Why adland needs more drugs
A view from Tara Austin

Why adland needs more drugs

No, not coke – but we can all learn something from the the way psychedelics free users from the power of their egos.

A few summers ago you could have found me at an altar, dressed head to toe in white, taking part in an ancient ceremony. Yet quite unlike the ego-enhancing extravaganza of a wedding, this particular ritual involved me vomiting my guts out as my ego slowly dissolved to nothing. I was taking part in my first ayahuasca ceremony.

For those not yet familiar with ayahuasca, it’s a foul-tasting tea made from a combination of plants native to Latin America. It contains the psychedelic compound DMT and is considered an illegal, hallucinogenic “drug” in this country. But that won’t be for much longer.

Don’t take my word for it

Why am I so confident that ayahuasca and fellow psychedelic medicines (such as psilocybin, the psychoactive in “magic mushrooms”) will not only soon be legally available, but also heralded as great healers of our age?

Well, I could write at length about the 40,000+ people who, since the 1940s, have safely taken part in guided psychedelic therapy sessions within clinical trials and the extraordinary success rates (up to 80%) achieved in treating profoundly difficult-to-treat conditions like alcoholism, tobacco addition, PTSD, depression and even anorexia.

Or, I could talk at length about the world-leading research currently under way at Imperial and Johns Hopkins, which is finally showing that these medicines (I won’t use “the d word” again) allow for rigid and unhelpful thought patterns to be “reimprinted” as the neural pathways in the brain are made flexible again.

I could even share with you the words of Professor David Nutt, the former chair of the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, who said that “psychedelics overall are among the safest drugs we know of… it’s virtually impossible to die from an overdose of them; they cause no physical harm; and if anything they are anti-addictive”. Anti-addictive.

I could do all of that, but instead, I’ll recommend Michael Pollan’s best-selling tome How to Change Your Mind as the handbook for the modern “psychonaut”. Or, for those with only an hour to spare, why not watch the recent BBC documentary The Psychedelic Drug Trial. Yes, you’re going to start seeing it everywhere. The psychedelic renaissance is upon us.

What the hell does any of this have to do with advertising?

There is a tendency for us all to believe that the next great social revolution will be technological because, well, the last one was. We tell ourselves that whatever defines the next age, it will probably be something that Elon does. It’ll be some whizzy bit of kit.

Yet that’s a false narrative. It’s a narrative that rests on the assumption human beings need to dominate “the world” in order to improve it. But the next great social revolution won’t be “out there”. It will be “in here”. It won’t be technological – it’ll be more organic. Just like the pill. Just like antibiotics. Just like vaccination. And this particular revolution definitely won’t be televised – because it’ll happen in your head.

Our industry naturally exists at the vanguard of culture, so it’s only right that we should engage with this social revolution before many others – but there are two very specific reasons why psychedelic medicines are relevant to anyone reading Campaign today.

Do take my word for it

The first reason is obvious. We need help. In recent years our industry has rightly put a new emphasis on wellbeing. There were weekly must-reads on unhelpful drinking cultures and burnout even before corona drew ever-more attention to our mental health troubles.

These new medicines, in the right hands, do have the power to heal the addicted, the sick and suicidal. They have the power to help people find their joy again, as they did with me. If you are someone who is struggling and needs to hear these words, then please believe me: these medicines offer hope.

Yet, as important as that is, the second reason I’d like to talk about psychedelics is to share what they have done for my understanding of the creative process, that thing we do and, as the bars begin to buzz again, I’d also like to put these kinds of “medicines” at a hard, right angle to what I see as adland’s historically ego-centric “drug culture”.

Class As

No one’s going to Cannes this year. As someone who enjoys quaffing rosé and calling it work I’m a bit sad about that, but I also recognise that the festival embodies some of the very worst excesses of our industry. I’ve never been very attracted to cocaine, but I noticed last I was there that its preferred moniker on the Croisette was “doing class As” as if “indulging” was something to be proud of.

It was then I recognised that pride is the very essence of that drug: a substance that speaks to the ego and has historically driven the spirit of confidence in many of our creative agencies. Is it a coincidence that these agencies have traditionally been male-dominated, chest-thumping places where the best ideas fight it out until one dominates and is victorious? Places that champion conflict in the name of creativity? I don’t think so –  because people shape culture and drugs shape people.

Fortunately, ayahuasca shaped me. And by giving me a new perspective on my everyday thinking, it showed me my ego was too quick to defend itself and too much in control. I needed to listen to what others were saying without hearing veiled attack. I needed to stop self-flagellating when, in reality, there was no criticism being made. I needed to realise it was almost never about me, it was about the work. I’ve been a better strategist, a better line manager and just a better human being since I realised this blindingly obvious fact.

Your ego is not your amigo

So, I believe the time has come to retire our drug culture. It is stale, pale, male and it has heart palpitations. Join me instead in preparing for a very different kind of culture, one in which we realise it’s time to practise the vulnerability that pre-corona we used only to preach.

Because it really is time. It’s time to feel rather than just think – to collaborate rather than compete and create not destroy. It’s the time to be humbler in our thinking, more comfortable with not knowing, more comfortable with feeling ambiguous and unsure. It’s time to be ok with changing our minds and to celebrate “flexibility of thought” in ourselves and others. Now is the time, at last, for open-heartedness – not conflict nor defence – because it’s only from yoking our minds together, free from our walled-in egos, that we can be better than the sum of our parts.

Of course, all this is damn hard to do. I certainly don’t pretend to be a guru. I still feel the familiar white heat of pain when I’m criticised, the kneejerk rush to defend. I still fear for my status and my, gulp, career. I’m just getting better at seeing that for what it is and not letting it be me – psychedelic therapy sure has helped.

The best thing is, you don’t have to take a psychedelic journey to be a part of our new more mindful age. So next time you’re in that meeting, practise leaving your ego at the door. Maybe even say so at the beginning. Challenge the room to be ok with changing their minds and saying the stupid thing. Surprise everyone. Be human. Be weird. Listen to what is said and what is not said. You really don’t have to take a psychedelic journey, to be a part of this brave new world – just try your best to turn on, tune in and drop the ego wherever you can.

Tara Austin is a director in the Ogilvy Behavioural Science Practice and a lobbyist for drug policy reform. She will interview Professor David Nutt on “Rethinking Psychopharmacology and Behaviour Change” at Nudgestock 2021 on Friday 11 June

Picture: the psilocybin found in magic mushrooms is being heralded by health professionals (Getty Images)