“We try harder”, “We sell, or else”, “Gives you wings”. Sorry, I can’t help but paraphrase advertising slogans, because the fact is, working in advertising is a killer.
2016 was in many ways a grueling year for humanity (and our ability to empathise), but one of the news stories that stuck with me was about a Dentsu executive quitting after one of its employees committed suicide, which was blamed on overwork. Yes, Dentsu got all the attention, but I challenge anyone to throw the first stone. We’ve all been there, and once we’ve risen up the ranks in the industry we’ve encouraged others to go that far too.
Work is not worth dying for
It’s an industry-wide problem and it’s about time we talk openly about it. If not for your own wellbeing then for others. We’ve all had dear friends who’ve been hospitalised, disabled, retired or even died prematurely because of this rat race we are all so passionate about: advertising. That’s not even mentioning the other consequences such as divorce rates, alcohol and drug abuse, missing out on your children growing up etc.
You most likely read the story about Linds Redding, a New Zealand-based art director who died at 52 of cancer. On his deathbed, he wrote this frank and heart-wrenching outlook about his lifelong career in advertising and how he regretted it: "It turns out I didn’t actually like my old life nearly as much as I thought I did.” Redding wrote that life as a creative wasn’t worth it and he ultimately questioned if you can marry art and business and still be fulfilled as a human being. That’s the type of question that has kept many a creative awake at night (other than the crazy workload of course).
A hellish work culture breeds shitty work
I believe art and business can be aligned and the connective tissue is purpose. Business leaders like Tony Hsieh, Paul Polman, Richard Branson and others are showing the way forward. It might not be surprising for anybody that the ability to create great work comes from being in a nurturing, supportive and fulfilling environment. There’s a direct correlation between bad advertising, bad clients and bad agencies.
If a client doesn’t respect his or her agency, it fosters a bad agency culture that ends up churning out bad work. Apologies to all the folks who are in these kinds of failing work relationships! The ad biz is about money and I get that, but like Hollywood, if you let moneymen call the shots based on profits alone, you get mediocre work. It’s always been curious to me why the creatives who make the work are paid less than the suits, but that’s another discussion. And perhaps another issue keeping us awake at night.
We all know the bad seeds, but are we ready to face ourselves?
Among my colleagues, it’s no secret which networks or agencies treat their staff terribly, those rumours spread faster than a Trump tweet. I don’t want to name or shame anyone; retention rates are often the canary in the coalmine. But unfortunately there’s an often primal and Darwinistic macho culture at agencies fed by the highly competitive environment. After all, creatives are evaluated every year at Cannes. If people are sick, feel down or as I have experienced, hospitalised because of stress, the talk at the coffee machine (or more likely in the late-night watering hole) is often around how he or she was not cut out for the business, because like everything else bad, it never happens to you, right?
The purpose of your work
Like Redding, you probably question the purpose of your work while also aspiring to Simon Sinek’s “Why”. The good news is that purpose pays. There are agencies out there that charter a different course for agency staff, who understand that attracting new staff these days (especially Gen Z and millennials) is not so much about an extra paycheck, but rather about a meaningful work-life balance. A Danish agency, IIH Nordic, has launched the four-day working week and the results after half a year are positive. Productivity has risen despite people working less hours and job applications have surged as people are prioritising purpose and quality of life over money.
The traditional agency model is breaking up, with people wanting to be masters in their own house either as freelancers or by setting up their own small boutique shops. This is not only a consequence of the shift in the labour force in general, but also the sentiment I pick up from most of my colleagues. People want to align work and life better.
As an industry we have to ask ourselves if it really makes sense to stack creatives like battery hens in glass and concrete buildings during fixed hours, when they could roam freely and be inspired. You’re not going to find anything inspiring on Madison Avenue, Charlotte Street or in your new hip, up-and-coming East London office. Again, it’s not only better for you, it’s also better for the work. After all, we make advertising for people, so you will learn more from a week at a nursery home or at a Dunkin Donuts than hanging with the black-clad crowd.
Let’s create a new generation of free-range creatives. How you treat people (or hens) is ultimately seen or felt in the final product! There are many other areas where agencies need to improve. As we in the western world are faced with a demographic challenge and consumers are getting older and older, will we begin to question our obsession with youth? The average age at agencies is far from reflective of the majority of consumers and I’m not even going to talk about the gender ratios among creatives or diversity in general, which is still appalling. This is again in spite of the economic arguments, as research from Grant Thornton shows that companies with at least one female executive board member outperformed those with male-only boards.
If you want to bring more Lions home this year or improve the creative output of your agency, getting the work culture right is the best place to begin. Let’s kickstart 2017 with a discussion about how we can improve that agency culture. We all care about this damn ad business; let’s make it fun and worthwhile. It reminds me of the old joke that nobody ever wants their tombstone to read: “I really wish I spent more time in the office.” 2016 was the year when many great talents died, let’s set a new course for talent in 2017. Together.
Thomas Kolster is a speaker, critic and author of the book Goodvertising. Follow him on Twitter @thomaskolster