Advertising's alcohol dilemma: anyone for a sober silly season?
A view from Matt Adams

Advertising's alcohol dilemma: anyone for a sober silly season?

We should be empowering people to know the choice to drink is one you make, not one that is made for you.

It’s taken me about six months to write this piece. Mainly because I didn’t know what to say or, most importantly, what my real reason for quitting alcohol for the year was – whether I was kidding myself about the choice being mine or whether I’d got to a place where the consequence of not making the choice was too great.

During the 20 years I’ve spent in media, my relationship with alcohol has evolved. When I first joined the industry, the drinking culture simply was the culture. Friday afternoons were spent at the local and every social engagement revolved around booze.

At 39, I was given the reins at Havas Group Media – a business that needed a lot of help, focus and attention. A wise man once told me that any business is either a start-up or a turnaround – and it was clear which one I had inherited. Despite the support I was given in my first year, it was a big step up for me and one that was larger than I had realised at the time. 

It was then that my relationship with alcohol changed, and not for the better – I used drinking as a stress-release valve. The need to go for a few beers became just that: a need, as opposed to a nice-to-have. There were a few dark moments in the horrifically termed "silly season": the time when we all let our other halves know they won’t see us for six weeks. When we say thanks to our clients and partners through the bottom of a bottle of red. A season that many behind closed doors actually dread but feel they can’t avoid.

I’m sure many of us have struggled through a day in the office with the hangover from hell, with the feeling of dread that often accompanies it; cringed inwardly about our behaviour in front of clients and colleagues after overindulging at an industry function; or had to apologise to the family after a quick pint after work turned into an all-nighter. These less-than-ideal scenarios have almost become rites of passage; compulsory experiences for anyone who wants to progress in our world.

Would your career path be more limited without drink? Would you be missing out on vital senior-level chat and passed over? Is it possible to entertain your clients or agencies without alcohol?

These are all questions that many of us have asked ourselves. I certainly have. The clique that exists in our industry, built on old networks, is still prevalent and it’s the perceived need to try to be part of that clique that pulls you to a bar. Yes, it has changed a lot over the years, but the undercurrent still flows.

So I decided the best thing to do was to go to a total extreme and give up drinking for 2019. This is something I did before in 2013 when, looking back, I was a better husband, dad and leader while maintaining a clear head and happiness. I became sharper mentally and that in turn made me better at my job.

This year, I’m using my dry 2019 as an opportunity to raise money for Nabs, the employee support organisation for the advertising and media industry. Over the years, Nabs has seen that those struggling with their well-being can turn to alcohol and other drugs, and how this can become more prevalent in times of uncertainty and concern – something that many are experiencing now. 

Now halfway through my year-long challenge, I’m feeling strong and clear – more passionate than ever about the need to make alcohol an optional part of our culture as an industry. To be clear – I am not anti-drinking. I don’t care if you drink or not; I just believe that we should be empowering people to know the choice is one you make, not one that is made for you. And that it won’t have a negative impact on your career if you choose not to.

Given the known impact that excessive drinking can have on our mental and physical state, don’t we as leaders have some responsibility to make it acceptable not to partake?

It should be OK to say no. Imagine a silly season with no hangover, no strain on family life and no gout-inducing afternoons, and try saying thank you to your clients in a different way. 

Matt Adams is chief executive, UK and Ireland, at Havas Group Media