The case for an asshole-free creative industry
A view from Paul Woods

The case for an asshole-free creative industry

In a new book, Paul Woods discusses how the industry can improve its working practices. Here, he explains why cutting down on hours worked is one key way to achieve this.

Ask yourself this question: how many hours did you work last week? Or the weekend before?

If you work in the creative industry – especially in the agency world – the chance that you’ve worked a couple of weekends in the past month is pretty high.

In the past, the creative industry has had a reputation for unsustainable work practices, long hours and staff burnout, all in the name of producing "great work".

The truth: unsustainable work practices and toxic culture are actually the enemy of creativity, profitable businesses and great work.

Why it matters

Great agency culture matters. If you want to do great work, it matters. If you want to attract the best talent, it matters. If you want to build client relationships, it matters. And even if you are a truly soulless creature who only cares about a quick buck, it still matters.

The question, of course, is: why is the idea of a more sustainable creative agency suddenly becoming so important? After all, the creative agency has been around for decades, making billions a year and picking up countless awards along the way – regardless of the toxic work practices. Why change now?

The reason is very simple: the creative industry runs on a single currency: great people. Unsurprisingly, great people will only stay in your agency when they are happy and, in the digital age, the best talent is empowered by more information – and choice – than ever.

Keeping good people is harder than ever

In the digital age, there are no secrets – talent can easily discern what agencies have good or bad culture. Sites such as Glassdoor mean that staff can anonymously speak their mind and their reviews become instantly available to potential hires and potential clients. It only takes a quick search to find evidence of bad culture that was once conveniently hidden behind closed doors.

In addition to increased workplace transparency, there is another factor at play in the case for a more sustainable working environment: creative people have more options than ever outside the traditional agency. In recent years, agencies – once the only game in town – are beginning to lose their sheen as the best people are increasingly lured away by more appealing and lucrative offers from the deep pockets in Silicon Valley. Tech companies such as Google, Facebook and others often offer more competitive salaries, flexible working hours and a plethora of other perks that agencies find hard to compete with.

The allure of in-house teams at non-tech companies are growing too. I’ve seen many friends and colleagues leave the agency world behind, with not as much as a backward glance, for in-house roles at traditionally "non-creative" companies. Especially when it comes to digital products, client side is a very attractive place to be. Creatives get to handle projects with more focus on getting the details right – rather than rushing from project to project – and often get to work in a more sustainable environment.

These factors mean that now, more than ever, you need to keep your best people happy. When they leave, the work suffers. And when this happens, the clients will not be far behind.

A more sustainable industry

The days when creatives were expected to go to just about any lengths to produce great work are slowly coming to an end. And rightly so. When you take a step back from the old, unsustainable ways of working, you realise this type of behaviour is nothing short of insane. Reality check: you are helping corporations sell cheap phone packages, fizzy drinks, haemorrhoid cream and all manner of useless products. Is this really worth sacrificing your personal life, your family and your friends for?

So, dear reader, whether you are a designer, a copywriter or a creative overlord, I ask you this: after you answer the question "How many hours did you work last week?", you need to follow up with a much more important question: was it worth it? Do this every time you go to that night shift that means you’ll miss a family dinner, a kid's birthday or a vacation. Chance are that it isn’t.

I’ll never forget the impact of an article by the late Saatchi & Saatchi and BBDO adman Linds Redding had on me. In a poignant 3,000-word essay, the creative director – terminally ill at the time – reflected on his career and the long hours, missed birthdays and anniversaries, culminating in this statement: "So was it worth it? Well, of course not. It turns out it was just advertising. There was no higher calling. No ultimate prize."

Keep these words in mind every time you’re thinking about missing your kid’s birthday for a deadline. It’s just advertising, after all.

Paul Woods is chief creative officer at Edenspiekermann. How to do Great Work Without Being an Asshole was published by Laurence King on 11 March and is available from book stores and at www.laurenceking.com

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