'I was an ECD at 32 and had burnt out by 33'
A view from Hollie Newton

'I was an ECD at 32 and had burnt out by 33'

Hollie Newton became an agency executive creative director at just 32. But a year later, she quit to pursue a different type of creative life.

I rose through the ranks at a relatively young age, on talent, but also through sheer brute hard work. You couldn’t get higher up without putting in mad work hours. I've been in pitches where we worked 72 hours in a row without sleep – it was absolutely insane. 

As a young creative, you want to be brilliant and you want to work on the big pitches to prove your worth – to get to those golden TV briefs. My art school drummed it into us that you need to be the "first in and last out", that your bosses need to see that you're there all the time. Dedicated. Taking it seriously. Presenteesim starts right at the beginning – on placements, those who work the longest get hired. I deliberately went to some of the best agencies for the experience. You make sacrifices for it and it’s great. The highs are wonderful. The friendships you makes are lifelong. But it does start taking its toll. 

I can't think of any brilliant artist that doesn't work all the hours. But whether it's in a way that suits you, or whether it's inflicted on you, is probably the crunch point. 

As a creative, it's normal for a review to take place on Friday afternoon, only for it to be pushed back and pushed back. So you cancel your evening plans. And then they’ll say: “Great review, let's see you back here at this time tomorrow.” There's little acknowledgement that you're being asked to come back on a Saturday. Most Saturdays. It gets to the point where you don't make plans because you always have to cancel. 

When you’ve been working such long hours, at such high intensity, for so long – especially on a pitch – it's not uncommon to end up vomiting in the loo. I once held the record for having three meals in a row from the same takeaway place. We ordered in lunch, then dinner, then I worked through the night and ate the remains for breakfast. All the time you are still there trying to be brilliant. 

When I became the boss, I tried to do things differently. I would say sorry if we were working on a weekend and try to flag it beforehand. I’d try and swing people money for a nice dinner. But that doesn’t really fix it. 

I tried to set strict schedules on pitches, but everyone's diaries are packed and running late. I'd run late. We'd rearrange. You run miles down the track on an idea and someone will – usually for a very good reason – decide that it's not right, so you start all over again. It’s a crazy way of working. 

I realised that I was recreating the exact same experiences I had suffered as a junior. I knew how to win pitches and make brilliant work, but I didn’t know how to get the same quality without the long hours.

I was made an ECD at 32 years old, but was absolutely burnt out by 33. My husband was doing crazy hours as well. We were looking at buying a house but, though the money was great by then, there was that terror that if we ever lost our jobs we’d lose the house. And that would mean we would always have to work these crazy hours. I realised that this was how my life was going to be forever. I thought if I carry on working like this, I’ll probably die from stress, but I might also miss life. That I'll die and my gravestone will say: “She made some nice ads.”

Also, all the success, the speed, someone writing about your excellent work, telling you you're wonderful – it's not great for the ego. I thought: "I have to escape this or I am going to turn into a total dick."

So I quit. We deliberately reset and started again, small, to give us the room to find more balance. We left London and moved to the seaside. 

I’m still horribly ambitious. I’ve just had my first TV series optioned. We’ve renovated a house. I’ve been creatively directing a high-street regeneration project. And I’m creative director for a new digital start-up. 

I am more disciplined about my time now. If I haven’t cracked a brief, I don’t stare panicking at a computer screen. I take a break. Life is happier.

I'd say that, whatever job you do, you should check in with yourself every six months, step back, and look at how things are really going. At school everyone asks you about what career you want, but no-one ever asks you what sort of life you want. I’ve been offered ECD roles since I left, but I’ve turned them down because, in all honesty, I don’t want to get sucked back into that life again. 

Now I’ve stepped out of adland, and dived into the broader creative world out there, the difference is shocking. There is balance to be had. Purpose. And more time to enjoy life. I look back on my time in agencies and think: “What the f*** was that all about?!”

Hopefully my story shows that, with a leap of faith, you can balance a creative thriving life.

Hollie Newton is a screenwriter, creative director and "advertising runaway"