At Victoria tube station this afternoon a German tourist asked me for directions to Green Park. I stopped for a brief moment, permutated the options and then delivered flawless directions for her to locate the north bound platform of the Victoria line and take it the one stop to her destination. It’s actually the second time in a week I’ve pulled this feat off. The other being bus direction (yes, bus!) to Royal Albert Hall. It may sound like no big deal, but I’m directionally challenged. I still get lost on a regular basis in my hometown of New York City, and I lived there for over 30-years! I jokingly tell people that I fell in love with Toronto (my adopted hometown) the day I discovered Yonge Street. Because as any Torontonian will tell you, if you can find your way to Yonge Street you’re never really lost.
Knowing your way around a city is indicative of both your confidence in that city, and of your place in it. A “sense of direction” that serves as a fitting metaphor for this post.
A few days ago I passed the 6-month mark of living here in London with barely any notice. But it is a notable milestone because I barely lasted 6-months the first time I attempted to live here in 2012. Back then, despite my lifelong “romance” with the city, and having spent long stretches of time here throughout my life, London overwhelmed and suffocated me. I was very ill at the time — but that’s another post — and could probably blame at least half of my anxiety, depression and exhaustion on that, but the fact is, back then, as is the case with a lot of romances, I found that London and I couldn’t hack living together 24/7 after decades of long distance dating. I crashed and burned and ran back to my Canadian comfort zone as fast as Air Canada would take me.
To be sure, this is a TOUGH city. It’s too big, too crowded, too noisy, too messy…just TOO everything! No matter how many times you’ve visited London, or how much advanced planning you’ve done, NOTHING prepares you for living in London except….living in London. The dynamic of being a resident, of accepting the city on its terms and having it accept you back, is a daunting challenge. London will not only test the boundaries of your comfort zones, it will obliterate them. But given time (and effort), it will reshape and rebuild them. London is not for sissies! This city chewed me up and spit me out in 2012, but it also taught me an invaluable lesson. It taught me that being prepared is not just about research, planning and a check list. It’s about attitude, resilience and adaptability.
It’s about knowing who you are. This city knows what its about. In fact, it’s the inherent nature of Europe as a whole. Europe has an enviable sense of self and self-worth, and it’s unimpressed, unfazed and undeterred by outside influences and intrusions. Whereas North America heralds its stature by boisterously celebrating hundreds of years of history (the US turns 238 this year, and Canada a ripe old 147), Europe takes a more subdued satisfaction in a history that dates back several millennium. The US has an almost frenzied need to assert its cultural relevance (often to its own detriment) whereas the UK operates under a confident air of individuality — we don’t follow trends, we set them — supported by a cultural bedrock that over 33 million people flocked to visit last year.
For me, finding direction in London has been about more than just mastering mass transit and knowing where to find the best coffee or cocktail — not that those aren’t crucially important life skills 😉 — it has been about examining my life and honestly confronting my personal and professional successes and failures. As I barrel ever closer to a staggering age milestone, I’ve reflected in these past six months about what my next steps are, and what legacy I am building. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I am not married with kids, though I remain open to the idea of at least the former, because while I am alone, I am not lonely. A huge distinction that is often difficult for others to process because of their need to validate their own life decisions by criticising yours. I know who I am, and I know what’s (and who’s) important to me.
I’ve also subjected myself to an objective career assessment. I came into the PR industry in an era when everything was about media relations, at least at the firms where I was employed. They, and I, were good at what we did. But media relations can often become a vacuum for PR professionals, and it’s one that can often marginalise and stigmatise them in today’s fast-paced world of integrated marketing. For me there was always a vague feeling of disconnect between what I was doing, promoting an isolated snapshot moment, and what I felt I was meant to be doing, which was helping clients see a bigger picture — drawing it for them if necessary.
In 1992 the company I was then working for was purchased by one of the leading independent public relations firms in the world. Cue the trumpets blaring as the doors and windows in my professional life were flung open to the concepts of brand strategy and reputation management. While many of my colleagues stayed within the safe confines of the media department, a few of us who were adventuresome and lucky enough took the opportunity to interact with our corporate colleagues and were given the chance to work on some amazing and complex campaigns and see firsthand how the sum of all parts came together. When I left in 2001 to open my own firm in Canada I took that experience with me and added to it a growing knowledge of the often complex cultural subtleties of branding on a global level. Still, I found it hard to resist the lure and the ease of media for delivering messages, I took on a business partner who found it even easier to do so, and before I knew it I was back doing what I did in NY. And while I don’t regret that period in my professional life, I did some really good work and really broadened my client scope, it wasn’t sustainable for me, and in 2011 my partner and I dissolved the company and went our separate ways.
I won’t bore any of you who might actually still be reading with a chronicle of all the personal and professional ups/downs, starts/stops of the nearly three years that have elapsed since. Suffice it to say that, just like mastering the intricate grid of the city of London, it’s all a work in progress. But as I mentioned earlier, if you make the effort this city will reward you by expanding both your comfort zones and your horizons. As I get ready to relaunch my own brand, a company built fittingly on my own reputation, I am buoyed and energized by the fact that the UK PR scene is vibrant and robust, and its impact is global. Some of the greatest voices in the industry reside here, and I am fortunate enough to have established a professional connection with quite a few of them, and even more honoured to number some of them as friends. While this new incarnation of McAllister Communications will offer media relations as a service, the company’s core business will be to focus on the broader spectrum of brand strategy and reputation management; helping clients see the whole forest rather than just the trees.
This past week I had dinner with friends who noted that I used a particularly telling 4-letter word when referring to London — I called it home. There still much to resolve, many questions and challenges to confront. I may not have all the answers and solutions…but I think I’m heading in the right direction.