The truth about well-being in our industry
A view from Suki Thompson

The truth about well-being in our industry

Many agencies are still failing to address the well-being of their people and only pay lip service to mental health.

Recently, I went to an industry dinner and the theme for the evening was truth. The truth that many brands are in search of; the truth behind many of the iconic campaigns that agencies and clients have delivered.

The advertising industry has had, yet again, a challenging year, but many are eternally optimistic for the future. While this makes the people in the industry fabulous company, for me it does tend to mask the reality that many are struggling. They don’t want to admit that they still work in cultures that lack diversity, sustainability and a focus on well-being, resilience and mental health. 

I believe that, in this new world, as leaders we need to be taught how to create environments that give people the confidence to walk into work and be tested in different ways. We need to balance our "game face" with real, authentic leadership that brings far more honest conversations. 

Some brave leaders of agencies are really promoting well-being and resilience, and changing their cultures. Josh Krichefski was quite rightly awarded the Founder's Choice Award from This Can Happen, an organisation dedicated to well-being in the workplace, to recognise his work at MediaCom to normalise the conversation around mental health.

As Publicis Groupe’s business transforms, Annette King has introduced a number of initiatives for the well-being, culture and productivity of its workforce. These include the company’s mental-health programme, Headline, highlighting awareness of the importance of well-being through training, education and support. The company currently has 97 mental-health first-aiders, 132 mental-health and well-being ambassadors and 442 people who have attended training on stress awareness and mental health in the workplace. King also launched flexible working across all of Publicis Groupe UK – a programme that aims to galvanise teams, reflect the modern way of working and improve output.

Daniel Gilbert at Brainlabs points to his focus on well-being as one of the reasons for being voted in The Times' best companies to work for.

But many other agencies too often gloss over the reality. The excuse is lack of money, lack of time or just the lack of recognising what their people really feel and want.

The excuse for long working hours, excessive focus on client entertainment, old-fashioned ways of working, a lack of diversity and the obsession with meetings can all be pointed to the demands and needs of clients. When I talk to many people in agencies today, they feel stressed, unappreciated, frustrated and trapped. I fear that most agencies don’t want to face up to the real truth, but instead live a double life. Agencies need to look at innovative creative approaches to effect change, manage short-term margin release, streamline processes, get rid of unnecessary hierarchy, work with clients to find new ways of working and really look at the well-being of their people.

They doggedly continue to find new models with which to work with clients, but with the same impact on their people. The reality is that they are still failing to address the fundamentals of their people. They pay lip service to mental health by offering a few drinks, free breakfast and yoga, with the more adventurous training offered to a select few.

The next generation of leaders are attracted to creative environments that are innovative and brave, where they can learn to become resilient, thrive in cultures where their well-being is taken seriously and measured. The very best companies focus overtly on their people, not as second or third on the list, but first.

I recently talked to Jon Wilkins, executive chairman at Karmarama, who told me about the difference between puppies and dogs. He said: "We coach our new generation of people like puppies. They need constant feedback, instant approval and clear boundaries. If they make a mistake, we tell them immediately; if they do something well, we praise them. It is intense and time-consuming, but very worthwhile." We were taught like dogs, he suggests, left to fend for ourselves, occasionally fed, sometime patted and left to get on with it: "It’s a very different way of working."

This struck a chord with me and, as the saying goes, it’s tough to teach an old dog new tricks, but we need to create radical new cultures, radical new ideas and constantly evolve agency and client structures. The talented agencies that are embracing change believe that new agency cultures don’t simply replicate the same old client and agency ways of working – and that takes courage and time.

Over the past few years, I have been struck by the relationship between health, vitality and commercial success, so I launched a new company and this week a book, Let's Reset. I have joined forces with photographer Rankin and Vitality UK to shine a light on mental health and well-being in the workplace. Alongside anecdotes and messages from more than 80 top business leaders and entrepreneurs regarding their experiences of mental health, I share my own transformation journey, with practical advice around mental wellness, well-being and resilience. This collaboration of real-life stories and photography brings to life why there has never been a more important time to reset the working environment. 

I have been overwhelmed by the support of friends from across the industry, both to share their stories as well as to help with the development, production and print of the book and the launch events, including: The & Partnership, Pulse Creative, Publicis Groupe, Grey, Facebook, Clear Channel, Global, News UK, Brainlabs, WPP and many of the faces in the book who are all keen to reset the workplace.

I hope, by this time next year, we will see not only structural agency transformation but also a cultural transformation, where the truth of brands and the truth of our people are given equal weight.

Suki Thompson is founder and chief executive of Oystercatchers
Let’s Reset is out now in online bookshops and on letsreset.com

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