New York, New York. It’s a place we see out the corner of our eye repeatedly – in the nightly news, in our favourite TV shows and movies and books. Its intricacies have been explored time and time again, by poets and writers, artists and songwriters (you know you want to sing the “New York, New York” song right now).
With so much exposure to New York, it can feel like we already know the city – even if we’ve never been there.
To put this to the test, we asked three Kiwi women currently living in New York – and by all accounts “killing it” – to share their experiences of the city.
What are the unique challenges they face as they pursue their careers in the Big Apple? Is it true, like Jay-Z says in ‘Empire State of Mind’ that if you can make it there you can make it anywhere? Here’s what they had to say.
Beth O’Brien - Associate Creative Director, R/GA New York
A quick run-down on who you are and what you’re doing in New York
I'm an Associate Creative Director at R/GA New York. Every day I take the subway into Manhattan, drop my bag at my desk in the creative department, and aim to create world-class digital ideas for global clients. That's the gist anyway.
In truth every brief I get is so varied, that it can be hard to describe what I do to people who aren't exposed to the industry. Think of it like this: we get given a problem and are tasked to solve it using technology, design, language, culture and technology.
Past work I've done has involved crazy events, building apps, creating entire radio stations, and even helping out with political campaigns.
What drove the move to New York?
I worked really hard in my twenties to end up in a career that reflects what my brain does best. And that came at a price – no big O.E. In 2014 I decided if I didn't give living overseas a go, I'd regret it later.
So when the chance came up to work in NYC, I packed my bags and jumped on a plane. I'd never been to New York before, so I went into the move with no expectations and the promise to myself that if I hated it, New Zealand was “only” a 36-hour flight home.
What’s been the greatest challenge/s so far?
It's a boring answer, but getting set up was by far the toughest challenge. Getting an apartment with no credit score, navigating the bureaucratic nightmare that is the healthcare system, finding friends, missing home. All of that stuff was difficult.
Fast forward a year, and all of that is behind me. Now I'm just another New Yorker who gets annoyed when tourists walk too slowly on the sidewalk.
Have you found any cultural differences in your work environment, compared to New Zealand?
In the New Zealand advertising industry you work hard and you play hard. There's that feeling of 'we're all in this together', like a massive dysfunctional family.
It's a great way to be because our success and failures are celebrated and commiserated together. It's common for the creative department to hang out outside of work and that's a special thing that creates a certain kind of culture, which is just as important as money or title.
New York is a little different, and it’s simply because of population. Over here it's common to have upwards of 600 people in your workplace, and that comes with a different sort of culture. It's not necessarily a bad thing, just a different kind of office cohabitation.
Overall I think it's great because different environments shape you in different ways. It's your job to take from all of those experiences and shape the way you want to be as a leader.
Do you think being a Kiwi has been an advantage here in any way?
Totally. 'Think Different' is an old mantra from the ad industry, and a true one. In some ways, the easiest way to achieve it is to uproot your life and move somewhere else. Bring something different to the culture.
In New Zealand advertising, in particular, budgets are very small. So ideas have to be very, very good. They have to propel themselves into culture on their own merit. There isn't a truckload of money to pay people to get it out there for you.
So you get good at being very cutthroat with ideas and solutions. Over here, a great idea coupled with a budget to match can really effect change in the world.
Has being a woman in your field in New York been any different to being a woman in your field in New Zealand?
Short answer: yes. The most noticeable is that my creative department over here is more balanced when it comes to gender diversity. For example, I've worked in a few agencies in NZ and never worked under a female Creative Director. That's crazy right? At my agency in NYC there are a bunch. That's been fantastic.
Seeing women run creative departments does a lot for your confidence. It also does a lot for the work. When an idea goes out into the big wide world, 50% of the people digesting it are female.
There's actually a well-known stat that 'Women influence 80% of all purchasing decisions.' So when it comes to picking the ideas that get made, it's my opinion that having a gender diverse group doing the choosing certainly matters. So that's been very positive.
Kiwis have a certain perspective of New York – often as the ultimate ‘big city’. Now that you’re here, how would you describe it to Kiwis back home? How is it the same or different to the perspective you had before you arrived?
It's a bit like going to the centre of the world. Everything is here, every culture, every language, every fashion, every celebrity. I walked past Jerry Seinfeld in the East Village a few months ago, then later the day I watched a woman dressed in her Sunday best urinate at the side of a busy road.
New York is like that, high highs and low lows, but always surprising.