Burnout and churn on the rise as adland faces second summer of Covid
A view from Gideon Spanier

Burnout and churn on the rise as adland faces second summer of Covid

Pressures of pandemic weigh on creative minds

Total Media recently told staff that they should only contact each other or clients and media owners between 8am and 6.30pm on weekdays and should do their utmost to avoid communications about work outside those hours, unless time zones require it.

While Total has “adapted well” to remote working, there have been “challenges” and “one of the biggest of these is the ‘always-on’ mentality that we have seen develop across the whole industry and within our agency”, Guy Sellers, the chief executive of the independent Soho-based media shop, said in his memo. 

“This commitment is hugely appreciated, given the volume of work, but is not sustainable for our mental wellbeing or healthy work-life balance,” Sellers wrote, explaining why the agency was imposing strict working hours and asking team heads to report back weekly about it.

Even if employees like to work flexibly outside these hours, they “must” communicate only during working hours, the memo stated.

Sellers also wrote a similar letter to clients and media owners, he confirmed, after Campaign heard about it and approached him.

The message is clear: the cumulative effect of 15 months of the pandemic has been taking its toll on the people working in the advertising and marketing industry.

Anecdotal evidence from other business leaders suggests burnout and employee churn are both on the increase.

Burnout is understandable. Many people have been working remotely since March 2020 and only a small minority has gone back to the office.

Endless video calls and a lack of in-person interaction have squeezed a lot of the serendipity and fun out of work.

What’s more, many teams are short-staffed because their companies made cuts during the first lockdown and those who kept their jobs have had to work harder.

Creativity can thrive under constraint. Indeed, revenues in the advertising sector bounced back faster than expected after the second quarter of 2020.

But the resilience that the ad industry has shown since the start of the pandemic may be exactly why, 12 months on, many people are feeling the strain mentally and physically as the pandemic drags on.

Anxiety, isolation, workload, a jump in the number of pitches and the lack of a decent holiday are just some of the things that have been weighing on creative minds.

“Our people are exhausted,” one international CEO at a global agency group says.

In a sign of the pressure across adland, leading organisations including the Advertising Association, the IPA, the Alliance of Independent Agencies, the Crown Commercial Service and Nabs have announced a new industry code of behaviour, called The Brilliant Creative Minds Code of Conduct.

“The aim of the new code is to protect creativity by eradicating practices in procurement, commissioning and agency cultures that compromise mental health and well-being – for example, long-hours culture and fear of job loss in agencies; excessive tender requirements and processes; and unrealistic client timescales and demands,” the organisers say.

Jobs market has sprung back to life

On the plus side, the ad market is recovering. M&C Saatchi said this week that trading has been “stronger than anticipated” in the first four months of the year, Dentsu said in its first-quarter earnings call that its international revenues were up over 17% on an organic basis in April and ITV expects its ad sales to be up 85% or more in May and June, although none of this is a huge surprise given the depth of the downturn last spring.

As a result, the jobs market has sprung back into life — and a lot of people are ready to move. 

Employee churn is up as much as 30% compared with pre-pandemic levels, according to the international agency CEO, who oversees multiple markets, including the UK.

A combination of factors is driving the sudden movement in the jobs market.

There is always quite a high level of churn in adland and we are probably seeing two years’ worth of job changes in a year because relatively few people were able to move voluntarily in 2020

Younger people, in particular, may be eager for a change because they feel their careers have been on hold for a year — whether they kept their job or not during the pandemic.

One independent agency founder, whose company has suffered a string of recent staff departures, says: “When the phone starts ringing, people feel like, ‘It’s been tough, I want a change’ – especially younger people, more than experienced people.”

Arguably, remote working has made it easier for people to quit because there are fewer bonds keeping them tied to their employer. They haven’t been going into the office and there is less camaraderie with colleagues in a virtual world.

A lot of company culture is built on goodwill and shared experiences that build up over time but that has come under pressure during the pandemic, according to the agency founder, who had to impose temporary pay cuts last year.

“I think we’ve drained that bank of goodwill and good energy and good connections,” he admits, adding lack of “proximity” has also been an issue.

Something more profound is happening as many of us have been reconsidering our lives, not just our work.

Relocating from the city to the country and dramatically cutting back on commuting or business travel might have previously been a pipe dream but are now real possibilities.

Some people are also leaving advertising for new careers – from web design to teaching – after last year’s jobs slump when, the IPA Census showed, the UK agency workforce fell 11%.

As Elizabeth Uviebinene, the co-author of Slay in Your Lane, writes in her new book, The Reset: Ideas to Change How We Work and Live, it has taken a global health emergency “to force a proper conversation about how we work” and to “reimagine” how our lives can be “more sustainable and more fulfilled”.

It’s important to remember that some people and companies have prospered during the past 12 months.

The mood was buoyant last Thursday at the first birthday party for New Commercial Arts, the agency that James Murphy, David Golding, Ian Heartfield and Rob Curran launched in May 2020 and which has quickly grown to more than 30 staff.

The drinks outside the Mall Tavern in Notting Hill (the same location where NCA organised its launch photo shoot, with life-size cardboard cut-outs of the founders, last year) was the first time that many of the agency’s new staff had met each other face to face.

Looking forwards, we know the pandemic has further to run, amid fears of a third wave, which means burnout and churn will continue to be risks.

Kindness and collaboration — qualities that Campaign has championed since the start of the pandemic — are as important as ever. 

But as adland looks to grow again, it is essential to cherish and invest in the most prized asset: talent.

Gideon Spanier is UK editor-in-chief of Campaign