Wellness over wine: Advertising should move away from its alcohol-fuelled culture
A view from Mordecai

Wellness over wine: Advertising should move away from its alcohol-fuelled culture

This Stoptober, the ad industry should examine its unhealthy relationship with alcohol.

It’s finally sober October, the month that joins dry January in the teetotal Olympics for Brits across the country. Drink during Covid has become more dangerous, with an uptick in alcohol consumption and the mental health issues that often come with it. While approximately one in 10 of us decided to stop drinking alcohol since the arrival of Covid-19, according to a report from FleishmanHillard, most 25- to 34-year-olds reported an increase in alcohol intake.

As we head towards winter, with the outdoors no longer an option and lockdown number-two on the horizon, the holiday party diary lies empty and the question arises: how do you survive advertising without drinking? Moreover, how does advertising survive without drinking? 

Advertising has traditionally been an alcohol-fuelled playground, pervaded by the Mad Men "rosé all day, and bar carts on Fridays" attitude. It’s not "on brand" to be sober in advertising, where new business, awards and client entertainment tend to be lavishly boozy and expensed parts of agency life. Of course, alcohol is not unique to ad industry culture, but the savoir-faire and service basis of the industry make drink its hook, line and sinker. Abstaining from alcohol in advertising can feel like you’re not delivering on your own industry’s KPIs.

I don’t drink. Not at client dinners, not on the Croisette in Cannes, and not every day for many days. Not drinking in advertising is like being vegan at the Christmas dinner – you’re offending mother. Worse, you immediately become the centre of casual conversation: “You don’t drink – why?” “Do you ever drink?” “Why not?” “You’d be fun if you drank”. It’s like being a pedestrian in Los Angeles; you’re doing something so foreign people struggle to understand.

For a creative industry, there’s a lack of decorum when it comes to addressing those that don’t drink. It’s exhausting being dry on the bench. To survive this experience there are tools: the French exit/Irish goodbye, ordering your own drinks at the bar, and describing a lime and soda as a G&T when desperation calls. There are breakfast meetings, scooter rides to Antibes and adventures in mocktails before Seedlip was cool – it’s intellectual athleticism to be in advertising off alcohol.

Like many industries, advertising has faced a reckoning in recent years. #MeToo and Black Lives Matter called out advertising to create more inclusive, safe cultures at work. Now Covid-19 has made the workplace obsolete, banned travel and left many colleagues trying Zoom happy hours to little avail. Alcohol as accoutrement to so much in our business suddenly has no place. Zoom drinks sign-offs feel worse than the houselights going up at G*A*Y.

At the same time, we’re working more – at least two hours extra since the start of lockdown. As we eye round two, mental health is more a priority than ever – World Mental Health Awareness Day is coming up on 10 October. 

We’ve reached a critical time in advertising when wellness is now more important than wine. Agencies are providing access to meditation, yoga and courses in language, culture and art – such as Publicis with its “Plug-In”, Havas’ “Equalise” and Essence’s global “Mindfulness Moments” – creating new paths for comradery and connection away from alcohol. One could say that advertising has gone to rehab. 

If/when we return to offices, agencies will have a once-in-centuries opportunity to remodel the workplace – new charters, ground rules and cultures will be possible. This is the time to embrace what we’ve learned from our reckoning, what we know of our post-Covid future, and create workplaces that foster creativity by nurturing talent away from the vices the industry has fallen victim to in the past. 

The bar carts are gathering dust, Cannes remains in question, Don Draper is dry – yet many will agree, the work has never been better. Teams are collaborating and creativity is at an all-time high. Agencies are wooing through Zooming, winning new business and navigating the current consumer culture. Deals are being done without a Dukes’ Martini to close.

I believe there is hope via disruption, and we are accelerating at a rapid speed towards new ways of working, connecting and living during this time. Drink is not the devil, but an industry culture that revolves around alcohol is. Whether advertising is just sober this October or staying dry to January, it’s proving it survives just fine without drinking.

This sober October may sound easier or harder than those past depending on which side of the statistics you fall. Either way, there’s a high chance that you or someone you know is drinking more. Royal College of Psychiatrists released data showing 8.4m people in England were drinking at higher-risk levels in June, up from 4.8m in February. It may sound trite, but there’s no doubt this affects many people in advertising. Check in on your colleagues and find resources that will help via Public Health England.

Mordecai is principal at Mordecai Inc.