Monday, February 18, 2013

Can you be happy, working in advertising?

Fast Company recently ran an article about the Happiest Companies in America, the result of research conducted by a recruitment company, Career Bliss.

The closest thing I can think of in SA, is the "Best Companies to work for" survey run by Deloitte. We also have something called "Best Employers".

But the notion of happiness, versus 'best employer', presents a far more holistic view.

The article lists the key factors of happiness at work as:
"... work-life balance, one’s relationship with his/her boss and co-workers, work environment, job resources, compensation, growth opportunities, company culture, company reputation, daily tasks, and job control over work performed on a daily basis".

So of course it got me thinking what the Happiness Index might be in your average ad agency. On the winners list of Best Companies to Work For and Best Employers for 2012, there is not a single ad agency. In any category. Not even a merit mention. So is it possible that people in advertising don't like where they work? Or are just generally unhappy? I spoke to Deloitte and in fact it's more likely that the agencies just don't want to pay the steep entry fee (R36,000 for company under 500 people).

But are agencies happy places to work?

In order to unpack the above-mentioned key factors in relation to the average ad agency, I thought it might be helpful to look at some pro's and con's (my own list - feel free to disagree vehemently or add yours). (And note I said 'average'. I'm sure there are many that would look quite different, and happy hallelujah to you, because then you're doing something right).


  • Ad agencies are generally gorgeous to look at. (Tick for Work environment). There is a good chance there is a room with fake grass, you will probably have a bar fridge in your office and  a couch, there may be a statue of a cow somewhere, there'll be cool art on the walls, and a bar that takes up the whole top floor with a pool table, free beer and a view of the sunset.
  • Ad agencies have great parties.
  • If you work in an ad agency you get to go to cool events and conferences and indabas.
  • It's a creative space in a corporate world - that's kind of fun.
  • You work with amazingly interesting and sometimes strange people.
  • You get under the skin of many different product categories, and work with some of the best brands in the world.
  • You get to understand consumers and what rocks their world on a very much deeper level than the average Joe.
  • You can wear what you like (except if you're in Account Management).
  • It's a young industry, so you can move up the ladder, quickly, if you're good. (Yes to growth opportunities).
  • There is very little to beat the thrill of seeing great work being produced and exposed to the world. Sometimes you win an award to, which is also good.
  • There is also almost nothing to top the feeling of your work delivering astounding business results for your client.


  • Working in an ad agency is generally a high stress job: unreasonable lead-times, inexperienced clients (and agency staff), mistakes and high stakes.
  • You will work more hours in a day than you knew there were hours in a day. Saturday's and Sundays are not always considered weekend days. (So a 'not so much' for work-life balance. There often is none. Especially if you also travel. That's added on to, not part of, the very long days).
  • There is a good chance that you will experience massive rejection and critical self-doubt several times a day.
  • Your relationship with superiors is quite possibly a bit tricky - the good ones are intolerant of mediocrity and push for the best. It's not always easy to do that in a nice way. Read the Steve Jobs book. (Strike: relationship with superiors. Not always bad, but sometimes kind of.)
  • Company culture is a strange one: on the one hand, the culture will be about excellence, but also about having fun and doing good. So it will be a kind of bi-polar culture - you will love some of it (partnering with the orphanage), and you will hate some of it (win at all costs).
  • Company reputation: if you're with a good agency - sure you feel fantastic. It's an ego boost. If you work for an under-the-radar one, you suffer the ignominy of people saying "Who?", when you mention where you work. Either way, the reputation is skin-deep: wait until the agency loses their biggest client and you're on the street.
  • Agencies are always understaffed, or at least always think they are. They always feel if they had just one more team, just one more assistant AE, just one more junior strategist (to do the leg work), just one more art buyer... then time will miraculously materialise and the work-life balance will fall into place and everyone will live happily ever after, Except they won't. Because chances are the staff ratio is already too high, and the reason time is sucked up is because the systems and skills don't help them work more efficiently. And those new bodies would not be even noticed in a week. They would be sucked under too. (Big fat no to job resources).
  • Compensation? Hold on. Let me just stop laughing because it's hard to type and cry with laughter at the same time. Some people in ad agencies earn a lot. Clients earn more. You only earn a lot if you are very, very good and probably own the company. If you had to work out what you earn, and what you do for that money, it would be a very poor trade-off. And of course Clients are squeezing fees, so the agency has less money, so that 13th cheque and increase are pretty unlikely. Some agencies do well and pay bonuses and that's great. Compare them to the average corporate salaried employee's bonus and you would weep into your designer stubble.
  • And then of course the daily tasks factor. Depends what you do, but a lot of every day is about meetings about meetings. It's about admin and dotting the i's and crossing the t's and following up what people said they would do but most likely haven't. Or if you're on the creative side, your daily task may be to work on 'revert 56' for an ad that you stopped caring about on 'revert 8'. But on a good day, your daily task might take you to a photo shoot, or on a consumer immersion for a beer company; it might ask you to be creative and innovative and you might have a great meeting and get to do some really break through work. The ratio of great days like that to drag-yourself-through-mud days, is probably 6:94 (that's great = 6%; to drudge = 94%).
  • And here's the real douzy: "job control over work performed on a daily basis". There is very little control over your own work. Unless you define control as 'being pecked to death by a flock of geese'. Everyone has an opinion, and your job is to listen to them all. Of course it should also be your job (because of your expertise) to thank them politely for their opinion, but explain why the option proposed by you is in fact better. Sometimes that works; a lot of times it doesn't.

The article gives us the 5 things they think that companies can do to be happier:

  • Happy employees don’t stay in one role for too long. Movement and the perception of improvement create satisfaction. Status quo, on the other hand, creates burnout.
  • There is a strong correlation between happiness and meaning; having a meaningful impact on the world around you is actually a better predictor of happiness than many other things you think will make you happy.
  • A workplace is far likelier to be a happy place when policies are in place to ensure that people regularly get acknowledgement and praise for a job well done.
  • Recognize that employees are people first, workers second, and create policies that focus on their well-being as individuals.
  • Emphasize work/life integration, not necessarily "balance."

The article talks about Pfizer, one of the winners, and quotes:
"Staff achieves a balance between improvement, growth, and maintenance. Work burnout isn’t about too many hours spent on the job, it's about feelings that come from improvement, or lack thereof." It continues: "McClatchy believes a happy workplace isn’t necessarily free of conflict, either. At Pfizer, he says, management addresses conflict constructively.

Okay, so now let's add to our Con's list these factors:

  • The average creative agency has inter-department disdain that would melt the skin off the less hardened. Account Managers roll their eyes and sigh when talking about the creative colleagues. Creatives sneer and sigh and pull paper clips apart when talking about their Account Management colleagues. Strategy and Production bemoan the skills of everybody in the building, but especially Account Management; Traffic would sell the whole Account Management department to the first bidder and so it goes. During one of my Account Management workshops with an agency, someone remarked on the language they used to talk about each other. He was right. Suit is not a compliment.
  • Conflict is common in an agency. It's generally not managed well. Conflict can range from a difference of opinion, to the fury that you think you are entitled to one. Not everyone is equal in this space. And not everyone can handle it. 
  • The work that the client in many instances wants is often radically different from what the agency wants to produce. In many instances, the client wins, and the agency produces work that pays the bills but has an enormous (downwards) impact on: resources, culture, reputation, work-life balance, client-agency relationships, intra-company relationships and so on.
  • Advertising is trying to sell stuff. Let's be real. Apart from the pro-bono stuff, not a lot of it has a real Kumbaya feeling to it. The meaningful-ness quotient of the average ad is about zip.
  • Most agencies are a bit slack about policies and reviews, and career growth paths and those important but not urgent things.
In spite of all this, advertising gets into your blood and under your skin. And while there may be frustrations in most agencies, you will still find a good bunch of eternal optimists who love what they do so much they put up with the niggles, consoled by their dream of having their own agency where things would be so different.

What can agencies do to be happier?

  • Hire fewer, better skilled people and pay them more.
  • Have fewer clients and more clients that partner with you on the work that you know works and will be inspired doing.
  • Draw very clear and non-negotiable boundaries for down-time. Constantly exhausted creative people are uncreative people.
  • Have fewer meetings with fewer people in them. Meetings are the Dracula of this business if time is blood.
  • Reward people regularly and in ways that matter. A great book to read for every Agency MD is Daniel Pink's book on motivation called "Drive". Here's a quote from a great summary if you haven't got time to read the whole book (but you should).

"For any job that requires thought, creativity or problem-solving, Pink .. recommends.. three elements:
Autonomy: the desire to direct our own lives;
Mastery: the urge to make progress and get better at something that matters;
Purpose: the yearning to do what we do in service of something larger than ourselves."

  • Encourage them to master their skills.
  • Listen and encourage a culture of listening to each other, to clients. Really listening (the Steven Covey way).
  • Make sure the relationships that govern your agency's day, are good and healthy and professional and constructive and inspiring.
  • Give people some freedom to work how and where they want to. Why do we all have to go to a building to work everyday? Liberate them.
  • Let them work on things that have real meaning (to them) for a percentage of their time. Choose a charity, or invent something - let them form task teams that try and make the world a better place, and get rewarded for it. (Lots of info on this in Drive).
  • And look after the wellness and whole-ness of your people. Send them on holiday. Send them home. Let them see their children before bedtime. Mostly: let your agency be an environment where your people are seen and heard.

“The annual review is dead. Happiness is a daily journey.”


  1. Great article and even though it should put anyone off going into advertising it won't. As with any creative business, it attracts the whacky work-a-holics who are there for the ride even though they bitch about it. They wouldn't survive the corporate 9 - 5 world anyway.

    On the weekend I read Peter Mayle's "Up The Agency" written in 1989. Not too much has changed. An interesting journey over his 30 years in the advertising business.

    Thanks for the enlightenment about having to pay R36 minimum for your company to be considered as a "best to work for". Farcical! Nothing like buying accolades.

  2. Thanks for sharing the informative post with us.
    Ad Agency in Indore