The slavery of modern day marketing agencies

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"Working in a marketing agency feels like modern day slavery"

This was the way one account manager recently described what her role felt like whilst talking about mental wellbeing in agencies.

Does that sound a little extreme? Could that really be how people feel working in the marketing industry, in the year 2019, when so much is now talked about and offered by way of solutions to prevent people feeling this way at work? The answer appears to be yes; certainly for some of those working on the front line and tasked with being the first port-of-call for clients.

We might say that feeling like this just depends on how high up the ranks you are, or what role you play within the agency. And certainly, how exposed you are to the demands and whims of clients. The conversations I’m having on the topic of mental health tends to be with account managers and not creatives, who may have different challenges, or may just not feel like this at all.

Our discussion formed part of a series of revelations we are uncovering in relation to the growing awareness of the need to tackle the issues around mental health for those working in the marketing industry. Account managers just five years out of university are already feeling that they may have chosen a tricky career path. One they may be regretting and certainly one that does not overly support their mental wellbeing. After speaking to two account handlers recently from a leading London creative agency, they described how their daily contribution went largely unnoticed, made them feel under-valued and underpaid most of the time. They felt as if they’d been “farmed out” to work relentlessly on accounts with little or no gratitude for the additional hours they put in pretty much every day, along with the 110% effort they were continually asked to make.

On most days, they described how they felt their only option was to agree to these relentless conditions because they want to progress in their career (who doesn’t), feeling like they have little choice but to comply if they want to get ahead. In other words, they often felt trapped. And with the plethora of information readily available on mental health, that’s not healthy – not for staff, nor for the agency itself.

Looking good or getting to the next level in an agency seems to come at a very high cost to the individual. It means frequently cancelling planned evening social activities with friends, weekends frequently taken over with work, a culture of having to be ‘always-on’ and living with the underlying assumption that ‘you should never leave work on time when there is work to do’. And let’s face it, there is always work to do.

It’s quite a shocking culture for such a forward-thinking industry and one that is fast becoming out-dated alongside other industries and stand-out companies. Take Patagonia, Unilever, Innocent and Netflix for example, who make it their business to look after their staff’s wellbeing as a priority. Indeed, they pay as much attention to their staff’s needs as they do their clients/customers – which is as it should be.

In the recent (2017) Thriving At Work report commissioned by the government, it was proposed that within 10 years’ time, organisations of every size should be equipped with the awareness and tools to support staff with a mental health condition and prevent it being worsened by work. Yet in speaking to agency staff, it seems that many owners and managers aren’t even aware they have any problems, nor that the in-house culture they have fostered is contributing to making their staff feel ill, mentally exhausted and feeling like “modern day slaves” on a daily basis.

Requiring staff (at account level, at least) to continually be at client’s beck and call day and night (literally) when their paid for hours are 9-5.30pm is not supportive of this. And it’s not a one-off or twice-occurring event a month, this is most the time. As is expecting staff to be always be checking their emails out of hours to make sure they’re on top of any demands coming in from clients.

Typically, small to mid-sized agencies seem to be under-resourced and perhaps for this reason, staff are often made to feel like they’re ‘not being a team player’ if they ever leave on time (note: not early, but on time) during a pitch or campaign delivery period. The problem likely comes from clients who expect a huge amount from agencies day and night. So much so, that it keeps agency staff up worrying at night. They feel so much is out of their control and Sunday Night Dread is all part and parcel of the role.

So, who should be pushing back? Who is protecting the younger members of the team from these levels of stress and anxiety and the expectations to conform, deliver and be at the beck and call of clients? What should you do if you recognise, or suspect this is happening in your agency?

Here are some suggestions from those I spoke to:

  • Be present for your staff: Meet with them, check in on them, see how they are managing and what their challenges are. Show you care about their state of mind and job satisfaction.
  • Listen: Your team know more about their jobs on the front line than you do. No one knows better than they how to improve their working conditions, how to make systems more efficient and, often, how to implement cost cutting measures. By asking them for their thoughts and ideas, you are tapping into a huge wealth of knowledge, whilst also making sure they feel valued, trusted and appreciated.
  • Consider ways to introduce empathy: My discussions with agency staff included the idea of job-swapping for a day. Creatives seemed to have little idea of the pressures account handlers face from clients so there is a huge disconnect and misunderstanding between these two functions. Organise a day where each can sit in on the other’s work for the day so that there is greater empathy between staff for their varying functions.
  • Be real: Where you have issues in the agency, it’s not helpful to try and paint a picture that things are better than they are. By being honest with yourself and your staff, you begin to make space for your people to problem solve for themselves. You’re telling them that you trust them to make the agency better and you believe that they have the solutions the issues they face day in, day out. Allow people the right to voice their right to say no to a client when it really feels like the request is too much.
  • Change the culture: Making staff feel terrible and not a team player because they need to leave on time once in a while is very old-hat and this needs to change. This seems to be more the norm rather than the exception.
  • There is a brighter side..: Of course, nothing is ever black and white. We also know that it’s not always like this. The industry can also be a hugely rewarding place to work. Seeing all your hard work finally go live, after weeks of planning, for example. Yet with the pressures of modern life taking its toll on most of us anyway, the question still remains: who wants to feel just a little better than a ‘modern day slave’ in an environment where we spend the majority of our time?

So if this rings true, or you think it might be true, take a step back, see what you can do to change the culture of your agency, make things easier on staff during peak periods of stress and ensure they know they are valued and that they are taught tools to handle the levels of pressure being put upon them.

Justine Clement is Founder and MD of The Life Adventure.

Check out The Life Adventure's series of talks and workshops, aimed at improving mental health across marketing agencies.