Thursday, July 31, 2008

Being In Europe Doesn't Change A Thing

The very first assignment I received at this office was a re-think on an ad that had already gone through three rounds with the client. I was coming into the assignment with fresh eyes and clear thinking, fully convinced this was an opportunity to win some awards.

Here’s the timeline of my experience with this assignment (keep in mind, I came in mid-way through the assignment):

Day One: Began reconcepting.

Day Two: Presented work internally, which was well-received.

Day Five: Presented work to the client.

Day Eight: Received client feedback. They liked the ideas. But not for this product. We were asked to come back with some new ideas.

Day Nine: Begin reconcepting.

Day Fifteen: Presented work to the client. They liked one idea, and asked us to move forward on it.

Day Sixteen: Received an email from the client requesting the ad be put “ON HOLD” because they’re feeling pressure from headquarters to reduce spending.

I could tell you which client this was. But it could have easily been any client I’ve ever worked with in my career.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Explaining Things to a 12-Year Old

Last week I was asked to sit in on a strategy meeting with the client as their brief was refined. The account person leading the meeting was brilliant. The client is a very esoteric, academic global entity, and was prone to over-explaining. But the account person was so diligent and gracefully forceful at reining them in.

When the clients were struggling with a vision statement she said, ‘It’s very simple. How do you want to describe yourselves at a cocktail party? You can either say we [simple explanation of what they do], or we [verbose, cobbled-together explanation(s) that sounds like a PowerPoint presentation of a technical manual created by a paralegal].”

She broke another stalemate by saying, “Look. Let’s just say it like we were explaining it to a 12-year old.”

I know some agency people would have politely nodded and taken dictation from the client in a meeting like this. But in a couple hours, I saw the brand positioning statement whittled from seven words to two. It wasn’t without a fight. But I’m glad I’m at an agency that sees these battles as the kind worth winning.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

No More Monkeys Jumping On The Bed

I saw Roger Moore’s Sicko before leaving the States, and my wife and I had been curious to see how socialized health care in Europe was going to work. We just didn’t think it would happen during our first month.

Last Saturday evening, our 21-month old fell off his bed and hit his head on the hardwood floor. It didn’t see it happen, but I heard the thud from the other room. Other than the tears, he seemed fine. But within the next three hours, he had thrown up three times.

Numerous web sites state that it’s normal for children to vomit 2-3 times after even minor head injuries. And other than recreating some pungent Jackson Pollocks on our duvet, he was acting normal.

But at 10:30 pm, we decided to call the hospital anyway, and they advised us to bring him in. (I was glad French Coach had already taught me the word for “vomit” – vomir.) Apart from a little bruising, our son is fine. As we’d suspected/hoped, it was no problem at all. This was a good thing to do for many reasons:

  1. Better safe than sorry.
  2. Now we know the route to the hospital.
  3. Language practice beyond “Où est l'hôpital?”
  4. It’s socialized medicine. Why not?

When I told the admissions staff on the phone that we’d only arrived a few weeks ago and I didn’t have proof of insurance she said, “No problem. Just bring in your passport or your resident’s permit.” Amazing.

Monday, July 28, 2008

I Do Not Live In Sweden

I'm amazed at the number of people who confuse Switzerland with Sweden. I am still getting emails asking me how I'm liking Sweden. Back in Chicago, when I officially announced my move, one of the producers would start talking like the Muppets' Swedish chef whenever he saw me.

When people move to the United States, do their friends email to ask how life is in the United Arab Emirates? If they move to Canada, do people say, "Wow! Cambodia? No kidding!"

It's Bern not Helsinki. Chocolate not meatballs. UBS not Ikea.

It's especially stinging to me since my ancestors are Norwegian. (My great-grandmother used to have a saying about "5000 Swedes raced through the weeds, chased by one Norwegian.")

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Sheryl's Spare-A-Square Plan

When Sheryl Crow started talking about how we can save the planet by using only one square of toilet paper per wipe, she was sending the wrong message. Instead of communicating how we need to curb our consumption and reduce waste, she got us thinking about what kind of hippie-dippy hygiene she must have.

Unless, of course, she came up with the idea while on tour in Switzerland. Swiss toilet paper is thick. Not rough. Not bad. But multi-layered Swiss quality. My only complaint is that apparently, it only comes in pink. You can get blue if you only buy the 6-pack. But we're buying in bulk.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Busted by Mail

I haven’t had a traffic violation in 11 years. And today, I got my first Swiss speeding ticket.

Not from a traffic cop who pulled me over. From the office manager.

I’m driving a company car so all correspondence – service, maintenance, and, yes, traffic violations – is addressed to him. He came by my desk to tell me he’d received the ticket came in the mail.

I’m still American enough to presume there are no speed limits in Europe. But I’m learning you don’t underestimate the Swiss. Apparently, there are radar cameras set up around Geneva (whether they move around or not, I don’t know), and if they catch you, they simply mail you the bill, which you pay online.

This one’s 40 francs, or about $38. I can swallow that. My last ticket was in 1997 and cost me nearly $300. (Have you ever driven across Nevada? You’d be pushing 100 mph, too. I just happened to get caught in Battle Mountain.)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Swiss Dip

A friend of mine who recently returned from three years in London described the Expat Curve to me…

There’s the euphoria of embarking on a new adventure. The dopamine is pretty high.

But then things start to fall apart. You have to deal with setting up the utilities. You begin to think the supermarkets and the electrical outlets are too weird. You miss hamburgers and TiVo. You realize you don’t even know if they get Lost and The Office in this country.

But then you start to climb back out of the rut. Life becomes livable. All the new experiences you have begin to outweigh the fact that there’s no Netflix, peanut butter, root beer or Famous Dave’s All-American Feast.

Looking at this curve reminded me a little of Seth Godin’s book The Dip. Subtitled, “The Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit And When to Stick,” it’s a brilliant read, and an easy one.

I received my copy of The Dip when Seth Godin came to Chicago a couple summers back and spoke to a crowd of 250 at Magiano’s Banquet Hall. (While I enjoyed the book, nothing really compares to seeing Seth speak live. If you get the chance, take it.)

It’s a book about quitting – a heretical notion in business, but Godin makes a great point. He asserts that when we’re pursuing what we want, we often find ourselves in the Dip – the long slog between beginning something and mastering it. For doctors, the Dip is organic chemistry. Without that barrier in college, there’d be a lot more doctors. It weeds out those who aren’t fully committed.

But sometimes we find ourselves in cul-de-sacs – the pursuit of what we think is attainable, but really isn’t. Or we’re in a Dip with rewards that aren’t worth the effort on the other side. It’s those cul-de-sacs and those projects that aren’t worth the effort we need to quit so we can redirect our energy to the Dips that will be worth making it through.

I don’t know if Seth considered expat experiences when he wrote the book, but I think they apply. While Suzy and I knew bailing on Geneva wasn't an option, having lived in Europe already was still no preparation for our first week in Geneva.
  • Our neighbors smoke - all our neighbors.
  • The problem is exacerbated by the fact that with no air conditioning (AC is rare in Geneva), we have the windows open a lot.
  • Our three kids (raised with a big yard in the suburbs) are loud.
  • There’s too much trash on the street for it to feel romantically European.
  • Someone has spray painted a four-letter word on the electrical box just outside our apartment. 
  • The six-year-old boys in the neighborhood have pierced ears and we’re afraid Henry’s going to think that’s cool.
These are just a few things that threw us headlong into the Expat Dip. But we’re getting through it. Weekend trips to mountains, picking up a few more words in French every day, the kids making good friends, and me loving my first week in the office are all a part of it. Even the orchid I picked up at Ikea (didn't have to use an allen wrench on it) makes a difference. And I'm surprised at how a couch and DSL exponentially improves our outlook.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Zooo goed!

I'm used to passing good spots back and forth among peers in the States. It's been the same in Europe with one exception: You have to send the translation along.

Here's a Cannes-nominated spot from Marq and Robin, a team I got to work with from Y&R's Amsterdam office. The line at the end says, "Stop using your girlfriend's shampoo."

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Why not own?

This weekend I spoke with someone who’s in Geneva with her family for her second tour of duty (they were here from 1999 – 2002, and returned in 2005.) She works in Geneva, and her children attend Swiss schools, but they live across the border in France.

According to this woman, it’s significantly easier to own in France than it is in Switzerland. For one thing, to buy a place in Switzerland, you’re looking at $1 million for a starter home. That’s with 20% down. That’s just one of the reasons on 2% of the population are homeowners.

Even the wealth Swiss who have this money rarely pay off their mortgage. Because one they do, home ownership catapults them into such a high tax bracket, day-to-day living becomes a lot less fun.

Home ownership in France, however, is much more like the States. 100% financing. No money down. As long as you’re contributing to their economy and not taking jobs away from the French (this woman works in Geneva, remember), they’re happy to help.

I wonder if they have la Fannie Mae and le Freddie Mac.

Monday, July 21, 2008


We left a 1900+ square foot home in a city Money Magazine consistently ranks in the top 5 Best Places to Live, for a 1000 square foot apartment in a city consistently ranked by virtually everyone as one of the most expensive places to live.

While our floor space was cut in half, the rent we pay is virtually twice our mortgage payment. It’s not uncommon in Switzerland for rent to over 1/3 of your income.

Not complaining. Just noting a difference. A really expensive difference.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Transition

Day One, about 8 hours after stepping off the plane (our luggage with the inflatable mats was lost, and wasn't delivered until 10pm that night):

Day Four, after a trip to Ikea:

Day Fourteen, after the missing two pieces from our couch were finally delivered:

Still no TV (need to buy one in PAL format). No rugs. Our art is on slowboat, another 15 - 45 days away. But it's beginning to feel like home.

Thursday, July 17, 2008


At Y&R Chicago, we frequently collaborated with other in-network offices. We helped Y&R Detroit on an assignment for Lincoln. We helped San Francisco with a supermarket and a soda. New York called us up for a number of pitches. Even the Hilton Hotels account was handled by the Irvine office, with Chicago providing all the creative.

So far, it's similar in Geneva. But it's just so much more exciting and foreign to be on the phone, collaborating with a team from Y&R Amsterdam.

Can You Spare Some Change?

I started collecting the 50 States quarters in 2001. Of the 48 states currently in circulation, I have 46. I moved to Switzerland before I found New Mexico. And I just learned that Arizona is in now circulation. I didn't really plan for this, and now I'm paying for my lack of vision. My entire collection is en route via slow boat, so there's no great sense of urgency. But in 30 to 60 days, this mild omission's going to feel like a gaping wound. Can someone please send these to me before the concern starts to interfere with my work?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Tony Challenge

This year, the Y&R network came back from Cannes with 19 Lions. My old Chicago office won two bronze, plus my own shortlisted work. A couple weeks ago, the worldwide CD, Tony Granger sent an email to the network that reads in part:

Our dream is to be consistently ranked in the top three networks.

To give you perspective, BBDO won Network of the Year with 63 Lions: 2 Grand Prix, 16 Gold, 21 Silver, 24 Bronze.

Network Number Two DDB - 49 Lions: 1 Grand Prix, 6 Gold, 18 Silver, 24 Bronze.

Network Number Three Saatchi - 45 total wins: 3 Gold, 13 Silver, 29 Bronze.

As you can see we have a way to go. And today marks the beginning of our push for next year.

We have all inherited a brand that deserves famous work. A brand that has a creative pedigree in its DNA. We are relying on each and every one of you to help make our dream come true. After all, life is too short to be mediocre.

A nice challenge I'll keep in mind. The Geneva office didn't contribute to the network tally. We'll have to remedy that.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Same as it ever was.

My art director (who is Swiss) gave me this comic. He said to get used to it. I took a look and replied, "I already am."

Monday, July 14, 2008

First Day

Today's officially my first day. I've spent the morning working on a small assignment for DuPont.

Went through the expected HR stuff: getting a key, employee manual, evacuation proceedures, etc. Then I was given a large box of chocolates and told that it's an office tradition for a new employee to go around to each work space, introducing myself and offering bon bons. I didn't ask about the protocol for people who aren't in their offices, though. Do I save a chocolate for them? What if they're on vacation? Do I get to eat what's left, or am I supposed to save them for people who forget my name?

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Lakeside Advertising

After Salt Lake City and Chicago, Geneva is the third time I've lived next to a big lake.

Up next: Tahoe, Cleveland, or Irkutsk?

Friday, July 11, 2008


To me, this looks like something something designed by Apple. Or maybe something you'd see in the MoMA. We have two of them in our apartment. They're for flushing the toilets.

I think the big button is for big flushes and the small one is for small flushes, but I haven't broken out the stopwatch for an objective study, yet.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

21st Century Joads

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck is one of only two novels I've ever read more than once. (The other is The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, but I don't have any applications for that in this post.)*

This move to Switzerland had made me feel like the Joad Family. We packed up everything we could hold and sold or gave away the rest. We left in the middle of a recession, and though that wasn't the reason for our move, but it did add to the stress of trying to sell our house in a crushed market. True, British Airways was no jalopy. But flying economy with three toddlers may be the 21st century equivalent.

The closest we got to the jalopy experience was renting a van to carry all of our newly purchased furniture from Ikea to our apartment.

Okay, so the Joad's were a lot worse off than we are. Still, I had to carry all that stuff up four flights of stairs before breaking our the allen wrenches for the weekend.

* Unless you count the fact that my apartment's storage locker is number 42.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Thanks, Chicago

Just a quick thanks to all of my friends at Y&R Chicago, who sent me off in style...with cake! Nothing numbs the pain of having to say goodbye quite like overly-sugared confection.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Shipping Costs

Been in Geneva for a week now, but with no internet access I haven't been posting. Lots to tell. But for now, let me just say this:

A couple posts ago I wrote about the dilemma of bringing annuals and awards with me. I decided to ship a box of my favorite annuals. I'd say it was at least 80 lbs. worth. Which is exactly the amount we were over on our alloted shipping quote, which bumped up our cost by 1000 USD.

So the next time your complaining about the 100 USD a year subscription fee to Communication Arts, just be glad you're not slowboating them to Europe.

(By the way, I'm not trying to be euro-pretentious by writings costs as "USD." I'm using a European keyboard, and the dollar sign has been replaced with this: ç