Bottle it up or burn out

The performance psychologist Matt Follows asks why advertising no longer nurtures its creative misfits.

Matt Follows: 'Shouldn’t we also be able to talk openly about things without fear of being ridiculed?'
Matt Follows: 'Shouldn’t we also be able to talk openly about things without fear of being ridiculed?'

"Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do."

That's one of my favourite bits of copy of all time. Those 101 words made me fight tooth and nail to get into this crazy, colourful world of advertising.

But where that quote once made me want to punch the air in support, it now makes me want to punch a frozen chicken in disappointment.

Because, rather than championing and fighting alongside "the crazy ones", our industry now distrusts and suffocates them.

All too often, we turn a blind eye, acting like everything is OK. Only it is not OK and we are rapidly running out of steam

Few will disagree that this hasn’t led to better work and it certainly hasn't led to better working environments.

Is it any surprise when nearly all of the creative leaders I've spoken to say stress, anxiety and frustration are a major part of their everyday lives and they feel like the branch they are sitting on is about to snap?

All too often, we turn a blind eye, acting like everything is OK. Only it is not OK and we are rapidly running out of steam.

But to put a hand up and admit you are struggling to cope is seen as a sign of weakness and that you can’t cut it in this business any more. So we keep it bottled up until we burn out or give up.

But why are so many of our most senior and talented creative thinkers sacrificing their mental health and wellbeing for "the job"?

Why are they allowing their personal lives to fall apart as they burn themselves out in the pursuit of greatness?

Unfortunately, it's not that simple. Creative people care so much because that's what creative people do.

Breaking rules and challenging the status quo is an integral part of the creative identity and process. Take that away and it's easy to see why mental health is low down on the priority list.

We can’t click our fingers and make everything better overnight. But we won’t change anything if we deny that there is a problem and pretend it only affects a handful of grumpy creatives who should work more and whine less.

So, in a high-stake creative environment like ours, where our minds are the most valuable tools we posses, shouldn’t we also have access to some of that evidence-based performance psychology?

Shouldn’t we also be able to talk openly about things without fear of being ridiculed, pushed out or branded a troublemaker?

I know that, with the right kind of training, we can learn how to better handle the pressures of a job that is getting tougher every day. We can be taught how to burn bright without burning out.

We can master the psychological tools, techniques and strategies needed to allow our sharpest minds to put the job into perspective without losing their edge.

To do that, emotional health and wellbeing needs to be taken seriously. And we need to be open and honest about what we’re struggling with.

So are we going to continue to ignore the elephant in the room and pray that it buggers off before the branch finally breaks? Or are we going to acknowledge its presence and be creative about how we're going tackle it?

I vote for the latter.

Matt was a copywriter, creative director and commercials director at Wieden & Kennedy, M&C Saatchi and Clemenger BBDO. He has spent eight years studying performance psychology and therapeutic training to help creative leaders

If you are a creative leader who wants to make a change, take part in Matt's study confidentially

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