Everyone knows the pros and cons of working in advertising. OK, the
interesting accounts, exotic shoots and stimulating personalities are
the good bits, but the bags under the eyes, the high levels of stress
and lack of home time make it one of the most demanding careers out
In fact, advertising ranks above medicine and the emergency services as
the seventh most stressful career, according to recent research from the
University of Manchester.
Ad execs have traditionally worked long hours, but what is beginning to
matter more than just the financial carrot is what is offered to
hard-working staff to help them achieve a better work/life balance. The
industry charity NABS says that the workplace is getting more stressful.
Its latest statistics show that 55 per cent of ad execs feel they work
harder and longer hours than they did two years ago.
But countering that are the 60 per cent who feel they are 'happy and
fulfilled'. So despite the stress, something's working to keep people in
A healthy work/life balance is something that the industry is now taking
seriously, according to Anne Murray Chatterton, the director of training
and development at the IPA.
'It's good that agencies have woken up to the fact that people are their
assets. They don't just need good financial rewards,' she stresses. She
says last year's IPA report into women's issues revealed that what were
once the concerns of women working in advertising - flexible hours to
allow more family time, the chance to work at home and the attitudes of
non-family orientated colleagues - are now firmly in the minds of men
So, armed with a substantial government grant, the IPA is working to
develop a set of best practice codes specifically dealing with the
work/life balance. The Retention of Talent Working Party, chaired by
Walker Media's partner, Christine Walker, will survey 40 agencies to
determine best practice, find out what's changing attitudes towards
flexible working and use this to help IPA member agencies set up better
But what are agencies actively doing themselves, unprompted by the
Of course, most boast pension and healthcare schemes as being a main
attraction for staff. But these - along with good old gym membership -
are soggy carrots to dangle in front of staff these days. They want (and
deserve) more than that.
Balancing time at work with time to enjoy life is a crucial issue, and
agencies recognise the need to ensure their staff achieve that
Even sabbaticals are now seen less as an extended holiday and more as an
opportunity to bring fresh ideas and vigour back to the job.
HHCL & Partners' planner, John Leech, returned to work in March after a
six-month trip driving round the US with his young children. The
agency's chief executive, Robin Azis, says the inconvenience of having
key staff away is balanced by the enthusiasm they bring back to the
agency after their period away.
Maternity - and increasingly paternity - leave is now claimed to be
above and beyond government policy levels. While more women at senior
level have increased awareness of family issues within the workplace,
men are demanding more time off too.
The scale is definitely a sliding one - St Luke's gives new fathers a
month off, other agencies just a few days, and a sabbatical for WCRS
means one week after five years' service - but that these opportunities
are there at all can only be a sign of improvement.
'That bosses are agreeing to write agreements like these into staff
contracts is proof that things have changed considerably,' Chatterton
Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO's managing director, Cilla Snowball, admits
juggling her family life with work is helped considerably by the culture
of the agency. 'We are geared towards looking after each other. Plenty
of staff have children, and that has a knock-on effect as people are
more understanding of needs and priorities.'
M&C Saatchi's new-business director, Judy Mitchem, says the reputation
of the agency as the male-dominated enclave in Soho is being busted by
the increased number of senior staff with children.
A mother herself, Mitchem is keen to point out that having a family does
not mean working less hard. 'It means organisation - lots of it - to
ensure you're focused on work at work, and on home when you're
Agency doctors and dentists are now commonplace - after all, why lose an
employee for a half-day wait in the surgery for the sake of a holiday
The majority of agencies claim to have some procedure for dealing with
stress, whether it springs from work, home, relationships or financial
problems. All claim the way staff are nurtured goes most of the way to
ensuring problems are stamped out.
Some offer buddying - teaming younger, less experienced staff with more
savvy superiors. Some have on-call counsellors, while others try to
ensure the working environment means issues can be resolved there. Some
pay for external advice. Some pay for free helplines. Some advise time
off. All, at least, admit to the problem.
And technological advances now mean working at home can often be more
efficient than being in the office. Bartle Bogle Hegarty staffers, along
with those from many other agencies, are wired to the net, can tailor
their hours to suit them and can work from home when they need to.
Mother's office is open 24 hours to allow people to work whenever they
Perks that were once the preserve of breakaway agencies such as St
Luke's are now becoming commonplace. If a weekly massage and the
opportunity to use agency time to better yourself is what it takes to
prevent long-term problems arising, then so be it.
Most agencies encourage staff to get out during agency time to visit
galleries and exhibitions for inspiration or simply just to free their
minds from the stresses of work. Some subsidise staff to do courses or
pursue personal interests.
Mother partner, Stef Calcraft, says the importance lies in creating a
community where people want to work: 'Agencies are defined by the people
who work there. We make money through their intellectual capital, and
must invest in them. It's part of our job running the place to make sure
we keep the best talent.'
He says the free home-made lunches cooked daily in the agency enable
people to relax properly at lunchtime and, like an increasing number of
other agencies, staff have access to free reflexology and yoga sessions
once a week.
He is echoed by St Luke's executive creative director, Kate
She says getting the work/life balance right was a crucial part of
forming the agency in the first place: 'Co-ownership is what the
agency's philosophy is. Our staff have an emotional input here.'
She claims the agency's high staff retention rate (in five years the
headcount is 130) is proof of its commitment to treating staff well.
But if this type of management style suits smaller agencies perfectly,
it is not something which instinctively lends itself to larger
Calcraft claims it will become impossible for Mother to operate on a
similar level when numbers increase. He's put a ceiling of 70 to 80
'The collective bond of shared responsibility is lost once your group is
bigger than that. We'd rather stay small, and operate like this, than
get bigger and lose that.'
Chatterton refutes that, claiming that IPA research has not found any
tangible differences between the way big networks and their start-up
rivals handle the work/life balance.
Duckworth Finn Grubb Waters' chief executive, Michael Finn, makes the
point that smaller start-ups have been forced to take these issues on
board sooner as they attempt to make a name for themselves in the
'I don't believe in long hours and weekend work now, but when we were
setting up, that was what we had to do to make it work. Dave Waters (the
joint creative director) had his second child the day we started the
agency, but we couldn't stop for that,' he laughs.
But in spite of formal clauses in staff contracts and less structured
perks, none of the good works mean anything in an agency where the
senior management are stuck in the past.
Mustoe Merriman Herring Levy's new-business director, Damian Horner,
claims the legendary competitiveness of the industry is still being
perpetrated by bosses who burned the midnight oil 20 years ago and
expect their staff to.
'Role models are vital to younger agency staff - they take their cue
from their bosses. They've worked hard to get on a graduate trainee
scheme at an agency and want to make sure they're noticed.'
He says a healthy work/life balance starts from the recruitment stage -
he only hires people who can demonstrate more than a desire to work in
the industry. 'We want people who go out, who see films, travel, play
tiddlywinks at the weekend, whatever, as long as they're not unhealthily
preoccupied with work.'
Azis agrees. 'All that stuff about getting to the top through working
ludicrously hard is complete crap. People work well when they're happy,
and feel they're being treated like adults. The only way that works
properly is when the people at the top do it themselves.'
Mitchem thinks younger staff need to work on building up their
professional confidence to allow them to manage workloads effectively.
But she acknowledges this only comes with experience. 'When I started
out, I worked silly hours - that was the culture. Now, I'm more
confident about when I do that work. If I need to leave early, I know I
won't be questioned. Newcomers need to feel their judgment is respected
Chatterton says that, apart from the IPA research providing a set of
criteria for agencies to beef up on these areas, the issue of staff
treatment is becoming key to their client credentials.
'Many clients are themselves light-years ahead of advertising agencies
in what they do to help their people. It used to be a case of: 'Oh, we
can't allow people flexi-time or home working - the client might not
like it.' The chances are now that they are actively seeking out
agencies with a similar culture.'
So, it's official then - knitting classes, hot dinners, quiz nights and
skiving off on summer Friday afternoons can help you win pitches.
IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH
If agencies are working harder on work/life balance issues, how are they
faring when it comes to staff who face a crisis while on the
Most concentrate on spotting stress-related trouble before it happens,
through effective management and developing a culture which encourages
people to speak out if they are experiencing difficulties.
Particularly striking are the number of younger staff who fall prey to
stress-related illnesses. While no agencies would give details about
individual cases, most said that lower-ranking staff were more
'We've had cases of people who have made every effort to cope with
dealing with a key piece of business which has ultimately been too much.
Sometimes they've been putting on an incredible act and have convinced
everyone they're fine, but then there's a big collapse - we're always on
the lookout,' one head of personnel said.
That aside, those with employees on long-term sick leave for whatever
reason were keen to stress their continued importance within the agency,
even if they were off for years rather than months.
HHCL & Partners' head of planning, Mary Stow, developed ME
two-and-a-half years ago, cutting short a high-flying career. Formerly a
Campaign Face to Watch, Stow is keen to point out that her doctors have
assured her that her ME is not stress or work-related.
She returned to work from a bout of flu and was unable to recover
'This is the usual way ME strikes. I struggled on with what is called
post viral fatigue syndrome,' she says.
During the six months it took to diagnose her with ME, Stow says the
agency came forward with advice and worked hard to reassure her on the
'basics' such as financial matters. 'The last thing you need is the
worry of whether you can pay the rent. They made sure I could.'
Since then she has been off work on a majority salary package, and is in
close contact with colleagues at the agency. 'I've got e-mail contact,
am in on what's happening, and, importantly, know my job's there for me
when I get back,' she comments.
Stow acknowledges that the level of support she's received from HHCL is
unusual. 'I would definitely feel more vulnerable if I was still working
for a big network,' she says.
'I can't give them a prognosis, I can't tell them when I'll be back at
work and I'm unable to cope with working from home. But they've stuck