my opportunities in the country roles,” she explains. “That’s why when I joined Avon. I was very excited to be joining the global team because I felt after two market positions I was stagnating in my professional development.”
Chokina urges marketers to try a role in a different market as long as it builds their skillset and is not just a tick-box exercise, because otherwise it will be impossible to perform to the best of their ability.
Making the move
The move to international markets is not for everyone. Farina stresses that marketers always have the option of returning home. The key to making it a success is to have an open mind and understand experiences at home cannot necessarily be replicated abroad.
“Do it with an open attitude and seeking to genuinely understand context, not judging or being someone who is deciding what is better or worse,” he says.
Buttin advises anyone thinking of moving internationally to do it as early in their career as possible when they are up for taking risks, learning from scratch and malleable enough to thrive. She believes it is much more difficult to take on a big international role mid-career, especially if marketers have spent their entire career to date working in a single country.
The positive impact on career development is clear. Weener has made a conscious choice to stay in Hong Kong, even though her global team are in London, as Asia is so important to HSBC and it offers her a different perspective.
“It wouldn’t stop me doing the role from anywhere else, but I do really value that even in my business exec committee meetings I bring a different perspective to the conversation,” she explains.
Weener does concede that working internationally is not for everyone all the time. Although it might not be a relevant opportunity now, she urges marketers to consider that in three or four years the situation might change.
“Be very open-minded about your career and when that might be an option,” she suggests. “And if it’s not for you it shouldn’t be something that will constrain your career, but you perhaps have to find other ways to build that knowledge base that don’t involve going to live and work in another country.”