The highs, lows and hitches of being a marketer abroad

What’s it really like to uproot and take a role in another territory? Head of customer strategy and development for Telefonica UK Jonathan Earle gives the lowdown on how he found the experience when appointed CMO for Telefonica in Slovakia.

Jonathan Earl

When Telefonica offered me the chance to run marketing in one of its Central European companies, I felt it was too good an opportunity to turn down. Apart from being a great job, I felt it would also be challenging personally.

It’s a situation many marketers have faced. These are the challenges I came across.

Ignoring the fact I didn’t know anyone in the country (none of my friends/ family had been to Slovakia before), I didn’t know the language, I was on my own (my family stayed in the UK and I commuted back and forth every week), and I didn’t even know how to drive on the other side of the road, at the beginning of 2012 I arrived for my two-year assignment in Slovakia. Ignoring the fact that it was minus five degrees centigrade outside, I was ready!

I had taken some limited advice before I went, speaking to someone who had spent seven years in the Czech Republic and her advice was that the Slovak people would be wary of some guy from the UK arriving. “Take your time, enjoy the experience and just accept Bratislava isn’t Wimbledon,” were her wise words.

The hardest thing I found was being alone. My family had come out to look at properties and schools with me but we felt that two years just wasn’t long enough to start somewhere new and so agreed that my wife and children would stay back in their UK while I commuted every week. That part is not as bad as it sounds as you get into a routine, although you do get to see more of British Airways than you may care to.

Originally, my contract was to go out on a Sunday and come back on a Thursday and work from the UK on a Friday. This was a big mistake: I would go upstairs on a Sunday afternoon, change and suddenly the atmosphere in my home would alter. My kids would be much quieter and my wife would busy herself somewhere else in the house. At the start there were tears (some of them mine). I quickly changed my plans and went out on a Monday and returned on a Friday. That worked
a lot better with family life.

As I was living alone in Slovakia, the last thing I wanted was to furnish an apartment but finding a flat fully furnished was hard. It meant spending a lot of time with the agent finding me a property.

I also wanted some things to remind me of home, and so worked out ways of getting UK radio stations, Sky Sports and the BBC in my flat. You don’t know how great it is to listen to Christian O’Connell in the morning and watch Arsenal matches at night. This can be expensive but it was worth every penny to me.

With hindsight, I should also have taken full advantage of the cultural lessons on offer before I arrived. It would have given me more confidence and also the knowledge that the best way of getting to know Slovaks is going out for a ‘pivo’ – a beer. Drinking is a very important part of the culture and one of the mistakes I made at the start was to distance myself from this. I did make up for it later, although I wouldn’t recommend drinking frozen slivovitz (plum brandy), unless sitting down.

Working abroad is a challenge (one of the reasons I accepted the offer) and you need to adapt. You also need a very understanding partner to support you. Don’t ever forget the issues they will be facing and try to ensure that there is quality time planned and you over-index here.

And as my friend advised: embrace the country and just accept it isn’t home. I learned a lot about myself and loved every second of my time abroad. It’s an experience I’d recommend.

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