The Drum Awards Festival - Extended Deadline

-d -h -min -sec


Memo to all agency peers: work sucks


By Thomas Kolster, Marketing expert, speaker, author

May 24, 2017 | 5 min read

Dear agency peers – if you had to write a memo to your colleagues in the ad industry guiding them towards creative excellence, how would it read?

commute london

You probably read one attempt at such a message last week from TBWA\CHIAT\DAY’s NYC creative top dog Rob Schwartz, which essentially read: 'work hard to do great work.' I don’t blame him. Rob is definitely not alone with that belief.

Life is the greatest canvas for creativity

Great creative work doesn’t come from a production line with regimented tea breaks; mass-produced crap does. Ideas are tremendously cheap and effortlessly made. And isn’t that just great? Light bulb moments are called moments because they defy our industrialist concept of blood, sweat and tears – they happen in a jiffy. Creativity doesn’t demand long hours like factory workers at the assembly line churning out Model Ts.

It’s safe to say there is no direct correlation between hours spent at a desk and quality of creative output. A creative mind needs input like a car needs fuel and the nearest gas station is in the streets, not the office. The best advertising work is built from a strong insight and these insights come from a life passionately lived.

Ideas like the acclaimed Volvo Life Paint don’t come from desk work, or waiting until the boss leaves before you can go, but from two bicycle-crazy Danes. These guys have been pumping those bike pedals since they grew up and have experienced first hand the danger that a dark night poses to a dimly-lit cyclist. It’s up to you and me to puncture the industrialist notion that hard work and time spent pays out directly. Living life is the greatest canvas for cut-through creative work.

Sweatshops smell

I won’t question that proficiency demands effort, but it’s a one-sided equation, if we only look at the positive outcomes. As I wrote in my last opinion piece, the dinosaur industrialist work culture leads to stress, divorce, less time with the people we care about, addiction issues and the list goes on and on. We all know someone who’s paid that high price.

To detect bullshit, they say the nose is better than the ear. Fixed pay with no overtime remuneration whatsoever calls for agencies to get as much work out of their staff as humanly possible. We all know the agency sweatshops out there – they stink to high heaven.

What does your life experience portfolio look like?

There’s no win in letting work dominate life; when work becomes life, the creative brain shuts down like a factory under foreclosure. I always found it equally important to talk about a creative’s hobbies, life and background as his or her portfolio. Any creative who thinks advertising is the single most essential thing in his or her life surely doesn’t belong in a creative agency. Nobody else on this planet thinks advertising is important.

Life brings real value to work

Did the creative industry forget to take its own ‘purpose’ medicine? The thinking that 'advertising is cool' creates a commercial break that’s increasingly out of touch. People don’t buy the bullshit from brands anymore and as creativity has become everyone’s domain so has the power to influence. If you want to build communication or for that sake brands that matter, you need to create conversations that matter to people.

When brands, like leaders, forget who they are there for, they lose relevance. Purposeful brands perform better than their peers, because they put our lives before simple plugging product. If you want to make work with purpose, you need to put life before work as well.

Here’s a title for you: chief empowerment officer

Great creative leaders don’t rely on hierarchy, command and control or titles, but believe in empowering their peers. They act as enablers who inspire us to dream more, learn more, do more and become more. The new generation of creatives chooses purpose over paycheck, meaning over medals, and the up-and-coming platform Wanderbrief is a prime example of that.

Young creatives gladly swap their skills for exciting experiences abroad. It’s when you do what you love wholeheartedly that the magic light bulb moment happens. So, dear agency peers, here’s your memo: let’s stop building factories. Light bulb moments can strike anywhere, anytime and life itself is a flash, it’s gone before you even notice it, so make it count! I promise, it pays in work and life.

Thomas Kolster is an author, speak and sustainability expert. You can find him on Twitter @thomaskolster.


More from Marketing

View all


Industry insights

View all
Add your own content +