CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/DRUGS - A hardline stance on drugs is masking tolerance in adland. Camilla Palmer looks into attitudes to drug use in an ever-stressful ad industry

Adland's relationship with drugs is a long and chequered one.

Practically everyone, whether they've indulged or not, has tales to tell

about drugs, and famous stories of the hedonistic boomtime 80s are still

raising eyebrows 20 years on.

But the fact remains that more and more people appear to be turning to

illegal substances to help them cope with the pressures of work.

That people in advertising are stressed is no news - the industry

thrives upon uncertainty, competition and deadlines.

But new research from the stress councillor Deirdre Edwards -showing

that eight out of ten senior executives in agencies and production

companies are suffering from increased levels of stress - suggests that

this year's menu of redundancies, billings reductions and account

reviews is hitting home hard.

And after previously claiming that action on stress was not something

its members were clamouring for, the IPA has plans for a code of

practice to help agencies tackle the issue before the symptoms become


Edwards, who sees clients from both the advertising and marketing

industries, claims that employees are being "screwed" by their bosses to

produce results, rather than being motivated and encouraged to perform

in more positive ways. She says she was spurred on to conduct the

research following an increase of people coming to see her with problems

involving panic attacks, low self-esteem, eating and drinking problems

and, surprise surprise, drug use.

In the minds of most, there's a fair amount of distance between the

occasional recreational indulgence in drugs and frequent, problematic

use, including drug taking in the workplace. Agency bosses have casually

confessed to Campaign in the past that they prefer staff using drugs to

heavy drinking, as workers' symptoms appear to be less debilitating the

morning after.

However, the mere fact that most interviewed for this feature preferred

to remain anonymous is a stiff reminder that taking most drugs is


Despite an increasingly tolerant society appearing to condone a growing

number of illegal substances, no-one in advertising wants to broadcast

anything other than a hardline attitude.

Most senior agency executives are well aware of the kind of stress

people are under. "It's always been an intense business," one chief

executive says. "We have to allow people to relax and let off steam.

Whether that's at the agency bar, in town or wherever, we have to accept

that some people will use drugs to do so."

What is universal is the fact that very few agencies seem to have a

fixed policy on drug use among employees. "It's basically a

fence-sitting acceptance that adland takes drugs," another senior agency

boss says. "For some places, adopting a zero-tolerance stance on

recreational use means losing half the staff."

Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy's chief executive, Jeremy Miles, claims

the small size of the agency helps senior management "keep an eye" on

staff at work, but admits that what goes on outside the office is

difficult to measure. "We're interested in looking after them at work.

We try to encourage a healthy attitude, to balancing work and private

life, and it's important that people learn to differentiate," he


With the lack of a consistent industry line, agencies display remarkably

different attitudes when it comes to staff taking drugs at work. "For

most, it's a given that it's not acceptable, but when timing's tight on

a pitch and everyone's working hard, it's not unusual for people to take

something either to get them going or get them to sleep when it's all

over," another senior executive admits.

Most agencies are keen to stress their caring sides, claiming that help

will be the first thing offered to a known drug-taker whose work is

suffering from their habit, rather than their P45. "A case will be

looked at individually. We prefer not to have a blanket policy," one

managing director says.

It's a different story, though, if you're looking for a job, with even a

minor conviction for possession: "There's no way we'd hire anyone - no

matter what their track record or how good they were - if they had a

record for drug use," another managing director says.

The IPA's president, Bruce Haines, argues that - aside from the

illegality of it - agencies must put the needs of other staff first when

dealing with drug use. "Agencies have a responsibility towards making

sure that all their staff are happy," he says. "And many won't be if

they are working alongside colleagues who are regularly taking


The chief executive of Nabs, Kate Harris, was shocked when she started

working for the charity - but not for the reasons you might expect.

"I've worked in advertising, I know what goes on, and I can't believe

how few calls we get about drugs," she says.

Harris puts this down to the increasing youth of the industry: "For

youngsters, taking drugs doesn't seem like a problem, but it is when it

becomes a 'normal' part of the working day."

Become a member of Campaign

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to, plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events.

Become a member

What is Campaign AI?

Our new premium service offering bespoke monitoring reports for your company.

Find out more

Looking for a new job?

Get the latest creative jobs in advertising, media, marketing and digital delivered directly to your inbox each day.

Create an alert now

Partner content