Travels With Bob

05/25/2011 12:05 pm ET

As the CEO of the world's fourth largest network of advertising agencies, I've amassed more miles than Condi Rice. And the load isn't getting lighter--these days, JWT has offices in more than 200 countries. I keep a suitcase packed for the overnight hauls that are sometimes well planned and sometimes happens on a moment's notice.

Like all fledgling environmentalists, I have moral concerns about my carbon footprint. But travel is a necessary part of the job--the day I lose interest in connecting with our people and our clients is the day I go back home and open a small beachfront gym. But that's way down the road, not least because I've taken the drudgery out of travel.

If, as many say, the world is a classroom, I've enrolled in the graduate school. I take short crash courses in tastes, mores, products and ideas. I don't go to Brazil or Egypt or anyplace we do business and just do business--I make sure I eat, touch, listen, shop and, most of all, learn.

My time is always limited, but whenever I can, I carve out a half-day on every trip to get out on my own and simply explore. My colleagues often have suggestions. Almost invariably, they're not what I want to do. I understand why I'm told about designer shopping malls--after all, isn't that where a CEO would feel most comfortable?--but the whole point is not to feel at home, to have all my senses challenged, awakened and refreshed.

That's why, on my most recent visit to Mumbai, I ended up at Crawford Market, a bazaar for groceries and household-cleaning products. I was there in the lead-up to Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, and found myself buying "Happy Diwali" cards for some of my colleagues. (What an amazing holiday, where extended families gather to eat, to gamble and to pack several dozen Fourth of July celebrations into an extended New Year's Eve and Christmas Eve, all wrapped together. Except it's Diwali, which is like no other holiday to the billion or so people who celebrate it.)

I'm not so foolish as to venture out without a guide. But I try to avoid field trips with senior managers. They're likely to be less adventuresome. Better for me if I head out with a kid who's more intrepid, someone who's prepared to help me find the real local world.

In Shanghai, that meant Johnny Lee. A great choice--he had deftly helped me abort the planned cultural agenda so we could visit the naturopaths who sell all kinds of remedies (some I need now, some I might someday need). And he had the inside scoop on the traditional medicinal potions and which counters sold them, all of it many worlds away from CVS. I bought all kinds of health juices as my talented colleague translated the white-coated doctors' responses to my queries about youth, vitality and strength in bottles. I took home half a lifetime's supply, but health freak that I am, I admit I still haven't muscled up the courage to try a few of these formulations.

What's the payoff for these afternoon vacations? Humility, of course; it's always daunting to be reminded that billions of people live quite happily in ways Americans only dimly understand. Respect for differences follows on humility's heels. And then there are the practical applications.

JWT has the good fortune to work with some of the world's largest consumer goods companies, often in multiple markets. And this is a conflict we frequently face: pursue a single global solution that maximizes efficiency or go with the unique appeal of many "local" campaigns? Which prevails? My travels underscore the importance of looking for the "third way"--the "glocal" solution.

"Glocal" campaigns draw on the common essence of the brand but add some unique cultural or marketplace nuance as seasoning. For us, the prime example is HSBC, which is positioned as "the world's local bank." Our long-running campaign is built on the idea that cultures can have radically different interpretations of the same object or the same situation--and that it takes a bank with a differentiated worldview to understand and satisfy its varied customers.

You could argue that you can Google your way to this perception. To a degree, that's true. But travel is the ultimate reality. It strips you of your comfort zone; it forces you to be present 24/7. And that puts enormous value on being there.

Like last October in India. It was my first visit, and from the moment I landed and the airline doused me in insect repellant, I knew this was not going to be a routine dip into a city next door. I had, of course, read about the sense of optimism that pervades contemporary India. But to be there was to feel it. "New India" is like a mantra; people positively glow in their progress and their newfound wealth, regardless of whether that translates into an education for a child or a newly purchased apartment or even the realization of a dream of traveling to England or Dubai.

For advertisers, that optimism is fertile soil for building brands. As much as anything else, brands represent dreams--dreams about rising standards of living, about flashing badges of accomplishments well-earned. Because I've routinely been forced out of my American arrogance in my travels, I had no trouble quickly stepping outside my usual way of thinking and pondering how best to appeal to this compellingly Indian sense of pride.

There are times in between my travels when I need a counterpoint to this mind expansion, when I just want to feel grounded. When that happens, I take a short trip--to my childhood home and my extended family in Providence, Rhode Island. Change happens at my mom's home in Cranston but not at the warp speed I find in Asia; many family traditions have changed only slightly since I was raised there.

Long before I show up, I know what's for dinner at my mother's house on Sundays. And I can count on my young nephews to alert me to the hip-hip glitterati they feel I ought to know about. It's ironic. I go to Providence to be bathed in the familiar--but like any self-respecting advertising professional who's working hard to be sensitive to other cultures, I can't avoid learning something.