While tough deadlines, demanding clients and high pressure are all a part of life at ad and media agencies, there’s respite in the form of flexi-timings and fun. And yes, hopefully, no one would need to do a Tadashi Ishii
The recent resignation of Tadashi Ishii, CEO of Japanese advertising giant Dentsu Aegis Network, after the suicide of an overworked junior employee, has raised several questions over stress levels in the profession. While in Japan death by overwork is so common that it has a dedicated word – karoshi – to explain it, is the situation anywhere near as alarming in the Indian advertising industry?
Mention ‘ad agency’ and the images that immediately come to mind are uber cool... Someone strumming a guitar right in the middle of his workplace, or doing a headstand in his cabin, or a bunch of people giving presentations in shorts, or a 45-year-old gleefully reading Champak comics in office... an advertising professional’s life has always sparked envy among those who have to stick to a formal dress code and fixed working hours. But there is more to the ‘cool’ tag that this profession enjoys – stress, unpredictability, long demanding work cycles, sometimes running into days at a stretch, leading to burnout and even health problems.
The advertising industry is one that makes us laugh and cry within seconds, displaying work which is admirable, aspirational and yet relatable in 30-second capsules that unfold on TV and a variety of communication in other mediums. Unlike defence, journalism and banking, it may not always find a mention in the most stressful jobs list, but what transpires behind the scenes into making those memorable one-line wonders is actually far from enviable.
THE WORK-LIFE BALANCE
While admen are largely a motivated lot who know what they have stepped into, and face up to pressure, working weekends, no work-life balance with equanimity, there are a few loose ends which even they would have preferred to tie up. Mithun Mukherjee, Associate Media Director, Omnicom Media Group, says, “The advertising industry is one which has actually turned work pressure into second nature. So much so that one fails to notice it in day-to-day work. Only when the number of briefs end up exceeding the 'super-humanly' possible limits of work, does one raise a red flag. Holidays? Here's a brief. Personal Work? Here's two. Need a break? Haha, good one, tell me more. That said, the energy keeps you going. It's what differentiates us from the ten million and one dead-end jobs that one could choose from. Every day is a new day. A fresh challenge.”
People often get into advertising for the love of the craft, but how many actually stick to it for that reason is a different story altogether. While most agencies refused to share their attrition rates, a former employee of FCB Ulka, Mumbai, who does not want to be named, claims that 60 people quit the organization in the year 2016, out of which around 40 were at a junior level. She says, “Every month, around five people put in their papers. When I left, there were five others who quit with me. There is a lot of work pressure and a disconnect between the agency and employees. It is common to see employees working till late and yet expected to come in early the next day.” We reached out to FCB Ulka for their views, but they declined to comment on the work culture issue.
Advertising is a profession where youngsters are made to take decisions rather quickly and handle responsibilities at a very early stage. Anisha Ralhan, former senior copywriter at DDB Mudra, who has worked for accounts like Volkswagen, Asian Paints and Stayfree says, “Everyone knows what they sign up for when they join the industry in terms of long hours, unpredictable social calendar, creative egos, etc. People either become numb to it or devise a lifestyle around it. You make yourself stronger and focus on the right things or you leave the industry which is why you'll notice the attrition rate is really high. Freshers branch out to other streams because you have to have a thick skin to survive.”
Take the case of a digital media planner from Gurgaon, who had joined a particular agency after an earlier stint at OgilvyOne. Sources from within the agency claim that on being entrusted with a task immediately post joining, he had a nervous breakdown and eventually quit the agency in less than a week. They blame it on the corporate-driven culture in some creative houses, which they feel should be a lot more flexible.
FREEDOM WITH A CATCH
Arunita Sen, Senior Manager, Interactive Avenues (IPG Mediabrands) says the coping process has a lot to do with personal motivation and inherent love for the work you do. “Most of us end up putting in long hours at work and are stressed out from time to time. But if you are passionate about advertising, you will slog for hours, complain about it too, yet get up the next day, come to work and be happy working,” she says.
Another take on the situation comes from Rajat Pandey, Senior Business Partner, BBH, who handles the Marico portfolio. “What I love about advertising is that nobody is going to hold a gun to your head and tell you to work. On the flip side, you are never going to hear ‘wow, you have worked for two days at a stretch, so don’t come to office for another four days’. The bosses that I have worked with, have all told me ‘I don’t care whether you are sitting in Costa Coffee or at your desk, the work should get done’. On leaner days my bosses at BBH have walked up to me and asked ‘Why are you in office when there is no work, go watch a movie or something’. Obviously you better not take your independence for granted,” he explains.
While a few understanding bosses might take into consideration the long hours their juniors put in at work, you can’t expect the same from clients. On many occasions, there are unrealistic expectations from the creative or media agency to deliver at very short notice. One of our sources narrates a colleague’s experience while working on a campaign for an auto major. “The client sent a brief at 2 pm and wanted Print layouts for a particular ad at 6 pm. My colleague was literally in tears. She worked non-stop to get it done, but could only send it by 10.30 pm. Such situations can be tackled, provided your seniors stand up for you and request the client to push the deadline. You really need a supportive senior to survive in the ad world.”
Another creative professional we spoke to had something similar to say about Contract Advertising, which he quit four years ago. “The kind of clients we handled there were terrible in terms of timelines. I remember working on Holi, other public holidays, and Sundays because of which I missed many social engagements, my first cousin’s wedding, etc. There was a time when we used to go home only once in three-four days. Yes, I have had fabulous times out there too. I do understand that the industry is very dynamic today. Unlike 15 years ago, we can’t tell the client ‘Sorry we will talk on Monday’ because competition is tough and client’s expectations are high. Unlike France and the US, we are a developing economy where I can’t afford to pack my bags and leave at 6 pm.”
It is a known fact that the business of advertising has a sense of urgency to it. For example, if an Amazon is not able to put out an ad at a certain time before Diwali, it will lose a huge chunk of business to Flipkart. A consumer won’t patiently wait for a competitor’s ad, he is going to go get that TV and in most likelihood not buy another one for at least five more years. Which means that the lack of an ad on time makes a brand lose a potential customer. Also today, a creative person can’t be working on an idea for six months because after that much time, the insight may not even be valid. Things are changing rapidly and people move on quickly.
However, for many, the stress quotient dips considerably when they have understanding clients. Jenisha Eugene, Sr. Project Manager, McCann WorldGroup, who is just two weeks old in the organization, says, “The kind of hours you have to put in varies depending on which client you are handling. At my previous agency, FCB Interface, I used to reach office by 10.30 am and work at the max till 8 pm because I had to deal with a client like Nivea. But my other colleagues who handled different accounts would end up waiting till 12 or 1 am regularly.”
Henna Pande, Head of Digital, M&C Saatchi, shares a similar thought: “One of my clients from Amazon who is also a very good friend told me, ‘Don't forget to make time for yourself.’ I guess it was a good reminder in the midst of chaos. It's good when you have clients who are humane. A lot of clients forget the human equation. I'm lucky to work with the few who never forget we are all in it together.” Giving a peek into her otherwise stressful life, she adds, “Life can become quite hectic when there are large scale campaigns, given digital is a very dynamic environment and losing out on time means losing out on social currency. I think I have sacrificed a large amount of my personal space to be good at what I do. I wouldn't say my work is tiresome everyday but there are some months when I'm just flying between four metros, managing three to four campaigns on the go and also taking care of the day-to-day jobs at the agency.”
IS IT PITCH PERFECT?
Another aspect of professional life that admen dread is pitches made to clients to win accounts. While on an average they get two weeks notice to prepare for a pitch, sometimes they come in rather last minute adding to the woes of the professional who is already bogged down by the existing work. Describing one such pitch, a former employee of a major ad agency says, “During pitches, you forget the difference between weekdays and weekends and late nights become a norm. We were pitching for a really huge telecom account back then. We worked for three days straight with just a four-hour break for sleep. People who stay far off camp out in office because it doesn't make sense to go back late and show up early the next day. Also, pitches can be the call of the devil. The nicest of people begin to panic, stress levels are high and the energy is completely different. While it's fascinating at the beginning, it just throws order out of the window. The worst is when you get to hear on a Friday ahead of a very important social commitment that you have a working weekend. The idea of a calendar hardly exists. Simply put, you can't confirm to a 9 o clock Friday dinner plan until 8.45 pm the same night.”
Another ad professional, from one of the most awarded agencies last year, says, “In most pitches that I have been part of, we work towards one strategy, but one night before the presentation, the NCD walks in and says, ‘Are you serious, this is not happening. Work it over’. And then everybody gets back to the drawing board to make things happen quickly. You will be flying out for your presentation but won’t have your PPT ready. Some of us will be working on the flight, others in office. You walk into the presentation room but your AV is still downloading on your phone. So it is super stressful.”
At GroupM, the endeavour is to ensure that we have adequate facilities to equip our employees to work to the best of their ability. We focus a lot on health and wellness and strenuously encourage employees to take their leave and spend time pursuing their passions outside office. Like most structured organizations, we too follow a 45-hour work week, which includes an hour for lunch every working day. There are instances during large campaigns and pitches when teams, including our senior leaders, need to work extra hours. During these long days, we ensure they are taken care of and are in a comfortable and efficient environment. But when projects are done, teams are encouraged to recuperate. At GroupM, our attrition is below the industry average, and our employee welfare programme has contributed to keeping this attrition down. We launched ‘m Advantage’, our wellness programme for all GroupM employees at the beginning of 2016, laying the foundation for a healthier work environment and a balanced lifestyle.
Chief Talent Officer, GroupM South Asia
The nature of our business is such that there are peaks and troughs of intensity. The intense phases involve pitches and campaign releases, which require a 100% commitment to ideation and execution in crunched timelines. However, our employees are never thrown into the deep end of the pool by themselves. Everyone works as a team, right from the seniors down to the interns, and collaborates to create ideas that solve clients’ business problems. And that’s how we convert high-intensity to high-momentum. We try our best to ensure that our employees maintain a healthy work-life balance. We have various employee-friendly initiatives to aid wellness. We have a ‘coffee shop’ in the office where people can relax or brainstorm, internal play areas, events dedicated to paintball, yoga and nutrition, meditation, guitar classes, and even masseuses coming in.
Chief Talent Officer, Publicis Communications, India
Ogilvy’s culture is that of 'Work is Play and Play is Play too’. It's an office where work hours include stand up comedy, musicians, spas, food stalls, Zumba, Scrabble contests, Pictionary, etc. All this comes together to provide a dynamic routine for employees. Of course there is cake, lots of cake! By no means can one dismiss the stress of deadlines and quality output, particularly given Ogilvy's benchmarks, these require hard work, but the Ogilvy environment encourages relaxation with the same seriousness. More than long working hours, one has come to realize that not everyone who comes to advertising eventually ends up believing that they are cut out for it, because this is an industry that demands a stretch, so we do end up seeing some folks moving on to other industries, but that number is almost negligible. One assumes that if an individual is moving to another advertising firm, it’s not because of the stress.
Sr VP, Human Resources, Ogilvy & Mather India
WHAT WILL IT TAKE TO PUT THINGS RIGHT?
Experts talk to Dipali Banka on the fallout of longer hours, attrition, resource crunch and lack of focus and how these can be addressed
ON LONGER HOURS
According to Anand Damani, Behavioural scientist & Inventor, Briefcase, the work culture in Indian companies, not just in ad/media agencies, is one where most people equate longer working hours with hard work, more work getting done and better perception of the management. “In reality, working longer hours can take a toll on employees, physically and emotionally. It leads to declining levels of engagement, increasing levels of distraction, high turnover rates, and soaring medical costs. People who take breaks often or leave the office early are usually looked down upon. But behavioural science studies for suggest work done in accordance with energy levels rather than number of hours makes more productive employees, because energy is limited and needs to be spent strategically,” he says.
ON ATTRITION RATE
“Competition is getting intense between agencies that often bend backwards to get business by pitching, mostly by offering ideas to potential clients for free. That means a relatively large proportion of employees would be impacted by such pitching in terms of time, effort and money. It definitely has an impact on such employees physically and emotionally. And if the success rate of winning a business is not good enough for the agency to thrive, not just survive, then it would affect the attrition rate directly,” says Damani.
Jaisurya Das, Managing Director, Xanadu Consulting Group Pvt Ltd, reiterates the fact that attrition is fairly common in agencies and one sees a logical burnout in the early phases. “The lucky few manage to get picked up by clients or other industries. The rest go on to become the ‘typical dark circles under the eye, agency type’. Unfortunately, alcohol and tobacco eventually become the only solace for these young professionals who are giving it all to make a career in a fast-paced marketplace,” he says.
“I have personally counselled several young ad professionals who have the same grouse. For them, most effort eventually is wasted and unrecognized by the top management in the less discerning firms. The industry calls for a great deal of team work and thus timings never match the ideal band. You are left to just toe the line,” Das says.
ON RESOURCE CRUNCH
Vishal Shah, Group Head - Media & Analytics, Spatial Access, who has just moved from a leading media agency, says that the average agency guy in India is over-worked only when the threshold levels of employee hiring are not in place and they under-resource to improve profitability.
“Such planners end up spending at least 12 hours a day in the office, which affects their personal life in the long run. It can affect the physical well-being of the person, family life takes a hit and stress levels are always high. If there’s a team in place with pre-defined job delegations, nobody faces issues with regard to being over-worked. Not all agencies face such issues. The headcount curbs in the network agencies adds to the problem. Existing staff have to carry extra large loads,” he shares.
“Also, some people end up taking more breaks than required, which in turn affects delivery times of projects. The inefficiency of the various other pillars of the agency like Operations, Buying can also affect timelines to deliver projects to clients. But of course, they might be facing the same predicament as the planners too,” Shah adds.
ON PUSHY CLIENTS
To an extent, clients are also responsible for adding to the work pressure. Last minute EOD requirements push planners into a corner and they are expected to turn around in a shorter time, Shah observes. “On many occasions, the relatively smaller clients are the most demanding. Imagine this to happen on a regular basis, the 6 pm exit would always remain out of reach. Steps need to be taken in sensitising clients on the plight of the agencies. People sitting at both ends have the same levels of education and experience.
Another shortfall lies in the presence of heads of businesses who are not able to negotiate on timelines with clients whenever required.”
ON ‘UNFASHIONABLE’ EXIT TIME
Apparently, there is a reverse snobbery in agencies. It is unfashionable to acknowledge the fact that you work from 9 to 6, five days a week. Some people claim to never take holidays, but they are the ones who will be sitting on a beach somewhere ostensibly ideating!” Shah says.
ON LACK OF FOCUS & WILL
Have agencies spent enough time developing a work culture, and what are the issues or challenges that hamper this? “Some agencies have been known to work towards this goal. But in many instances we get busy in handling projects assigned for the day, worrying more about revenue targets than a healthy work culture. HR officials along with line managers end up searching for only head count delivery rather than the right candidates. Often there is a desperate urgency to fill the headcount before it gets down-sized. So, many a time, the expedient wins over the excellent! This definitely affects the culture that the agency’s senior management had envisioned, in a negative manner. Lack of will, persistence and the occasional ‘let go’ attitude can result in unpleasant cultures in the long run. This is true in case of some agencies handling the big spenders of the ad world, where the will of the client is more important than their own,” says Shah.
AGENCIES ON THE BACKFOOT?
There is a problem in media and creative agencies, says Meenakshi Menon, Chairperson, Spatial Access. “Agency people are always under pressure. Differing levels of commitment across a group make it tough on some people while others find it easy to shift the burden and the blame. To my mind, the problem arises because the agency is most often than not playing off the backfoot!” she adds.
Yes, the work culture is informal and there is a lot of laughter and good cheer around. But behind those fancy corporate films and leaping young employees, there are a lot of lifestyle disorders that lurk. It’s about time that these agencies wake up and smell the coffee. Spend money on getting smarter, reach out to people, get a good clinical psychologist on board to advise on what needs to be done and help remedy all this. This will greatly improve efficiency and most certainly productivity and creativity.
Sometimes, the reverse of that also happens. Sahil Mehta, Creative Supervisor, Grey Group says, "At one of the agencies I was associated with earlier, we had worked for a week on a pitch for a motorbike brand. And a couple of days before the pitch, the NCD walked in and said the product didn’t have a unique selling point. He told us to not go ahead with any work at all. He communicated to the client that he needs to alter the product because it won't sell at all. We had worked on the pitch all week long and none of it saw the light of day. We thought we had lost the client but they came back a week later and asked us for our inputs on how to improve it - I believe later we even got the account, but I had left the agency by then. On other occasions, we have had FMCG clients asking us to revamp the entire campaign two days before the launch of a product which is a nightmare.”
Elaborating on the taxing pitching process, Prateek Suri, Creative Director, Contract India who has worked on campaigns like TrulyMadly and Truecaller says, “It has been three years since I joined Contract. When I clocked 11 months in the agency, I had already done 14 pitches. So, it was quite crazy back then. In all agencies there are years when you are pitching ferociously and once you get enough business it cools down a little. Sometimes I have stayed in office for two days. On other occasions I have spent many nights in office, woken up the next morning, finished my work and then gone for my presentation. Many of us work under pressure. I have seen it in several agencies and it’s all the same - the work is always completed in the last hour.”
We heard many more stories of difficult pitches, but to sum it up, they sound much like a storm at sea which is the signal for all hands to be on deck till whatever time the storm subsides. It is no doubt stressful and on occasions even needs to be redone, sometimes as close as half an hour before the presentation, which leads to absolute pandemonium. Most people we spoke to complained about the number of pitches they have had to handle each month and how that drove them to the edge.
TOO STRESSED TO STAY?
Prashanth Challapalli, former EVP & Digital Head, iContract India, who has recently joined Leo Burnett as Chief Strategy Officer, claims, “People don’t quit because of pitches or high stress. When you join advertising, you know there is going to be stress. In the last 19 years that I have spent in the industry, on an average there are two to three months in a year, especially around Diwali, where the stress levels are really high. I have worked for digital agencies as well as in mainline advertising and I don’t agree with people who say all 12 months are high-stress periods. What typically happens is that you crunch in a lot more hours in the week leading up to the festivals, so that you get your festival days off. People leave because they are not happy with their salary or bosses, but pitches are not a reason, unless you are going insane doing six to seven pitches every month. Also, seven pitches for an agency which has a strength of 400 people is nothing, but for an agency which has 50-60 people in total, it will certainly kill you.”
Meanwhile, explaining how media agencies are trying to make life simpler for their employees by automating some of the manual time-consuming tasks, Shrikant Shenoy, General Manager, IPG Mediabrands says, “Stress points have changed over the years. A TV plan 20 years ago would have just Doordarshan, Star Plus and Zee. The advantage at that time was that the channels were fewer and simpler to understand but the disadvantage was that the process of making a plan was manual and laborious. For example, let’s say there is a client plan for 20,000 spots, today we have macros which can automate the process. And we have brought in some award-winning software which can speed up the process and reduce it to just a click of a few buttons. So what used to take half an hour, now gets done in just a few seconds. But while we have automated some of the laborious processes, we have added several touch-points like TV and Digital which adds to the work.”
Talking to multiple people, the impression we garner is that the stressful lifestyle has grown on people so much that they feel adapting to it is the only way to survive in adland. These are obviously people who just love the craft of advertising. Rohan Ian, Senior Copywriter, Mirum says, “If I have a penny for every extra hour that I have put in at work, I would probably have enough money to buy myself a 2BHK flat in Bandra. But obviously you don’t get over-time in ad agencies, late nights are supposed to be a part of your DNA. I have been working at Mirum for five years now and in total, I have taken leave just four or five times. I haven’t been on a vacation at all in the last five years and I don’t mind that at all because I love my work. And I have made peace with the fact that I will get a work call just when I am in the middle of a social engagement. Being a writer for a social media agency, I am expected to think of some really catchy lines instantly and WhatsApp it to my boss. But I won’t discount the fact that when I came to this agency, I was a nobody, a budding writer of sorts. Today I am a vital part of the team. My journey at Mirum has given me stability in life and I really like it here,” he says.
Sahil Mehta sums it up beautifully: “We hardly have a stable lifestyle. We want to have a social life, meet friends, go back home at a decent hour. The stress, late nights, not getting paid enough gets to you and so does the fact that creative talent is not cherished as a professional skill. Advertising is full of people who are thinking of quitting every day and then the same people one day realize that they have worked at the same place for five more years. Advertising is also addictive, which is why some of us stick around, even in such environs. The good thing is, you know pretty soon if you’re cut out for it or not. It’s survival of the fittest. You know, the fittest alcoholics and insomniacs.”