It was a valiant and exposing attempt by the Marketing Society to host last week’s "Being Bold Around Mental Health" event. Just the sort of endeavour required to smash the stigma. If our industry has been tiptoeing around the issue, the tipping point is ever closer thanks to this high profile getting together of big wigs, mental health professionals, and an original line-up of speakers.
So original and varied were the speakers that right there you had a demonstration of the indiscriminate nature of mental illness (for want of a better term).
WCRS co-founder Robin Wight, the over-achieving doyen of the industry whose relatively recent bi-polar diagnosis may account for his perceived flamboyance and colourful charisma, posited that neurodiversity has a massive positivity to the creative industries.
Balancing this was a type of speaker I’ve rarely witnessed. Mesmeric, awash with emotion and empathy, while being almost benignly intimidating as he prowled the intimate atmosphere, was Geoff McDonald, a Unilever chief-turned-mental health advocate.
Completing the quartet were two non-industry mental health campaigners – contemporary, cool, creative with whopping experiences and interpretations – Jonny Benjamin and Hussain Manawer. Look them up.
The discussion and anxiety
The discussion was fraught and unforgiving, and marketing professionals from the biggest of brands discussed personal experiences. The sense of a need to change seeped into all the chat and emotions. Tears, hugs and more. Mad Men this was not.
Using the "fishbowl format" for the 60 attendees was unorthodox. Ironically, from a personal perspective, this was exactly the sort of ambience that can trigger my own anxiety. I believe most people present were senior clients. As an independent agency owner, I was very much in the minority. Most of my experiences with senior clients is when I’m pitching, trying to impress, accelerate intimacy and then create genuine partnerships.
That behaviour comes fairly naturally to me. But it triggered some thoughts as I listened to those who commented on their experiences. While talking about line managers, letting employees be authentic and general panaceas for big, blue chip companies. Bit of an anathema to my working environment but instructive nonetheless.
We are all affected by mental health
McDonald argued that instead of the common idea that one in four people are affected by mental health problems, everyone is actually affected by them. We all live on a human spectrum, touched by mental health, having experiences that need more than just a tender tactic; more a surgical strategy.
This resonated. I’m genetically predisposed. People close to me live with issues. My nine-year-old son is on the autistic spectrum (a spectrum I categorically believe we don’t all live on). Mental health is at the epicentre of his world. Psychotherapy is critical to his curriculum. It saves – and will go on saving I hope – him and my wife, perpetually, in real time.
And me. Well, the one all-consuming, debilitating and destructive panic attack I’ve experienced was right bang in the middle of a pitch to exactly the type of people who populated the event, and sat in the scary circle. Somehow I made it through the pitch without weeping and collapsing. But I did both soon after, and was knocked over in confidence and exhausted and hid anxiety for a considerable time after.
Would I admit that to the would-be clients and intermediary? Would I hell. I think that says (or doesn’t say) it all about the stigma around mental health.
Matt Davis is the co-owner and executive creative director of Red Brick Road