Is it possible to work in advertising and still have a life?

The empty rhetoric of 'work hard, play hard' is falling out of favour - the creative industries need to flex to attract and retain the best talent, and ensure that employees can have a life outside work.

Is it possible to work in advertising and still have a life?

Have you heard the one about the agency that rates potential employees on how quickly they walk into their interview? In the drive to prove who is the busiest, and thus be perceived as the most important or talented, even walking can become a competitive sport. 

While this story could well be an industry myth, the irony is that in the creative industries where space from the noise, literally and metaphorically, is often the spark of true inspiration, the drive to do more for less is omnipresent. This has the potential to stifle not just creative excellence, but also a fulfilling life outside the confines of an office, airport lounge or meeting room.  

You have a lot of people saying they are very busy; but doing what? It is all too easy to slip into a vortex" Neil Hughston, Duke

Anna Hickey, UK managing director at Maxus, says there is a real split emerging between agencies taking genuine action on staff wellbeing and those that merely talk about it. 

"Presenteeism, and this ‘performance’ way of working, is implicitly about not trusting people enough to do the work," she contends. 

"If we want to move from being suppliers to true collaborators, we have to have the best people with both a broad and deep understanding of the business – and we have to have a culture of trust to do that."

Such a culture is not yet the norm, however. Amelia Torode, outgoing chief strategy officer at TBWA\London, believes it is a sad state of affairs that we even need to have a conversation about whether you can work in advertising and have a life. 

"It’s a damning indictment of our industry," she says. "This has always been an industry of long hours, impossible deadlines and creative chaos, 

but it was balanced by enormous fun, long lunches, nights out and a bit of naughtiness. Too often it strikes me that the fun in our industry seems to have seeped away." 

While the fun might be draining away from some agencies, the glorification of working long hours appears to remain sacrosanct. 

Neil Hughston, a founding partner at creative agency Duke, says that for many years the unwritten rule of advertising was that you had to sacrifice your life to your career: "For a lot of people there was this ‘chest-beating gorilla’ mentality that you had to be working 18-hour days." 

This is a mentality that leads to missing out on myriad important moments, from friends’ birthdays to first days at school, that you won’t get back. 

"The industry suffers very badly from ‘busy fool’ syndrome," Hughston explains. "You have a lot of people saying they are very busy; but doing what? It is all too easy to slip into a vortex."

With criticism of the "liberal metropolitan elite" never far from the headlines lately, questions must also arise over the innate shortcomings of keeping employees hemmed into an office, and therefore firmly in the "advertising bubble", through a toxic combination of long hours and presenteeism. 

Jo Coombs, chief executive of OgilvyOne UK, believes the danger is that sometimes we get so consumed by what we do that it is easy to lose perspective – the very thing that is so crucial to creative success. 

"If we are not out there living our lives in the real world, then we cannot do our job in creating communi-cations that engage consumers," she argues. "The more we can do, see, read [and] embrace with both arms, the more we can bring to our jobs."

The talent crisis 

From the untouched drinks trolley at WPP’s recent graduate recruitment day to the willingness of junior employees to see 5.30pm as a hard full stop on a day’s work, some believe that the historic "work hard, play hard" culture of the advertising industry is no longer much of a lure when it comes to attracting the best talent. 

The uncomfortable suggestion from recruiters that prestige about working in advertising does not extend beyond the industry itself further compounds the issue. 

With companies such as Unilever actively seeking employees with start-up experience, it is hardly surprising that a greater number of graduates are heading to tech and start-up jobs at the expense of the advertising industry. Even specialist recruiters in the creative industries confide that "a Facebook or a start-up is more impressive on the CV" than an advertising network. Through providing greater flexibility, these organisations also offer their more junior employees greater autonomy over how they spend their time.

In contrast, the advertising industry remains largely wedded to  traditional working practices. 

Russ Schaller, creative director of film at Cheil London, says that younger employees do not share that old sense of peer pressure to be the first one in and the last out. 

The young people don’t think it’s cool to be the last in the office, they think it makes you a mug" Russ Schaller, Cheil London

"I feel the winds of change are coming," he says of the old mentality. "The young people coming through see their time and experiences outside work as more valuable, and they won’t put up with it. They don’t think it’s cool to be the last person in the office, they think it makes you a mug."

When the industry’s biggest differentiator is its people, the fact that it is failing to change fast enough or significantly enough to attract the best talent is a major issue. 

"The talent crisis is happening right now. We are in it," Coombs argues. "It’s one of the reasons why flexibility in the workplace can’t happen fast enough. It’s not ‘pandering to mollycoddled millennials’, as the baby boomers might think; it’s because technology is enabling human desire for ‘better’ to move at breakneck speed and the old rigid rules and ways of working simply can’t keep up."

Creating spaces 

According to Hughston, when it comes to attracting graduates, money often isn’t a motivating factor. "You have to have a philosophy of understanding what people want and create the space for that," he says. 

When junior employees look at the top of their organisation and don’t aspire to fill those roles, the implications for businesses are dramatic. 

"It’s more of a hard slog now at junior levels, compared with the adventure when I was starting out" Juliet Haygarth, BMB

As a junior creative from one top London agency succinctly puts it: "The chief executive of our agency has two nannies, is constantly travelling and doesn’t seem to be present in his own life. Am I ambitious? Yes. Would I want to do that? Not even for a single second."

Of course, not everyone wants to be a CEO, but the fact that young people may not be realising their full creative potential should give the industry pause for thought. In fact, some argue that the space, time and investment needed to grow a creative career is not always readily available. The economic climate, or at least the excuse it affords agencies, is creating a situation in which many agencies are recruiting fewer people than they really need. 

"It really hampers our creativity at work," Juliet Haygarth, chief executive of BMB, says. "That is the difference I see at the more junior levels of the agency. I probably worked as hard, but I had more fun and was challenged with creative problems, not just logistical and financial ones." 

She adds: "I worry that it’s more of a hard slog now, compared with the tumultuous adventure I experienced when I was starting out." 

According to Haygarth, while this hard work can be the source of learning and inspiration, hard slogs that go on forever lead only to burnout.

This sentiment is echoed by a junior account manager, who confides that her agency, while successful, feels like it lurches from one pitch to the next. "There is never that space to enjoy our achievements; it is simply relentless," she adds.

Doing things differently 

Relentlessness, once a badge of honour, is in danger of alienating both current and potential employees. However, new role models and a new breed of agencies are emerging, born out of the desire not just to create great work but to create it differently. 

Haygarth recounts a conversation with friends who were questioning her on her ambition as a CEO and she replied instinctively that her aim was "not to be as big a dick as the ones I grew up with". She explains: "It was one of those moments when you surprise yourself – I had no idea I was going to say it until it was out there. So, in my own experience, a lack of role models can produce a desire to do things differently." 

"Only a minority choose flexible working. Leaders need to set an example" Jo Coombs, OgilvyOne

However, she adds that it would be "happier, easier and more fulfilling" if we could see a whole plethora of leaders doing their own thing in their own way, having a fulfilling life both in and outside of work.

Indeed, many in the industry, rather than seeing the sacrifices they made on their way up the ladder as a reason to inflict similarly oppressive structures on their staff, are instead using them as inspiration to challenge the status quo. 

Jane Asscher, chief executive and founding partner of 23red, missed her oldest child’s first nativity play because her boss declined her request for leave to attend. 

"My daughter won’t remember she was a sheep, but to this day I beat myself up for not making it and I vowed never to let that happen again," she says. It was an experience that shaped the approach to work/life balance at 23red. The agency actively discourages a long-hours working culture and actively promotes flexible and home working.

Meanwhile, self-confessed former "workaholic" Sergio Lopez, head of integrated production at McCann Worldgroup, has worked with great sensitivity to foster a culture where people can create great work but also have a great family life. He believes the industry needs to shift its approach to talent beyond the transactional to focus on what makes people happy. 

"Very few people can articulate what makes them happy," Lopez says. "If spending time with your child is the most important thing to you, then being a global executive on 12-hour days, travelling all the time, isn’t going to work for you." Authenticity and bringing your whole self to work must work both ways: "We tell people that the only way is up and we live in a society where people want more. But not everyone wants to be a CEO – a lot of people want to make great work."

The whole self 

The idea of "bringing your whole self" to work may appear to live in the realms of thought-leadership rather than reality. Nonetheless, feeling free to be the individual you are, without self-editing or self-consciousness, is viewed by many as key to creative success and wellbeing at work in the creative industries. 

"There is this sense that younger employees are fickle, but this isn’t the case if you build a connection" Anna Hickey, Maxus

"The notion that people need to conform to a type or a standard is deeply problematic, makes people less creative and takes us backwards in terms of diversity," Haygarth says. She cites the advice of her first boss in advertising – Jonathan Mildenhall, now chief marketing officer at Airbnb – who taught her that the strongest agencies are made up of a "bizarre but brilliant collection of individuals".

Harriet Shurville, head of people at McCann London, says that "bringing your whole self" to work can have tangible business benefits. She explains: "If we can encourage our people to express their true creative selves within the work environment, then they’ll be happier and deliver better work for our clients too." 

This means giving senior creatives time out when needed. For example, creative director Mike Oughton recently wrote Keeping Rosy, a film for the BBC starring Maxine Peake. 

"It’s not always about creating a greater division between work and personal life, but just as important to recognise what is important to our people – and helping them to achieve their goals. That also helps to avoid a box-ticking, clock-watching mentality," Shurville adds.

Fragile relationships 

Despite widespread understanding across the industry about the need to adapt and change, the often unspoken issue underlying the conversations about wellbeing at work remains the behaviour of clients. 

One of the big challenges for the industry is creating a parent-to-parent relationship – between employer and employees as well as client and agency. The irony is that while a steady wave of talent has flowed from advertising agencies to client-side roles in the pursuit of better working practices, the behaviour of these clients toward their agencies contributed to the culture of overwork in the first place. Agencies with employees bouncing from one "emergency" to the next often blame "unreasonable" marketers.

Yet not every agency is resigned to this state. "Does this business ever really deal in emergencies?" Hughston asks. He believes that simply "removing the pressure and the bullshit" can fundamentally change the nature of the creative industries. 

In essence, when agencies talk about a "client emergency", often what they are really describing is a breakdown of communication. "It is about shifting the attitudes of the business. We want to do bold work but it is about creating an environment where people are respected." 

The truth is that simply blaming clients for imposing life-strangling working hours on staff is a cop-out. The best agencies recognise that retaining their top talent can often mean disposing of those most difficult clients, even in the midst of economic uncertainty.

An over-reliance on email and hierarchy can also feed a toxic culture in which staff are overworked and feel that they lack autonomy. 

Sharon Whale, chief executive of Oliver, says that fragile relationships with clients and the agency being subservient can combine to create an environment in which employees are overworked as they waste time with bad briefs and miscommunications. 

"There is that element of the client demanding what they want when they want it, but, with more of our people on-site with their clients, the friction of ‘always-on’ – but perhaps never really listening – communication is avoided," she claims. "In a traditional agency you are in the midst of the electronic ping-pong game, but when you have a conversation face to face it is much faster and more effective."

Ultimately, the best agencies create and steadfastly protect their company culture. Stephen Corlett, managing director at 180 Amsterdam, points to the example set by former US vice-president Joe Biden, who wrote to his staff: "I do not expect nor do I want any of you to miss or sacrifice important family obligations for work."  

Corlett explains: "Not only is it a wise strategy to follow for any leader who wants a motivated team, it is also a reminder to us that it’s highly unlikely any of our to-do lists are more important than his team’s were; it’s only advertising, after all."

From culture to community 

While the ad industry talks a good game on working culture, this doesn’t always filter down to employee exp-erience. Even so, according to The Future Laboratory’s research, the ad industry shows lower level of stress and burnout than other sectors. With the industry predominantly popu-lated by smaller companies, collaboration may be achieved more easily and successfully within workplaces with fewer employees to manage. 

"There is a focus on grouping employees around work rather than role. We see agencies dividing teams into clusters around the work, so it’s about the collaboration and flow of the work, but also flattening the structure," Tom Savigar, a senior partner at the trends consultancy, explains. 

In an era of near-constant feedback through social media, many believe that fostering these communities of collaborators is key to building staff wellbeing. This requires a more fluid approach to talent management. 

Rob Hunter, managing partner and founder of Hunterlodge Advertising, says that rather than yearly appraisals, the agency runs a best-in-class monthly, one-to-one appraisal system that covers key areas pertinent to staff happiness. The first thing discussed in the meetings is how happy each individual is in their role and how they would rate their work/life balance. "This ensures our managers are thinking about each staff member’s happiness on a monthly basis and having 360-degree conversations around how we can help influence this," he says.

Whether or not you believe junior staff to have an overdeveloped sense of entitlement and be too delicate, or the forerunners of refreshingly ego-free and effective new ways of working, even the best agencies need to think carefully about whether, and how, their culture translates to community. 

Hickey warns that the sector is deluding itself with talk of being an "aggressively competitive industry" where employees are constantly attempting to outdo each other to get to the top. "There is this prevailing sense that younger employees are fickle and jump around a lot; but this isn’t the case if you can build a sense of connection," she argues. "What I see is an incredibly connected set of communities working within a supportive and open culture."

There is no question that the industry is facing serious structural challenges, but the evidence suggests the kind of mercenary culture that always demands more for less is not a path that leads to either employee wellbeing or sustainable creative brilliance. 

Marketing may be in a state of flux, but it’s an ecosystem that makes getting the basics right, both personally and professionally, more important than ever. This is a balancing act that former Saatchi & Saatchi and Colenso BBDO art director Linds Redding, who died from cancer in 2012, aged 52, wrote of eloquently in the last year of his life. In an essay entitled "A Short Lesson in Perspective", he concluded: "If you’re reading this while sitting in some darkened studio or edit suite agonising over whether housewife A should pick up the soap powder with her left hand or her right, do yourself a favour. Power down. Lock up and go home and kiss your wife and kids." 

Even the greatest life’s work does not constitute a life in itself.