Relocating to London: a media ad exec’s experience

On May 28, 2012 a routine Delta Air Lines flight from Minneapolis touched down in London’s Heathrow airport, ushering a new beginning for (at least) one passenger on board.

My arrival to London not only marked a new beginning for my personal and professional lives, but also drew a line under a two year effort to make the dream of work abroad a reality. Since I began my expat existence, I’ve received numerous emails from current and former coworkers and friends asking for advise on all aspects of relocation – from visas to weather, and everything in between. While I greatly enjoy answering each and every one of those emails, I do feel that in repeating myself, I start to gloss over some of the details which may actually prove to be interesting to those who are just starting their foray into the relocation experience.

This blog entry will aim to provide a comprehensive recap of my experience. I thought about making this into more of an advice (do this, not that) column, but I realize that everyone’s experience is unique and the circumstances which eventually get them abroad may differ significantly form mine. Therefore, please treat this as one person’s account, rather than a rule book to follow.

If I did have one broad advice to give, it would be that you should not give up. It is, at times, a frustrating journey, but the payoff is worth it for many reasons. So push on and make your dream come true!


From the moment I graduated from university and moved to New York, I knew I wanted to work abroad. It was one of the main drivers behind going to work for a global ad agency and staying there for quite a few years. Therefore, I can honestly say that the desire was there from the start.

I came to realize fairly early on in my career that in the transient world of advertising and media, connections and good relations matter as much as a good reputation and work ethic. I believed that mine was a longer-term goal, and one that required me to invest time and effort before I could reap the benefits. Therefore, when choices to move companies presented themselves, I opted to stay with my agency – I believed that this loyalty, along with the power networks and the reputation I built up would pay off in the end.

Ultimately, I needed to let those whose support I counted on know that I saw a stint abroad as part of my career progression. By the time the conversation about my relocation became a very real one, everyone who mattered pretty much knew that this was something I wanted, so there wasn’t an element of surprise or shock. I think that if I sprung this onto senior managment last minute, I would not have received the support I ended up getting. Agencies, and their clients, don’t like disruptions in account team structurs. They also don’t like spending money on recruitment fees to bring in replacement talent, so the earlier you start this dialog, the better, in my opinion.


One question that every foreign agency asks is why they should spend money, time and most importantly their precious visa quotas to bring someone in from abroad. It’s a valid question, and one that demands an answer that is grounded in more than just ambition.

In my case, I was working on a global client and already had an extensive relationship with our London office. When an opportunity in the UK opened up, it was for a similar type role that demanded someone who knew how to handle multi-market coordination, and who could start fairly quickly without needing to ramp up. I had the experience of working in a similar account structure, and also had the requisite relationships with our global outposts to take on the challenge.

I think that if I didn’t have this type of experience, or something relevant to point to, it would be tough to justify for the local office to justify the hassle.

Another thing that I believe is truly necessary is to have some strong expertise in something. The funny thing about the US is that it is, by far, the leading market in terms of ad/media tech innovations and people who work on the agency side there are spoiled with access to resources and information – something the rest of the world sorely misses out on. Therefore, there is quite a bit of demand for US talent that actually has something to bring to the table in another market. But don’t be fooled – media folks in other markets are savvy and can read through the BS. So, pitch yourself as someone who has a leg up on the competition, even at home, and chances are, it’s going to set you aside from the domestic competition in the local market.


Probably the funnest and most frustrating element of relocation. I knew that I wanted to leave New York, and if I had my way, I would have moved to Sydney before any other place. London did seem like the easiest place to move to, in terms of international locales, for obvious reasons. It’s also the ad and media hub of EMEA (Europe Middle East and Africa), so it enjoys the scale of servicing many markets and getting significant international budgets from clients. From a career progression standpoint, London was going to win over Sydney, which, despite its coolness factor, serves a very small and isolated Australian market.

I think the key thing is to keep a somewhat open mind and to be prepared to compromise, knowing that your perception of a particular place from visits as a tourist/student may differ greatly from actually living there as a working adult. This was the case for me when Australia did not materialize. The reason for this was that agencies there did not want to go through the ordeal of sponsoring me, though they claimed to be interested in bringing me on board. A useful note is that these were not agencies that were part of my company’s network, so I would have been a new hire for them.

When the call from our UK office came and we started talking about the finer details, like visas, it turned out that the process was a lot simpler when transfering through the same company. The UK has a special visa that allows multinationals to transfer their staff around for fixed term placements. It’s called the Intercompany Transfer Visa (ICT), which is a special variant of the Tier-2 visa. This visa does not have as strict of a requirement and does not have a quota against it, unlike a general Tier-2 (or Tier-1) visa. The downside is that after a maximum of five years, you have to leave the UK as a worker and not return in this capacity for at least a year.

So, while London was not my top choice, it was on my list and, after quickly weighing the pros and cons of waiting for Australia (who knows how long that could have taken) or moving to London now, I opted for door number two. In retrospect, it was one of the best decisions I made in my life which goes to show that you can’t always predict what will happen and just have to trust that you will make the best of it.

I think making a list with at least 3-4 locations that you truly would like (or at least wouldn’t mind) moving to. And if one of these presents itself as a more immediate opportunity, it makes sense to be real with yourself about the feasibility of going after your top choice versus seizing on the one at hand.


Oh man, everyone who has gone through this process (at least in the UK) has told me a story similar to my own. It took a long time, seemingly forever! From the time I started the conversation in January to the time I walked on English soil in late May, nearly five and a half months elapsed. I warn you, just like I was warned myself, that the wait is by far the most frustrating process and it’s one that is largely out of your hands. Having patience, and as much humor as you can muster, is important.

The reason it takes this long is multi-fold:
– You have two HR departments involved. One is trying to hire you (they actually have to hire you and not just “transfer” you) while the other is trying to move you off their roster and P&L.
– Unfortunately, the communication between HR groups is non-existent, so you serve as a conduit, and things can take weeks to get resolved.
– It can take a long time for your new contract to be drawn up. Add more weeks if the terms you agreed on aren’t reflected in it and you have to go back for revisions.
– Finance department of the agency bringing you on board can take ages to green-light the expenses associated with the transfer.
– Immigration lawyers get hired, and they take some time (a week at least) to draw up the necessary forms.
– Once you get all the paperwork in place and submit it to the UK Embassy, a good three months could go by.
– The wait for the visa itself can last up to a month (or longer!)

Once you finally get a visa, there is a mad rush to actually make the move. In my experience, my company was reluctant to buy my plane ticket till the visa was in hand (understandable). The result of this wait was the drastically escalated price of the ticket, which prompted another delay, while Finance re-approved the new cost. This shoulnd’t really be something most people have to encounter if they’re being moved, but depending on the terms of your relo package, you may have to foot the difference in price, even if it’s not your fault that the ticket price increased.

Speaking of which…


This is an important one as it can make your life easier or harder, depending on what you get. Remember this: you won’t get if you don’t ask, so ask for more and be prepared to negotiate down.

The more senior you are (and the more the move is driven by your company’s need and desire), the more leverage you have in negotiating a good package. In my case, I was moving across in a middle management position so I was able to secure a fairly basic relo allowance that consisted of airfare, two weeks worth of housing and visa support. I did, however, ask for a month of housing and an annual return flight home, knowing that I would have to compromise down.

Hearing from other people, it sounds like they either got nothing except the flight + visa or they were able to get much better packages, which included a month or more of housing.

Housing, above all else, is probably the most important thing to try and get. It gives you a bit of breathing room to find a more permanent place to live. You can’t underestimate how crazy your life will be in the weeks leading to the move and the several months after, especially considering that your new work will expect you to hit the ground running after all this time trying to get you over.


So once you finally move, there are a ton of things that will hit you like a brick and that you’ll have to deal with. The specifics will depend on the country you have chosen to move to, so I will speak from my UK experience.

1. The first thing I got was a mobile number. I brought my iPhone over from the States, which was thankfully unlocked, so all I had to do was get a Pay Monthly SIM, which was SO much cheaper than in the US (£15/month for unlimited data, 300 min and 3,000 texts). No contract was needed.

2. The job itself started the next day after the move. Thankfully, my colleagues and management were very understanding of the complexities that come with the move and that in some instances I needed more time to sort things out at home. Establishing what is and isn’t allowed, and getting that flexibility will go a long way toward reducing your stress level.

3. Apartment hunting was something that really couldn’t wait. You can do a lot of research online prior to moving to the UK using sites like Rightmove and Zoopla and get an idea of which neighborhoods offer what. I had a price in mind, but the confusing thing was that the Brits price their rent payments on weekly rather than monthly basis, so a bit of math was needed.

If you don’t have a lot of time to spare, as was the case with me, then hiring a real estate agent is a necessary evil. There are many of them, but Foxtons was the company I employed and they helped me get a place in the time I needed. While more expensive than others, they do have a good sized portfolio of apartments and, in the end, still come out to be cheaper than brokers in the US. I paid about £430 for their services.

Note that if you sign an annual contract with your landlord, you can usually break it penalty-free after six months. Also note that most apartments are rented by private owners as there is not really a concept of buildings being built for rental properties. You may deal with a landlord directly or through an estate company, but it will be a private owner.

4. Healthcare is a confusing topic for Americans as it is completely different in the UK. You first have to apply for a National Insurance Number (NIN), which then enables you to apply for National Health Service (NHS), which is their public insurance scheme. Even if you managed to get private insurance through your employer (likely through Bupa), you still should get NHS.

Getting NIN is easy enough – just call Jobcentre Plus to register and they’ll send you your number. After you have it, you can find your local NHS clinic, schedule an appointment and register for NHS there.

5. Council tax is another foreign concept that really sucks. It’s basically a tax that is charged by whatever borough you live in and is calculated using a whole bunch of variables, such as the type of the building, the number of people who live in your flat, etc. I moved twice in London, and my council tax varied from £60/month to nearly £100/month. The annoying bit is that you have to pay it from your post-tax salary.

6. TV license is another “tax” that you pay after you get your paycheck. It gives you permission to watch over-the-air programming (mainly, the BBC). Even if you don’t have a TV and only watch the BBC online, you are still required by law to pay this fee. It’s about £12/month and something you have to register for.

7. Driver’s license is a fairly difficult thing to get in the UK. As an American citizen, you’re allowed to drive with your U.S. license for a year. Afterwards, you do need to get a UK permit. Note that pay-by-the-hour rental car companies, like Zipcar, are available here but you need a UK driver’s license to register. However, if you have registered for Zipcar in the US before moving, you can use their service without a problem here and don’t need a local permit.

8. How could I forget the bank account saga. Before moving, this may have been the thing that stressed me out the most, as the money laundering laws in the UK make it very difficult to open a bank account for expats. There was nothing but scaremongering going on in online forums, and I was prepared for a lenghty process. In reality, it was simple enough. HSBC only needed a form from my HR guaranteeing my salary to open a checking (current) account. The whole thing took a day and I was set. This is probably true for most major employers, but may not be so for start ups, so do check.

Getting a credit card was more difficult. I needed to wait six months from the time I opened a bank account to get a basic card from HSBC and another year to get a non-basic Amex card. Your credit history does not transfer from the US, so you’re starting from scratch here.

9. Don’t forget that when you travel back to the U.S., you will be un-insured. It was something I realized only after a couple of trips back, when I got the flu and remembered that I no longer had U.S. coverage. NHS doesn’t cover international medical care, so you need to get private travel insurance. It’s not expensive, but just something you need to do.

10. Get out and meet people and say yes to everything. I had a ton of friends in the US and knew everyone in media. Not so here, in London, so you feel like you’re starting fresh and it can be daunting and exciting at the same time. If you put in the effort, you will get a lot of satisfaction from new friendships and experiences. Work will also be a challenge for a host of reasons you didn’t expect, so dive right in.

What else?

Well, the weather is something people wonder about. Generally, it’s more temperate than in the States. It does rain a fair bit, but the winters are warmer (about 45 F) and it rarely snows. The summers can get warm, but are generally cooler than in the states, with the average temperature in the high 60s or low 70s. In 2012, there was not a lot of sunshine in the summer months, whereas in 2013 we had a very good summer, so I can’t say definititively.

When it’s warm and sunny, London is the nicest city in the world to be in. There are a lot of parks and you can spend days on end outdoors. It’s easy to get to anywhere in Britain by train, if you fancy hiking or biking or other activities.

It does get dark early in the winter, but just enjoy the museums, theater, etc. after you get off work. And remember, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece are only 2 hours away by easyJet!

Moving to the fringes

On June 23rd, a small majority of Brits voted to leave the European Union, marking a deflating end to four decades of the UK in the European project.

To me, a student of history, and of European history in particular, and of someone who lived in the United Kingdom for three years as recently as 2015, this represents a triumph of all things that incrementally added up over the years to produce an environment of division and fear, much of it created in people’s heads by opportunists and the media that is incapable of monitoring itself.

I moved to London in 2012, on the eve of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics. Britain truly felt like it was the center of the world then. It was coming out of the recession quicker and stronger than most predicted. It enjoyed the status of a global financial powerhouse. Its athletes were competing, and winning, at home (Wimbledon, Olympics) and abroad (Tour de France). Its monarchy was rejuvenated by the dynamic princes William and Harry, and the captivating Kate. The sense of British identity was strong, you felt like you were constantly at a tea party hosted by Stephen Fry on the lawn of Buckingham Palace.

How is it, then, that in just four short years, the UK could go from being the center of Europe to voting itself out of the very union that propelled them to the world stage after decades of post-war stagnation? How is it that people who, seemingly, were better off than 99% of the rest of the world, in terms of standards of living, decided that they were better alone? How could a society of children and grand children of Churchill’s generation so soon forget that the very divisions that can be created by unions splintering and countries retreating behind their borders caused history’s deepest crises that tore not only the European continent, but the rest of the world apart?

My mind travels back to December 2010, when a fruit vendor in Tunisia set himself on fire as a protest to the country’s authoritarian regime. The Jasmine revolution, as it was called at the time, sparked a domino effect that took over the entire region and led to the collapse of Egyptian and Libyan governments, and shaking Syria to its core. The West’s decision to largely stand by and watch events unfold allowed the new forces to take hold and instill the belief among Arabs that changes were afoot. As we know now, these changes were largely negative as these revolutions created a fertile ground for the rise of Isis and gave Bashar al Assad’s government a reason to bomb his own people to protect his rule. Consequently, this weakness on the part of the West led to the refugee epidemic that swept over Southern Europe last year, which was already battered by the recession of 2008 and unable to cope effectively.

Observing from afar, it is easy to latch on to the words of armchair quarterbacks like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who called the EU weak and incompetent, unable to effectively deal with threats at its borders, because it had to answer to governments of 28 member states.

The gut feeling that Europe’s financial woes were also largely self-inflicted through incompetence, and that richer countries (UK, Germany) had to constantly pay to bail out poor countries also felt right.

Open borders between member states and movement of its people, the hallmark of the European project, all of the sudden seemed like a dangerous proposition. Forget the Poles and the Hungarians who, supposedly, flooded the country. Barbarians were at the proverbial gates! Scenes of refugees in Calais, outside the Channel Tunnel, spooked the public. Terrorist attacks in French and Belgian capitals made it even easier to blame the refugees who were piling onto the continent in record numbers (never mind that these attacks were carried out by homegrown terrorists, much like the attacks in London in 2005).

The accelerating pace of news coverage, and the ability to self select who one could listen to, created an ever-sharper divide in a country that was, in effect a federation of quasi-independent nations. The Scottish referendum showed just how much division there already was and how real their departure from the Kingdom could be.

Of course, the real divide was between the haves and the have nots. This divide, just like in America, affected those who relied on Britain’s traditional economic strengths that went out of vogue roughly at the same time as the European Union was spinning up. Auto manufacturing, steel works and other examples of heavy industry were shuttering and shifting overseas.

In business, we often talk about correlation vs. causation and being careful to distinguish between the two. Correlation is an observation of two trends, which sometimes neatly fit into a hypothesis you have (i.e. I started wearing a suit to work and my career took off, therefore I am proof that dressing for the job you want, rather than the job you have is a real thing). It’s often very easy to point to these trends and use them to explain outcomes. And many people will agree, because it fits into the same stereotypes they have.

Causation, however, is a much trickier animal and requires proof that an action produced a reaction. While correlation is the occupation of the chattering classes and opportunist politicians, causation is the domain of scientists, statisticians and economists who bristle at the idea of oversimplified solutions. The problem is that in the first group, you have the poisonous mix of those who benefit from shouting and those who are ready and willing to accept the shouting. The causation group ends up arguing with itself and its voices are rarely heard. Compare this interview with Leave’s leader Boris Johnson to this nuanced argument by an EU scholar. One is laden with repetitive hyperbole, the other is rich in facts and logic. And yet…

And yet, nearly 52% of the UK voting public decided that immigration, economy and security were issues that were, somehow, made worse by the country’s participation in the European Union. That leaving the world’s biggest single market was going to make the UK a stronger economy. That regaining control of its borders (which were already protected more than others’, due to geography) was going to protect it from terrorism that, as we know, has been largely a domestic issue. That European immigration into the UK was, somehow, the root of why the jobs that used to exist in Britain of the 1970s were no longer available to them. Nevermind that almost the same number of Brits worked elsewhere in the EU, the perception was that Britain was being robbed of its economic opportunity by Europeans arriving from the fringes of the ever-expanding union, taking jobs that were previously reserved for the English and the Welsh, and changing the make up of society and culture.

Nevermind that after World War 2, thousands of people from the further reaches of the Empire were invited to a war-torn Britain to help rebuild. Nevermind that these people settled in English, Welsh and Scottish towns and never moved back. Nevermind that people continued to arrive from Pakistan, India, Russia, the Arab countries – places that have nothing to do with the EU. They created communities that have contributed to the evolution of what it means to be British. Just a few months ago, Londoners elected the son of a Pakistani immigrant as their mayor. That, after having the Etonian Boris Johnson as a two-term leader of the world’s most global city. The same Boris Johnson who, for most of his political life, advocated staying in the EU, now became the mouthpiece for the Leave campaign.

I see the result of this referendum as the perfect storm of soundbite-driven media, opportunistic politicians, an electorate that is poorly informed (or informed by means of media they self select), and the overall air of fear that permeates our relatively mundane lives. During the cold war, we feared a nuclear war. But people didn’t fear it every day, in the same way people fear terrorism in music halls, movie theaters or shopping centers. This fear is much more personal and much scarier. It’s a one-on-one fear that has no name or face, but has a stereotype attached to it. And, unfortunately, when people turn on the TV and see who was responsible for the most recent attack, and then they look at those who are arriving into their country, they correlate and stoke even more fear in their own minds.

I think the British public fell victim to overstated fears that were enhanced by the likes of Johnson, Nigel Farage and others who sensed a once in a lifetime opportunity to accomplish their individual objectives. I am sure that BoJo’s objectives were very different from Farages and this alliance smells of a devil’s pact. Either way, they were effective in delivering a message that was helped by circumstances of the preceding months.

We don’t have to look far to see parallels of this. Trump’s rhetoric in the US tugs on the same strings of fear, just in a cruder, more open way. The same is happening across the Western world.

My final thought goes back to the beginning of this essay – seemingly unrelated events, through time, become interconnected. Not through consequences of actions, but through laziness of the human psyche. Correlation is a strong force and must be considered. It is no longer wise to assume that people will take the time to understand the truth when it is so much more convenient to hear things that fit into their pre-existing narrative.

And so, with a bit of a whimper, Britain is moving to the fringes of Western Europe and into an era of uncertainty. I am sure it will do OK in the long term, but looking back at history, many countries who are now OK, took quite an unpleasant route that could have been avoided. I fear that for Britain, and for the rest of Europe, the following years will be a scenic route they wished they never took.

Why do we still tip?

*warning: this is a bit of a rambling blog and I don’t intend to have a definitive answer to the problem I discuss.

Tipping in America has reached a weird level. Perhaps, when you know no other setup, it seems normal to tip regardless of the level of service or to start tipping for things that weren’t normally meant to be tipped for (like hailing an Uber). From time to time, mainstream news publications rally behind a service industry worker who was apparently slighted by a jerk-off customer. The most recent example – the “LOL” tip – is gathering the scorn of the Twitteratti.

Obviously, the big difference in the tipping culture between the U.S. and the rest of the world is that here, waiters and waitresses do not make a minimum wage salary. Instead, the majority of their income is derived from tips. It is strange, though, that for as much noise and complaining that this setup seems to create, that nothing has been done in decades to change this. At the end of the day, what difference do I, the customer, experience, if I pay a tip or the salary is baked into my final bill?

It stands to reason that the upside of being tipped more than 15% is much more attractive and commonplace than the occasional downside of receiving a LOL. The inherent risk of a small tip is definitely there and puts more of an onus on the wait staff to do a good job, however it should not come as totally unexpected that sometimes you will fail at delivering a good service and your tip might be reduced or zeroed out.

Tips are meant to reward good service, really. Giving someone something on top of the bill is meant as a recognition of a job well done, of going above and beyond, and of knowing that even a small amount of money will make a difference. But in the States, this is not how we behave. Instead, sub-mediocre service is, somehow, still entitled to at least a 15% tip. And that number has been creeping up. Now you routinely see automated tipping options of 18 and even 20% as the lowest amount. This culture of tipping, and tipping more, is weirdly bemusing and infuriating. No longer can you reward good service with a tip of 20% – a fifth of the total bill. You now have to strive for 25 or 30% in order to show gratitude, and that is a lot of money.

There is also an accepted practice of tipping in advance to buy good service (mostly at bars and clubs), which is really akin to bribing. It basically asks for service that you should expect to receive normally, but your extra $20 up front ensures that you get to skip an invisible line and to feel special. And this is not a substitute for tipping in the end either.

Why are we so addicted to tipping and why do we constantly try to find new ways to tip? Is it because of the growing schism in our society? Is it because so many of us have gone through the service industry ourselves on the way to starting our careers elsewhere? We seem to be painfully aware of how little the food and beverage industry pays and we try to compensate on individual basis by tipping and over-tipping. Does it make us feel good about ourselves?

In Europe, where restaurant and bar staff are paid a living wage, tipping is in place to reward truly good service. By my observation, the service levels on average are worse there than they are in the US, but not to the point where it’s worth paying 20-30% of the bill to improve. It makes it very easy to decide how to tip: if the service exceeded your expectations, you tip. If it exceeded your expectations by a lot, you tip more. But you don’t have to face the moral quandary of feeling like you need to tip even when the staff or the restaurant didn’t meet the basic expectations.

Maybe a better way to handle issues is to ask the manager to come over and complain to them that you had a crappy experience and to seek the reduction of the overall bill. In this case, the customer needs to separate the server and the restaurant as two different entities who provide two very different and unrelated services. If the food was great, but the service so-so, then the waiter gets a small tip (or not one at all). But if the waiter tried his or her best to manage your expectations while the kitchen struggled to get your order right, you as a customer should seek a reduced bill while leaving the server’s tip intact.

Usually, as has been my experience, the two services are tightly interlinked and when one fails, the other does too. It becomes easy for the customer to exact revenge through a small tip, but it doesn’t spread the punishment around equally. Again, this is the flaw in the U.S.-style tipping system that, more often than not, provides a greater upside to the workers than a salaried structure would.