An American Abroad in 2016: 8 Lessons I Learned in Lederhosen

In Bavaria, it’s only weird if you don’t wear lederhosen to Oktoberfest. Luckily, I came prepared.

This September I had the opportunity to take part in Jackson Spalding’s PROI Exchange program, a two-week immersive learning experience with our largest PROI Worldwide partner in Germany – fischerAppelt. This was something I had been quietly campaigning for since my first day as an intern almost seven years ago. When I finally got the chance, I planned a jaunt across Western Europe that took me from Atlanta to Berlin to Hamburg to Cologne to Prague to Munich. If it makes you tired just thinking about it, you should have been there (especially on that five-hour bus ride from Prague to Munich when I realized there was no bus restroom).

Hamburg, Germany

The purpose of this exchange was to learn and understand the practical application of public relations in another country, bring those learnings back to Jackson Spalding, and to share “the JS way” with our partner agency. I learned a ton – absolutely. But perhaps the bigger personal learning came through the cultural immersion I experienced as an American embedded in the fast-paced work environment of one of our closest global partners during an uncertain political time.

I had a lot of questions for my colleagues in Germany about the work they do for their clients, how they are innovating, etc., and they had many of the same questions for me. But the most significant learnings came when we peeled back the onion; when we truly got to know one another and mustered the confidence to ask questions that truly matter about day-to-day life in Germany and the U.S., the responsibility we have as communicators during this tense time in the world, and how our work impacts the greater good of our clients and our communities.

Needless to say, there was a lot of get-to-knowing.

Here are my top learnings and highlights from my time abroad:


Learning #1: Always on.
I prepared as much as I could, but I really had to turn on the jets when I arrived in Europe. I (thankfully) built in a buffer weekend to acclimate to the six-hour time change, and when Monday came, I was glad I did. I was on from about 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day for two weeks. Here’s a look at a typical day:

    • 4-5 hours of one-on-one meetings
    • Team lunches and team meetings (in English!)
    • Copy editing for international clients (in English, of course)
    • Capturing key learnings
    • Drive-by conversations about JS and what we do
    • Nightly sightseeing and team happy hours/dinners
    • An overall sense of – I wish I spoke German and hope I don’t get lost on the train.
 
Learning #2: “Digital is everything. Not everything is digital.”
During my first week in Hamburg, we took a day trip to Cologne to attend dmexco – an international expo and conference for digital marketing – where leaders from some of the world’s most recognizable brands shared insights on the future of digital innovation. The resounding takeaway: we’re just beginning to scratch the surface. The 50,000+ conference attendees heard from the top minds of Snapchat, Google, Facebook, Vimeo and scores of digital agencies and brands from around the world. There were a wide range of opinions on what’s next and most critical in digital media (ad-blocking was a big, controversial topic), but the one thing everyone could agree on: the power of data. We were all locked in as presenters answered burning questions: who really owns data, how do brands optimize it, and how do consumers protect it?

 

Learning #3: Changing media landscape – we face the same problems!
As communicators in the U.S., we’ve all had to adapt our craft to the changing media landscape – a sharp decrease in traditional print media and an about-face to understand and embrace content marketing. Germany is facing the same challenge, just not as rapidly. German newspapers still reach an audience of about 70% of the population older than 14 years, according to InterNations. Content marketing, though, is becoming increasingly important for fischerAppelt’s German client base.


Learning #4:  Organized, focused, efficient – the German work environment
Stereotypes of German timeliness and efficiency are 100% accurate from what I witnessed. I was so grateful that the teams I was embedded with hosted several group meetings in English so I could follow along. And you better believe I was on time. A 10 a.m. meeting started right at 10 – free of small talk, to the point, with accountability for every piece of work. Beyond the stereotype, that attention to detail is apparent in every part of German life, and it certainly kept me on my toes. (I want to take this opportunity to thank Teresa Grüne and Annick Eichinger who planned my work schedules during my time in Hamburg and Munich. As you can imagine, they were jam-packed, and I was completely beat at the end of each day.)


Learning #5: Invest in people
At Jackson Spalding, we always say that our people are our biggest asset, and many times they are the reason our clients love working with us. The same goes for fischerAppelt. Like us, they have a young workforce, many of whom started as interns or “trainees.” During their first 18 months, trainees take part in an innovative four-part program called Challenge4. The program is designed to prepare trainees to become full-time consultants. The program consists of four key experiences:

    • On the job – account team immersion
    • Interchange – two 2-week stints on different teams
    • Academies – sets of 3-day training seminars with department leads
    • Coaching Camp – a 15-day business pitch challenge between trainee teams

If someone ever leaves fischerAppelt, they’re coveted in the German marketplace for having experienced this “fischerAppelt school.”


Learning #6: Foster creativity”
We all go through dry patches where the good ideas just aren’t surfacing. One of my favorite spots in the fischerAppelt Munich office was the creativity board, with a wide range of brainstorm techniques to help stir out-of-the-box ideas. My favorite technique was to embody a celebrity and brainstorm as if you were that person. Kanye was the example.


Learning #7: Seek to understand
It goes without saying, but the world has been watching the U.S. in 2016. Throughout my stay in Germany, and as I built relationships with my fischerAppelt colleagues, we had honest conversations about what was happening all over the world, and how that impacted our lives from work to home. Those most talked about topics included:

    • U.S. election
    • Syrian refugee crisis
    • Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)
    • U.S. healthcare system
    • Gun control
    • Cost of college education


Learning #8: fischerAppelt – a true global partner
What impressed me most about fischerAppelt was how globally connected and aware they are. They’re one of the largest agencies within the PROI network, and they regularly work with partner agencies worldwide, bringing their global perspective, creativity and unrivaled work ethic to everything they do. It was truly a pleasure to learn from peers at one of the sharpest creative agencies in the world.

And for a few fun highlights from my time outside of the office:


Highlight #1: Europe’s raw charm
This was my second visit to Germany (the first was a backpacking trip while I was in college). What I remember from that trip and relish in still is the charm and the grit of Europe that makes it such a destination. This was most real in the contrast of my first two nights in Hamburg. Night 1 – a lovely boat cruise along the Elbe River. Night 2 – a sightseeing tour of the Reeperbahn, Hamburg’s version of a red light district.

That was cultural immersion.


Highlight #2: Work hard, play hard
One time I went to Oktoberfest in Helen, Georgia. This year I got to go to Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany. I don’t even need to explain the difference.


Highlight #3: Football is life
Exhibit A.


Highlight #4:  Carbs!
So. Many. Carbs.

I owe a huge Thank You to everyone at fischerAppelt in Hamburg and Munich who took the time to meet with me – both inside and outside of the office – as we found the common ground within our profession and between one another.