‘Most people get sick before they realise their work pattern is harming them’

Advertising may be a rewarding, engaging and highly sought-after creative career, but there is a dark side to working at agencies: their long hours culture.

By Kate Magee

Just scratch the surface and you will hear the horror stories. People vomiting in the work toilets because they are so burnt out. Bosses making “part-timer” comments when staff are leaving at 10 pm. The expectation that you will turn up on a weekend for a regular creative review. An executive creative director standing on a table at 3 am the night before a pitch, screaming at everyone “it’s all fucking shit”. People no longer making plans with friends or family because they know they will have to cancel. Others working at the hospital bedside of sick children or dying relatives. Women choosing to freeze their eggs or have fewer children because they don’t think their job is compatible with a family. And more tragic consequences for those who have struggled with the pressure.

It’s time for adland to wake up. There is a collective delusion that regular weekend working and evening hours, usually prompted by a pitch, are an acceptable price to pay in pursuit of agency success and fame. But if achievement comes only at the expense of the wellbeing of your staff, built on unpaid overtime and non-existent personal lives, it could be interpreted as an unsustainable business model and a moral and financial failure.

In Campaign’s Best Places to Work survey, workload came up as an issue even at the very best agencies. When asked about different elements of agency life such as leadership or work satisfaction, the average positive response was more than 90%. The figures were much lower, however, when it came to whether staffing levels were adequate, deadlines were realistic and staff were able to find a reasonable work/life balance, with larger agencies faring worse than the small and medium-size ones.

Like most things in life, often people need to experience the downsides of an issue in order to act. As Julie McKeen, head of media at recruitment consultancy Odgers Berndtson, says: “There are some lazy latent behaviours because working long hours is not going to bother the chief executive. If work happens at the weekend, at the very worst they’ve got to dial into a short call and tear apart the latest thinking.”

Well, here’s the motivation for senior leaders: increasingly you will probably struggle to hire and retain the best people. Many staff are reappraising what they want from life after a year of extraordinary living, and it’s not to spend every waking hour at the office or at a laptop in their bedrooms. Your attempt to create true diversity and inclusion in your agency, a huge competitive advantage, will struggle if you demand long hours of all your staff. You could lose talented people with valuable experience to burnout and new careers. It’s likely you will alienate parents and carers. You could lose an entire new generation who appear to be looking for a more blended way of working.

This conversation matters now because burnout appears to be on the rise. Nabs recorded a 35% rise in demand for its helpline in 2020, with emotional support one of the top themes. Many have ended up working longer hours at home. A lack of physical separation from work or the decompression of the commute has destroyed boundaries and created an inability to switch off. There is a rise in digital presenteeism, and the loss of many industry jobs due to declines in adspend piles pressure on those who remain. An expected increase in pitches this year, combined with the shift to more project-based work, means the pressure shows no signs of abating. It’s time to tackle the long hours culture.

Part one: People want to leave

It’s not just an idle threat, people are actively pursuing other careers. Some through choice, and others because they have fallen victim to Covid redundancies. They are moving in-house, going freelance or joining management consultancies, private equity-backed start-ups, tech companies and platform businesses.

One freelancer says every senior agency creative she speaks to wants to leave. In a recent APG survey, a quarter of planners were now unsure about staying in the industry. McKeen was inundated with calls for advice at the start of the year after Campaign’s feature about people quitting adland.

People grumbling about their jobs is nothing new. But Laura Braithwaite, who co-founded freelance recruitment agency Liberty Hive, believes it is different this time. She is surprised at the number of conversations she’s had with senior people she would not have thought were looking to leave. The freelance positions on her platform are going more quickly than the permanent roles. When she surveyed her pool of consultants four months ago, 62% said they wanted to work on a flexible freelance basis. She expects this figure has increased since the survey.

Zoe Scaman, who founded her own strategy consultancy Bodacious after working in agencies, says the pandemic has exacerbated issues for the younger generation. Without the trappings of the free breakfasts, late-night pizzas and agency socialising, they are left with the reality of the job: long hours, average pay and pressure that feels increasingly individualised without the support of a physical team. “People are realising they fell for the fluffy stuff,” she says.

Veronique Rhys-Evans, who left her 20-year agency career to go freelance, agrees: “There is an illusion that is created from things like free bar nights. But when all of that is stripped away and the blinkers fall from your eyes, you realise you are part of a factory. Most people have to get sick before they realise their work pattern is harming them.”

Her decision to go freelance was prompted by an “emotionally and physically exhausting” episode that finally made her recognise the “twisted” work culture.

She says: “My son has a life-threatening condition, type 1 diabetes. He was diagnosed at 11 months old and has since been blue-lighted to hospital many times with seizures. On a number of occasions, this happened mid-pitch prep or when I was up against some ‘important’ deadline, say to write a strategy or even just a press release.

“I would be at his bedside, doing my best for him, but still trying to deliver the work I had promised. Nobody told me to do it, but nobody stopped me either. Getting some perspective, I made a choice: family would always come first. I went freelance so I could be fully in charge of my time and workload.”

Part two: Why the long hours culture exists

Long hours in adland is a perennial and intractable problem. Both Karmarama’s chief executive, Ben Bilboul, and Rapp’s executive chairman, Chris Freeland, remember being told when they signed their first contract to ignore the stated 9.30 am-6 pm hours and put in whatever time was required to get the job done. Working weekends and late nights was a badge of honour, a sign of passion and commitment.

“Insidiously, in an industry that still sells hours, getting more hours out of your staff sometimes makes good business sense. The truth is creative people don’t want to work like that anyway. Work hard? Yes. Work stupid? No,” Bilboul says.

Indeed, agencies are struggling with clients’ higher expectations despite falling budgets, which is putting a real strain on their broken charge-by-hours business model. “We’re under so much pressure from margins,” Rania Robinson, co-founder of Quiet Storm, one of Campaign’s Best Places to Work, says. “Retainers are less common, we don’t know when the work is coming so people are being more cautious about headcount. This puts more pressure on top of existing staff. We’re all getting better at resourcing quickly, but there’s still a lag.”

Freeland agrees: “Everyone now wants, and expects, more for less. When you are a people-based business, the only way you can accommodate this mounting pressure and still remain in the game is to work harder and, consequently, longer hours than ever before. After all, if you don’t, someone else will.”

But this race to the bottom does not serve anyone. It requires a collective industry shift to an output- and then ideally outcome-based charging model, chairman of the IPA Commercial Group and group chief executive of Miroma Agencies, Marc Nohr, argues. And for agencies to start saying no – hard for any service industry to do.

Indeed, adland is not alone in this long hours conundrum. Other service industries like law, medicine or banking are arguably worse. Just look at the recent plea from first-year bankers at Goldman Sachs to work “only” 80 hours a week. But at least their staff enjoy higher salaries than adlanders.

Part three: All peaks, no troughs

Let’s be clear: all long hours are not the same. It takes time to learn a craft. People are often able to be successful freelancers only because of their willingness to “put the hours in” during their early career. Many enjoy the camaraderie, creative problem-solving and adrenaline rush of a pitch. Most people are probably willing to work longer hours for a short period of time during an intense project.

The problem comes when these long hours become expected, the norm. After a work peak, there needs to be a trough where people can recover. Lose that and you risk burning out. Braithwaite says: “A consultant I know loves pitching, but she left agencies because she doesn’t want to do the long hours and then have to show up the next morning for work.”

Many also believe the younger generation won’t accept a long hours culture. Robinson says she has noticed this group generally “have less of a single-minded drive towards linear career paths, they have side hustles and other priorities”.

McKeen says the pandemic may also have intensified the new generation’s desire for purpose: “I do wonder whether the contrast between us talking into a screen for 13 hours a day in the backdrop of a pandemic, where people are going out to the frontline every day to save lives, has exacerbated the frivolity of what we are doing. Are we impacting people’s lives positively or selling them stuff they don’t need?”

And for all the talk on diversity and inclusion, in order to make meaningful progress on these issues, the industry needs to ensure it can attract and retain those who are unable to work consistently long hours, whether that be due to caring responsibilities, medical issues or a desire for further education.

Part four: Better leadership wanted

A long hours culture also becomes a perpetuating cycle. Those who worked this way in their early careers often expect others to do the same. “But I don’t think there’s any honour in wearing the scars of a really dysfunctional early career. Just because it happened to you, doesn’t mean it is right to happen to other people,” McKeen says.

Even consciously trying to break the cycle is difficult. Once creative Hollie Newton became a leader, “I realised I was recreating the same experiences I had suffered as a junior. I knew how to win pitches and make brilliant work, but I didn’t know how to get the same quality without the long hours.” She left agency life because she didn’t want to be part of the problem.

Tackling the issue requires a step change in management, and this starts with a real desire to change.

The irony of the current rise in agencies’ well-meaning mental health initiatives is that all they really do is push the issue back to the victim without fixing the underlying problem. By all means encourage and train your staff to be more resilient and deal better with stress, but wouldn’t it be better to stop creating environments where people are burning out in the first place?

For a start, the industry needs to take a long, hard look at what is really necessary, and what is a product of poor organisational habits. When McKeen was an agency junior, she remembers being made to miss her mother’s birthday dinner and theatre trip because she was working on a pitch: “What was I doing that was so important I screwed up the whole evening for a family of five by not showing up? I was asked to be on hand in case they needed someone to photocopy some pages.” She wasn’t even needed in the end.

McKeen adds: “If someone is performing open-heart surgery and asks you to be on hand in case the patient bleeds out, that’s probably acceptable. But being asked to be on hand to do some photocopying? Probably not.”

As the world reassesses what work should look like, this is our chance to build back better. Of course it won’t be easy. Agencies are under huge financial pressure, many are insecure about their jobs following swingeing cuts last year, while high client expectations and the pace of modern life show no signs of abating. But as Saatchi & Saatchi would say, nothing is impossible.

The industry will certainly reap the benefits. Let’s rediscover the joy and inject some fun back into adland. And let’s take better care of the abundant creative, smart and talented people in the industry by not bleeding them dry.

For, as Linds Redding, a New Zealand-based art director, poignantly wrote when he was dying of cancer in 2012: “Countless late nights and weekends, holidays, birthdays, school recitals and anniversary dinners were willingly sacrificed at the altar of some intangible but infinitely worthy higher cause. It would all be worth it in the long run… This was the con… So was it worth it? Well, of course not. It turns out it was just advertising.”

“I got to the point where I had to pull the plug”

Two adlanders share their experiences of burnout and how they found a better work/life balance.

Zoe Scaman, founder, Bodacious

Scaman worked in agencies until she set up her own strategy consultancy, Bodacious, in 2017.

A couple of friends who are heads of strategy at agencies have currently got massive turnover issues. I’m not surprised. During the pandemic, without all the agency trappings like the booze, the creative environment, the freebies, the food in the kitchen and the water cooler moments, people are realising how shit the job can be and how exhausting it is.

Agencies try to build this camaraderie “go team”. But you’re on a conveyor belt and often you’re not getting paid fairly – you’re constantly pitching, absolutely knackered. When you wake up to it and see what’s really going on, you think: “What the fuck am I doing? Why would I stay here?”

I felt exactly the same way when I left my previous agency. I was unbelievably burnt out, I couldn’t do it any more. I was constantly, constantly pitching and not sleeping properly. Pitches are horrendous – you work until four o’clock in the morning, over weekends. You struggle with relationships because you’re not home. You sleep on sofas and eat Deliveroo and nothing else. I was doing that back to back, constantly and I just got to the point where I had to pull the plug.

Pitching is so detrimental to people’s health. It’s not just the agency’s fault, it’s also the clients who expect that level of work. I don’t think they really understand what pitching requires and how it affects each individual who’s burning the candle at both ends.

Nicola Wardell, Managing director, The Agency, Specsavers

Wardell left her agency career a year ago to lead Specsavers’ in-house agency.

I grew up within agencies’ long hours culture. And it was only when I had my daughter that I genuinely had a hard stop at the end of each day. I approached this in a really open way and was clear with clients that I would be leaving at 5 pm every night.

Every single one of them was supportive – many were parents themselves and worked to the same pattern. I never had a client demand I stay in the office late. But the reality was that I would regularly be back on my laptop between 7.30 pm-9.30 pm to keep afloat with what was happening internally.

The difference in-house is that there is no expectation to work outside normal hours. We even have a reminder that it’s 5 pm to encourage people to leave.

Of course, the work is still tough and intense. There is more of an early morning culture – the car park is full at 8 am. But when we leave the office, there’s a real respect for your personal life and boundaries.

Any long hours we do are seen as an exception. They are commented on and recognised. If we have weekend shoots, the team is encouraged to immediately book off days in lieu.

Our in-house agency has a strong client service dynamic, so we’re still sweating the details and getting nervous before major presentations. But clarity of communications saves us time and energy. Because of our proximity to clients and our ability to influence, there’s an intimacy that forges more efficiency.

We are based in Guernsey and do the same great work that many of us used to do in major cities. But when our day ends, we step outside to the sights and sounds of the sea.