Agency Agency Business

The ad industry is sick AF and we need to do something about it

By Bob Bailey | Co-founder and chief executive

February 3, 2022 | 7 min read

Agency leaders have created a shitshow. In order for our employees to stay sane and healthy, we need to do something about it, writes The Truth Collective’s Bob Bailey. He suggests shorter workdays, ditching the servant mentality and other key steps that need to be taken immediately.

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It’s time to make our industry a healthier one

As a 4A’s member agency, I recently submitted a research request to find out how (and how much) the industry is talking about our mental wellbeing. The file I received was pretty thin to say the least, and truth be told, I wasn’t all that surprised by this.

What we did learn in 2021 is that employee burnout is real and the pandemic has both illuminated a longstanding industry problem, and made it worse. We also learned that workloads have negatively impacted employees’ mental health and that a huge majority of those employees don’t feel as though their employers are doing enough to support them. This is why so many talented individuals are joining the ‘Great Resignation’ and considering an employer change, or in many cases, a career change altogether.

And agency chief execs, let’s be 100% honest for a minute: we created this shitshow. Our beliefs, practices and leadership have allowed this to happen. I’m not suggesting that we are inhuman in our intentions – in fact, most agency leaders are some of the best people you’ll meet. But we’ve allowed a vibrant creative industry to become an inhumane grind, largely out of fear for our own livelihoods and businesses. Among the many issues our industry faces when it comes to retaining and nurturing talent include:

  • The continual pressure to bill excessive hours because time is the basis of our determined value (which is BS, as we all know).

  • Staffing plans that get built on over 100% employee capacity so that it makes economic sense for the AOR agreements.

  • Excess staff is viewed as low-hanging cost-cutting fruit v investable creativity in our own growth.

  • Free work is commonly expected.

  • The RFP process (Request for Punishment) is a gigantic strain on employees and often a misappropriation of resources.

  • The industry net promoter score is literally 0 – we collectively don’t even have a score.

So, the ad agency business was already sick – now it’s sick AF. Decades of irrational business practices that no person would think wise, overlaid with a global health crisis, means that the time for talk is over. The time for ridiculous solutions like ‘30 minutes of disconnection per week,’ virtual drinks gatherings and free meditation apps is done. Now is the time for chief execs to actually do something, and while that something could look different to different agencies, here are some ideas that would make a huge difference for creative companies and their advertiser customers:

Implement 35-hour weeks. Research shows the optimal amount of productive time each week is 35 hours. The key word here is ‘productive time.’ The industry has put a premium on hours worked as some sort of badge of honor. The reality is that if you log 55-60 hours per week, there is a serious amount of ‘garbage time’ in there. Identify your distractors and unproductive cultural habits in your company, and go on a mission to eradicate them. The best part is that your employees will feel better, and perform better. Both are essential for creativity, and that’s essential for a thriving business.

Change the workday and its expectations. It’s not enough to tell employees they need to care for themselves more, and delegate more effectively. Chief execs and leadership teams can do so much more, such as creating a common schedule for the company to work on that includes blocks of time for uninterrupted individual creative work, dedicated team time to tune creative work and meet with clients, a few blocks of dedicated email time to stay up to date and scheduled time at the end of the day to plan the following day. Then you’re done. No expectation of being on call or at the beck and call of the chief exec. This seems impossible, but it’s totally doable when leadership is driving it and supporting it.

Ditch the limiting ‘servant mentality’ once and for all. So many of the practices we are all too familiar with are born from beliefs that were instilled in us from day one of the business. ‘It’s a service business,’ ‘we do unreasonable things for clients here’ and ‘don’t fuck it up’ for fear of losing your job or a client. To be clear, I too once held these beliefs, and said these things to people. The bottom line is that this limiting thinking has created a fear-based operating model that favors every business we come in contact with except our own. And it’s no doubt contributing to the diminishing health and wellbeing of our teams because fear eats creativity for lunch. So, trade service mentality for a product mentality. Focus on what our work is and its value, not about how it gets done or how long it takes. When this happens, requests for free thinking and unreasonable behaviors are now clearly off strategy for our business.

Everyone knows that acknowledging the problem is the first step to recovery. Let’s do that. Let’s also consider that poor leadership for extended periods of time can actually make employees sick. If this is true, then enlightened human leadership can absolutely make people well. Let’s do that too. I’m working on this. It’s my biggest focus on the year and it should be yours too.

Bob Bailey, co-founder and chief executive of Truth Collective.

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