CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/LEANER AND MEANER AGENCIES; Is stress becoming an industry killer?

Take heed of the death of an overworked adman in Japan, Richard Cook says

Take heed of the death of an overworked adman in Japan, Richard Cook


Dentsu, the Japanese advertising giant, will be taking a long, hard look

at its working practices following last week’s court ruling that chronic

overwork was responsible for the suicide of Ichiro Oshima, a young


The agency was ordered to pay pounds 790,000 in damages to Oshima’s

family for failing to take care of the health of its employee, who had

worked for 17 months without a single day off.

Are there any lessons to be learned from this tragedy in the UK? Or can

Oshima’s death be regarded purely as proof that there still exist

considerable cultural gulfs between nations?

Everyone has a story. Usually anecdotal, but a story all the same - from

a friend’s friend in an agency where the creative department daren’t

leave until 8 o’clock; where the accounts department is fined for

turning up five minutes late; where the account handler who gets into

the office after 7.30 in the morning starts to look anxiously at every

internal memo for news of his own departure.

That people are prepared to believe some of these anecdotes suggests

there is more than a grain of truth in them. It still isn’t done to

protest too much about overwork.

London might not be as work-obsessed as Tokyo, but what is a fact is

that the British advertising executive is working considerably harder

now than at any other time in the recent past and, if this trend is

allowed to continue, it could have important repercussions on the

quality of the advertising that is produced.

The industry charity, NABS, has already identified a number of potential

problems. Due in part to the stripping of middle management staff during

the worst days of the recession, agencies are increasingly recruiting

younger, inexperienced starters in responsible, stressful roles.

‘Stress levels in the industry are high, as there is still the worry

about job security and a requirement for employees to work longer and

longer hours,’ the NABS director, Denise Larkin, agrees. ‘These

conditions, coupled with the number of younger, less-experienced and,

inevitably, cheaper people taking on massive responsibilities are

detrimental to relationships at home and activities outside work as well

as within the office walls.’

A report published last month by the industry and company data analyst,

ICC Information, revealed that the ad industry had shed its 80s

reputation for profligacy with a vengeance, and that agencies had become

leaner and meaner by working their staff harder, paying them less and

earning more money from them. Staff numbers at top agencies dropped from

a pre-recession average of around 150 in 1991 to 100 last year, while

salaries have fallen and profit per employee risen sharply.

‘I’m sure that there is a lot more pressure put on agencies these days,

both by clients and by agency management,’ the M&C Saatchi joint chief

executive, Moray MacLennan, says. ‘But then people coming into the

industry are much more serious and dedicated to their careers than was

typical even in the 80s.’

This isn’t a phenomenon confined to the advertising industry. The very

real fear of unemployment has proved a powerful stimulus to most people

in the jobs market. The danger is that companies will try to exploit

this fear.

‘We are a start-up agency and so have to work incredibly hard,’

MacLennan says. ‘I think that everyone here accepts that and makes

allowances for it. But it can’t go on like that forever. There has to be

balance - people should be encouraged to take holidays, for example,

rather than being carped at about it, even as a joke.’

Certainly some agencies stress the virtues of hard work more than

others, but everywhere there is the danger that putting in long hours is

accepted as a shorthand for working effectively.

‘Two years ago everyone here was working from eight to eight at least,’

Ben Langdon, managing director of Collett Dickenson Pearce, says.

‘That’s calmed down a little, but one thing we have all learned from the

recession is that everyone has to work for the money that they earn, not

just turn up for meetings. Of course, working harder and more

professionally is not necessarily linked to the number of hours worked,

it’s about being more effective during your time at work. But, at the

end of the day, this is still a business that thrives on adrenaline and

it can be difficult to switch off from work in the evenings and at


Langdon says that CDP had a reputation as a lazy agency when he joined.

Now, along with the likes of Lowe Howard-Spink, GGT, Bartle Bogle

Hegarty and M&C Saatchi, it is regarded as one of the hardest working.

And obviously there is some merit in that, some advantage, even. The

danger is that the creative quality that originally distinguished the

agency will get lost in a haze of ‘alternative advertising solutions’

and reassuring research.

‘There is a tendency now for some agencies to work harder at holding

clients’ hands and providing the comfort blanket of different solutions

and lots of supportive research, sometimes at the expense of the really

good instinctive ad campaign,’ Chris Thomas, the Abbott Mead Vickers

BBDO new-business director, comments.

For the Young and Rubicam copywriter, Paul Catmar, the issue is one of

balance. He works from around 9am to 6.30pm or 7pm most days. In six

and-a-half years at the agency he has never skipped off early. He takes

more than an hour for lunch, but stays later than the 5.15pm stipulated

in his contract. ‘There’s no doubt that working till 10.00 every night

and putting in three or four hours over the weekend can be exhilarating,

but after a while you just get jaded,’ he believes. The rest, he says,

and many in the industry are starting to agree, is merely machismo.


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