Bridging the East-West gap through travel

22 Mar 2023 | Author: Victoria Powell

Experience helps us promote understanding and tolerance, which in turn brings cultures closer.

As a global communications agency, Redhill has cornered the niche in the market of bridging the Asia to Europe (and Asia to US) divide. This isn’t a common area of expertise that agencies offer and we talk to clients all the time about navigating this cultural divide. We often get clients that are based in Germany and who want to get insight on and expand into Singapore or other parts of Asia.

With local teams in both regions, there’s always an expert to help navigate the landscape on either side. But there’s nothing like first-hand experience, and as soon as I heard about Redhill’s Live and Learn Immersion Programme, I knew that it’d be the perfect opportunity for me to get just that.

There were a few reasons why I wanted to join this programme. I wanted to connect more with the teams in Asia, who sometimes felt a world away (what an impact a six-hour time difference makes!), as well as to better understand what exactly clients are looking for in that part of the world.

First, I had to get approved for a spot. One video (featuring several costume changes) and a personal essay (which laminated my dread for the impending grey of Berlin winters) later, my application to spend a month in Bangkok, Thailand was accepted.

I was about to find out what it was like to cross the bridge. Bangkok, here I come!

First impressions

After a 17-hour flight, I touched down at the airport and my first thought was how busy it all was…that, and that it felt like I was walking to the other end of the earth to get from my gate to immigration. Airports are busy, bustling buildings – this is well known – but I felt a buzzing energy that I hadn’t felt anywhere else before.

This feeling only intensified once I stepped outside and immediately started sweating. With people everywhere, cars everywhere and whistles blowing everywhere, I didn’t know where to look or what to listen to. I later realised this was a common feeling I’d experience in Bangkok. With so much going on, I often felt there was a sensory overload. In fact, it took me weeks to notice massive billboards or certain shops because there was so much else to look at.

Bright lights permeate Bangkok’s night life

One thing that consumed a lot of my attention was the food. It quickly became apparent that unlike in Germany or the UK, life revolves around food in Bangkok. Food is a big part of every country’s culture, but this was on another level. There were street vendors taking up the pavements selling chicken, fish, noodles, curries and even grasshoppers. You name it, they had it!

There were vending machines that created Oreo smoothies for you (a fantastic discovery that quickly became my new favourite thing) and robots that would deliver food to you in restaurants. Every meal I had was different, an explosion of flavours I’d never had before.

I’d also often find that whilst some flavours were familiar, each was as though on steroids – the coffees were so sweet I thought I was drinking spoons of pure sugar, and most dishes were so spicy I finished with a red face, runny nose and tears rolling down my cheeks, much to the amusement of my local team members. I very quickly learned to ask for the “tourist version”. Every food experience was an adventure, one which locals take immense pride in – and rightfully so.

A culture of giving

Coming from the two most stereotypically emotionally conservative cultures, I was continuously blown away by the generosity and care of the people in Bangkok. It was obvious in even just the little things, from everyone wearing masks on the streets despite no mask mandates, to giving money to beggars, to sharing food.

I found that this principle of giving was highly valued and appreciated – extending beyond even personal interactions into business interactions. For instance, in Redhill’s Bangkok office, I found that there were massive boxes hidden under desks and in the corners of the rooms. These boxes contained items for journalist gift baskets, thoughtfully handpicked by Redhill’s Thai team to reflect their clients.

All smiles with the Bangkok Team

This is just one of the many ways culture impacts interactions. Within the German team, we’ve always talked about the different journalist expectations between the West and the East. However, you only understand just how different it is and why it matters when you witness things like these firsthand.

As an example, our colleagues in Asia often tell us in Germany to just ‘call the journalist’. This always makes us laugh because we know full well that a) the journalist won’t pick up, and b) it’s usually a direct route to getting both your and your agency’s names on a blacklist. But when I was in Thailand, I immediately understood why we were being told to do this – because here, a phone call is the only way to build a relationship with journalists. No second thoughts about it.

These might seem like small things, but difference can translate into bigger actions. In Germany, we can’t even buy a journalist a coffee because it might be seen as a form of bribery. However, in Thailand, I learned that gift-giving is seen as a sign of respect. Journalist gifts aren’t just given to promote client events or a new media angle – they’re also sent to celebrate just about any special day, ranging from national holidays to a journalist’s birthday or their first day on the job.

A more united environment

When a global company grows as quickly as Redhill has, building and maintaining relationships between the different offices can often fall to the wayside and be neglected. Focused on our own regions and clients, we can get stuck in the patterns of how things are typically done where we are because there is little cause to do things differently.

Being sat in Germany, I’ve often felt that we exist in our own little bubble, only working with other teams on occasional clients. Consequently, I’d never worked directly with the Thai team before. Through this programme, I learned a lot about the nuanced differences in PR between Thailand and Germany, as well as the struggles that the team faced with media and clients in Thailand. Overall, I felt that my relationship with the Thai team became a lot deeper.

There will always be cultural differences – the running joke in the office while I was in Bangkok was that I would walk everywhere in the city, which is highly unusual there as everyone either gets public transport or taxis – but there are so many similarities that tie us together within the same company. Recognising and appreciating this opens the door to being more receptive to new ideas, new structures and how other places do things.

Initiatives like Redhill’s Live and Learn Immersion Programme can have such a significant impact on the cohesion within a company, ultimately making us all both stronger teams globally and regionally. It can inspire creativity, flexibility and maybe even a little boundary-pushing to always go above and beyond – both for the company, and most importantly, for our clients.

TOPIC(S) : Communications Culture