OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

Everyone knows the pros and cons of working in advertising. OK, the

interesting accounts, exotic shoots and stimulating personalities are

the good bits, but the bags under the eyes, the high levels of stress

and lack of home time make it one of the most demanding careers out


In fact, advertising ranks above medicine and the emergency services as

the seventh most stressful career, according to recent research from the

University of Manchester.

Ad execs have traditionally worked long hours, but what is beginning to

matter more than just the financial carrot is what is offered to

hard-working staff to help them achieve a better work/life balance. The

industry charity NABS says that the workplace is getting more stressful.

Its latest statistics show that 55 per cent of ad execs feel they work

harder and longer hours than they did two years ago.

But countering that are the 60 per cent who feel they are 'happy and

fulfilled'. So despite the stress, something's working to keep people in

the business.

A healthy work/life balance is something that the industry is now taking

seriously, according to Anne Murray Chatterton, the director of training

and development at the IPA.

'It's good that agencies have woken up to the fact that people are their

assets. They don't just need good financial rewards,' she stresses. She

says last year's IPA report into women's issues revealed that what were

once the concerns of women working in advertising - flexible hours to

allow more family time, the chance to work at home and the attitudes of

non-family orientated colleagues - are now firmly in the minds of men


So, armed with a substantial government grant, the IPA is working to

develop a set of best practice codes specifically dealing with the

work/life balance. The Retention of Talent Working Party, chaired by

Walker Media's partner, Christine Walker, will survey 40 agencies to

determine best practice, find out what's changing attitudes towards

flexible working and use this to help IPA member agencies set up better


But what are agencies actively doing themselves, unprompted by the


Of course, most boast pension and healthcare schemes as being a main

attraction for staff. But these - along with good old gym membership -

are soggy carrots to dangle in front of staff these days. They want (and

deserve) more than that.

Balancing time at work with time to enjoy life is a crucial issue, and

agencies recognise the need to ensure their staff achieve that


Even sabbaticals are now seen less as an extended holiday and more as an

opportunity to bring fresh ideas and vigour back to the job.

HHCL & Partners' planner, John Leech, returned to work in March after a

six-month trip driving round the US with his young children. The

agency's chief executive, Robin Azis, says the inconvenience of having

key staff away is balanced by the enthusiasm they bring back to the

agency after their period away.

Maternity - and increasingly paternity - leave is now claimed to be

above and beyond government policy levels. While more women at senior

level have increased awareness of family issues within the workplace,

men are demanding more time off too.

The scale is definitely a sliding one - St Luke's gives new fathers a

month off, other agencies just a few days, and a sabbatical for WCRS

means one week after five years' service - but that these opportunities

are there at all can only be a sign of improvement.

'That bosses are agreeing to write agreements like these into staff

contracts is proof that things have changed considerably,' Chatterton


Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO's managing director, Cilla Snowball, admits

juggling her family life with work is helped considerably by the culture

of the agency. 'We are geared towards looking after each other. Plenty

of staff have children, and that has a knock-on effect as people are

more understanding of needs and priorities.'

M&C Saatchi's new-business director, Judy Mitchem, says the reputation

of the agency as the male-dominated enclave in Soho is being busted by

the increased number of senior staff with children.

A mother herself, Mitchem is keen to point out that having a family does

not mean working less hard. 'It means organisation - lots of it - to

ensure you're focused on work at work, and on home when you're


Agency doctors and dentists are now commonplace - after all, why lose an

employee for a half-day wait in the surgery for the sake of a holiday


The majority of agencies claim to have some procedure for dealing with

stress, whether it springs from work, home, relationships or financial

problems. All claim the way staff are nurtured goes most of the way to

ensuring problems are stamped out.

Some offer buddying - teaming younger, less experienced staff with more

savvy superiors. Some have on-call counsellors, while others try to

ensure the working environment means issues can be resolved there. Some

pay for external advice. Some pay for free helplines. Some advise time

off. All, at least, admit to the problem.

And technological advances now mean working at home can often be more

efficient than being in the office. Bartle Bogle Hegarty staffers, along

with those from many other agencies, are wired to the net, can tailor

their hours to suit them and can work from home when they need to.

Mother's office is open 24 hours to allow people to work whenever they


Perks that were once the preserve of breakaway agencies such as St

Luke's are now becoming commonplace. If a weekly massage and the

opportunity to use agency time to better yourself is what it takes to

prevent long-term problems arising, then so be it.

Most agencies encourage staff to get out during agency time to visit

galleries and exhibitions for inspiration or simply just to free their

minds from the stresses of work. Some subsidise staff to do courses or

pursue personal interests.

Mother partner, Stef Calcraft, says the importance lies in creating a

community where people want to work: 'Agencies are defined by the people

who work there. We make money through their intellectual capital, and

must invest in them. It's part of our job running the place to make sure

we keep the best talent.'

He says the free home-made lunches cooked daily in the agency enable

people to relax properly at lunchtime and, like an increasing number of

other agencies, staff have access to free reflexology and yoga sessions

once a week.

He is echoed by St Luke's executive creative director, Kate


She says getting the work/life balance right was a crucial part of

forming the agency in the first place: 'Co-ownership is what the

agency's philosophy is. Our staff have an emotional input here.'

She claims the agency's high staff retention rate (in five years the

headcount is 130) is proof of its commitment to treating staff well.

But if this type of management style suits smaller agencies perfectly,

it is not something which instinctively lends itself to larger


Calcraft claims it will become impossible for Mother to operate on a

similar level when numbers increase. He's put a ceiling of 70 to 80


'The collective bond of shared responsibility is lost once your group is

bigger than that. We'd rather stay small, and operate like this, than

get bigger and lose that.'

Chatterton refutes that, claiming that IPA research has not found any

tangible differences between the way big networks and their start-up

rivals handle the work/life balance.

Duckworth Finn Grubb Waters' chief executive, Michael Finn, makes the

point that smaller start-ups have been forced to take these issues on

board sooner as they attempt to make a name for themselves in the


'I don't believe in long hours and weekend work now, but when we were

setting up, that was what we had to do to make it work. Dave Waters (the

joint creative director) had his second child the day we started the

agency, but we couldn't stop for that,' he laughs.

But in spite of formal clauses in staff contracts and less structured

perks, none of the good works mean anything in an agency where the

senior management are stuck in the past.

Mustoe Merriman Herring Levy's new-business director, Damian Horner,

claims the legendary competitiveness of the industry is still being

perpetrated by bosses who burned the midnight oil 20 years ago and

expect their staff to.

'Role models are vital to younger agency staff - they take their cue

from their bosses. They've worked hard to get on a graduate trainee

scheme at an agency and want to make sure they're noticed.'

He says a healthy work/life balance starts from the recruitment stage -

he only hires people who can demonstrate more than a desire to work in

the industry. 'We want people who go out, who see films, travel, play

tiddlywinks at the weekend, whatever, as long as they're not unhealthily

preoccupied with work.'

Azis agrees. 'All that stuff about getting to the top through working

ludicrously hard is complete crap. People work well when they're happy,

and feel they're being treated like adults. The only way that works

properly is when the people at the top do it themselves.'

Mitchem thinks younger staff need to work on building up their

professional confidence to allow them to manage workloads effectively.

But she acknowledges this only comes with experience. 'When I started

out, I worked silly hours - that was the culture. Now, I'm more

confident about when I do that work. If I need to leave early, I know I

won't be questioned. Newcomers need to feel their judgment is respected


Chatterton says that, apart from the IPA research providing a set of

criteria for agencies to beef up on these areas, the issue of staff

treatment is becoming key to their client credentials.

'Many clients are themselves light-years ahead of advertising agencies

in what they do to help their people. It used to be a case of: 'Oh, we

can't allow people flexi-time or home working - the client might not

like it.' The chances are now that they are actively seeking out

agencies with a similar culture.'

So, it's official then - knitting classes, hot dinners, quiz nights and

skiving off on summer Friday afternoons can help you win pitches.


If agencies are working harder on work/life balance issues, how are they

faring when it comes to staff who face a crisis while on the


Most concentrate on spotting stress-related trouble before it happens,

through effective management and developing a culture which encourages

people to speak out if they are experiencing difficulties.

Particularly striking are the number of younger staff who fall prey to

stress-related illnesses. While no agencies would give details about

individual cases, most said that lower-ranking staff were more


'We've had cases of people who have made every effort to cope with

dealing with a key piece of business which has ultimately been too much.

Sometimes they've been putting on an incredible act and have convinced

everyone they're fine, but then there's a big collapse - we're always on

the lookout,' one head of personnel said.

That aside, those with employees on long-term sick leave for whatever

reason were keen to stress their continued importance within the agency,

even if they were off for years rather than months.

HHCL & Partners' head of planning, Mary Stow, developed ME

two-and-a-half years ago, cutting short a high-flying career. Formerly a

Campaign Face to Watch, Stow is keen to point out that her doctors have

assured her that her ME is not stress or work-related.

She returned to work from a bout of flu and was unable to recover


'This is the usual way ME strikes. I struggled on with what is called

post viral fatigue syndrome,' she says.

During the six months it took to diagnose her with ME, Stow says the

agency came forward with advice and worked hard to reassure her on the

'basics' such as financial matters. 'The last thing you need is the

worry of whether you can pay the rent. They made sure I could.'

Since then she has been off work on a majority salary package, and is in

close contact with colleagues at the agency. 'I've got e-mail contact,

am in on what's happening, and, importantly, know my job's there for me

when I get back,' she comments.

Stow acknowledges that the level of support she's received from HHCL is

unusual. 'I would definitely feel more vulnerable if I was still working

for a big network,' she says.

'I can't give them a prognosis, I can't tell them when I'll be back at

work and I'm unable to cope with working from home. But they've stuck

with me.'

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