Ad industry must face up to its unhealthy work culture

A suicide blamed on excessive overtime should give pause to leaders who have normalised a system of exploitation.

Ad industry must face up to its unhealthy work culture

Bullying clients, weak management and inefficient processes are major reasons for the Japanese ad industry’s extreme stress levels, according to leading staffing consultants.

The observations follow the ruling by a labour standards inspection office on 7 October that workplace pressure contributed to the suicide of a female Dentsu staff member in December 2015.

According to reports in the Japanese media, Matsuri Takahashi, a 24-year-old Tokyo University graduate, routinely clocked between 70 and 130 hours of overtime per month in her role in Dentsu’s Digital Account division.

The Asahi Shimbun cited the unit as the same division responsible for overcharging clients, which Dentsu recently apologised for. Dentsu said lack of manpower was a problem in the division.

The deceased employee’s mother last week called for improvements to be made to Japan’s labour management system to prevent similar incidents in future. Dentsu has said it is taking the matter seriously but did not provide further comment.

It’s not the first time a Dentsu employee has committed suicide: the Tokyo High Court previously found the agency partly responsible for the suicide of another 24-year-old employee in 1991. Ryu Homma, an author who used to work at Hakuhodo, says the Japanese media has not been critical enough of Dentsu and tends towards self-censorship, meaning there is not enough pressure on the company to address the cause of such incidents.

"Medal of honour"

That may be true, but the core problem is much bigger than a single company. A Japanese government report into karoshi (death from overwork)—the first of its kind, released around the time of the ruling on Takahashi’s case—found that across a range of industries in Japan, staff at nearly a quarter of companies put in more than 80 hours of overtime per month.

The findings confirm what many already know—that long working days are endemic in Japan. The report said those in the IT sector are the most overworked. At the same time, advertising and PR are recognised to be among the world’s most stressful industries, and that stress level is likely to be intensified in an already high-pressure environment like Japan’s.

Tyron Giuliani, an executive search specialist at Optia Partners in Tokyo, says excessive working hours are a top-three reason people give for wanting to leave the advertising industry. He says those with the highest burnout rates work in media and account-servicing.

Desire to leave intensifies after the age of 35 and starting a family, he says, adding that women with families typically get the worst deal—being offered low salary and responsibility simply to enable working normal (9 to 5) office hours. In-house marketing roles are generally seen as far more desirable than agency work, but in a self-perpetuating cycle of abuse, client marketers fuel the problem by making excessive demands, says Gary Bremermann, founder of recruitment firm PowerUp Solutions.

In the end, according to one Japanese millennial who used to work in the industry, clients and production company staff are all under similar pressure. She says the overtime put in by Takahashi is in fact not surprising or uncommon for recent graduates. After a certain number of overtime hours per month, employees receive a warning from a physician, she says. But that warning is typically seen as a "medal of honour".

Advertising is admittedly labour-intensive. But Giuliani says agency bosses could improve things by learning to reject unreasonable client requests. "Clients often demand service and attention way beyond the scope of work agreed to," he says. "Excessive face-to-face visits and the inability to say ‘no’ are serious factors in extending the working day at advertising agencies."

The industry should cultivate partnerships and move away from master-servant relationships, Giuliani suggests. Processes can also be simplified to make better use of time. "Meetings for the sake of meetings and reporting for the sake of reporting are rampant," he says. These internal procedures stop work getting done in a reasonable timeframe, but could be tackled relatively easily with help from a third-party analyst—something agencies seem unwilling to invest in.

Agencies should also invest more in training and promote people based on ability rather than age. "Bad practices are often transferred from one manager to the next," Giuliani notes. "Agencies could certainly benefit from greater time spent on formal training and development. This could see a dramatic improvement on the working life of the individual."

Legal and social impetus

It is to be hoped that this recent incident will spark long overdue change, not just for the sake of employees, but for the future of the industry. The question is, why should young people join a business that is likely to crush them?

The millennial observer Campaign spoke to says the proximity to the world of celebrities and famous brands is still glamorous. The reality is much tougher than the image, she says, but while some drop out, many are reluctant to quit for fear of being seen as a "loser". "There are more important things than work, but it’s hard to realise when you’re in that situation," she says.

In the end though, millennials are less likely than their parents to pursue a career purely out of a sense of obligation. Dentsu remains a prestigious company with numerous positive attributes, not least supporting employees to pursue their own ventures if they are likely to benefit the company. But it has been one of the first to admit that it has trouble attracting the new talent it needs, as young people have more choices open to them than ever and increasingly seek work-life balance over company devotion. The industry could make itself instantly more attractive by committing to offer that balance.

But progress remains unlikely as long as overworking is seen as honourable, and more work is divided between fewer people. Giuliani says it’s common for people who complain of stress to be told to "suck it up" by their managers, who claim to work even longer hours than they do.

For anything to really change, Homma says stiff legal penalties need to be enforced on companies for overworking their staff, otherwise it’s only a matter of time before another incident happens. But first, society needs to become more attuned to the impact of burning out at work.

"The problem is not just limited to working hours," says Bremermann. "It’s also a matter of not having policies and procedures to recognise and treat mental health issues before these kinds of tragedies happen. This is a societal problem that goes far beyond the advertising industry."

A version of this article originally appeared on Campaign Asia-Pacific.

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