Of working late in advertising

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The death of Mita Diran, a copywriter at Y&R Indonesia, got widely reported in ad industry magazines recently. She reportedly died due to a lethal combination of overwork (30 hours on the trot) and excessive consumption of energy drinks, which ironically she must have consumed to ‘keep her going’. Earlier this year, 24 year-old Ogilvy China executive died of heart attack, reportedly due to stress induced by continually working long hours that month, though the agency denied it.

Discussions and comments about the reasons for both these deaths have largely been limited to comment forums in articles which reported the news and Facebook. Some senior professionals have called upon the advertising industry to think differently about work-life balance following the death of Mita Diran. Some have said that if you are being asked to work unreasonable hours, it is your responsibility to say no.

In my view, the industry is not going to come together to discuss work-life balance and why almost all agencies are plagued with ‘long-hours-everyday’ culture. They have far more pressing issues to worry about: this quarter’s revenues and the next big pitch or campaign, for example. I also believe that the industry has rarely been united to fight for a common cause. The remuneration system, pitch fee, sign-on fee being charged by some clients have all been issues addressed individually by agencies and not collectively as an industry body. So the death of an employee reportedly due to over work the related issue of work-life balance is unlikely to be an issue taken up at an industry level.

Fact is, for many agencies, working late every day (and even on weekends) has not just become a routine, but an expected thing to do. That’s what riles me most. I have no issues with hard work or working late, when needed. But when it becomes a habit, then an expectation and then the organisation culture to work late every day, it is time to call out the pointlessness of it all.

There is no room for slackers: Nobody contends the fact that we all need to work hard to get ahead, to grow. And growth is a continuous process arising purely out of earnest effort and learning. This is particularly true of the advertising industry where many disciplines come together: analytics, psychology, art, film making, marketing and so on. So it can be a great opportunity to expand one’s mind. And that cannot happen when you are a slacker at work. Just weeks before the Mita Diran incident, a leading media agency professional in Australia said the ‘industry should stop apologising for long hours‘. He got a lot of flak in the comment forum but I tend to agree with him on one point: if you want to get ahead in life, be prepared to work hard. No one is going to argue with that, especially at the entry or junior level. But in my view, in the advertising industry, long hours is automatically associated with working hard. They are not necessarily the same.

Working hard and earnestness are virtues to be cherished, practiced and celebrated. Youngsters, especially must be ready to put in long hours and not shirk work. And as you grow in the business, responsibilities grow – long work hours are inevitable. Travel, client meetings, industry events, administration-related work, networking – they all take a toll. Maintaining a strict 9 to 5 routine everyday is near impossible.

But when you examine the reasons behind long hours everyday the systemic negatives emerge:

Poor productivity during work hours: in most agencies, actual work is unlikely to start before 11am. And that is being highly optimistic. So work-related meetings start late, work starts late and naturally goes beyond work hours. Some believe that we should not regulate creative minds by insisting on getting them to come to work at a specified time (‘how does it matter if he gets a fantastic idea at 2am and not at 2pm?’ types) but lets not forget that our entire industry thrives on collaborative work. An action impacts several other actions. Strolling in at 11.30am and then being whisked away to a client meeting only to return at 5.30pm (because the client made you wait for an hour) means work can only start at 6pm (half an hour tea & smoke break, Facebook check and chatting with colleagues). I am sure you know what I mean and the larger point I am driving at – we just do not maximise the 9.30 to 6pm work hours at all. The reasons vary: lack of discipline, lack of respect for other’s time (clients to be blamed on this too) and many others which leads to the inevitable: managing to attend to the regular to-do’s of the day only after 6pm.

Not getting it right the first time: I realise that ours is not an automation-driven, machine controlled input-output scenario where errors can be reduced to decimal points. But a lot of the effort is due to re-work. We all know that even for a single 30-second film, the entire team puts in many iterations, sometimes absurdly so. We all have that ‘I could write a book with these scripts’ situation when it comes to ad films. Very rarely is the reason behind this wasteful exercise is analysed and corrective steps taken. We all carry on as if writing 25 script options before a single film is made, is the only way to operate. I think this happens because clients don’t write down clear, simple, measurable briefs before the project starts. The usual brief is ‘we need the next campaign’ or ‘we need a summer campaign’ or some such ambiguous thing. The agency plunges into the effort without a written, agreed brief too. (‘Why you need a brief, man? You know the brand’). And then the tamasha starts – evaluating the script both internally and externally. ‘Maza nahin aaya’ being the common reason for rejection. So everyone trudges back to the trenches to start all over again. Usually after 9pm. Again, I am simplifying the ‘not getting it right the first time’ to a 30-second script but you get the drift? Whether it is a creative brief, a planning document, a client presentation on annual plans or a simple email, Minutes of Meeting getting it right the first time helps save time, rework and long hours.

Let me sum up what I’ve said thus far by reiterating:

– there is no short cut to success; hard work is a must in any profession – a positive trait which needs to be celebrated

– however, let us not confuse hard work with what passes off as ‘working late’ in the ad business. In most cases working late is forced on employees due to bad habits and ‘attitudes’ : lack of discipline, poor planning & time management etc. E.g., new business pitches. Many a times work ‘expands’ to fill the time available till the deadline or there are simply not enough resources to work on a pitch. So even if we have a month to prepare for a pitch (on rare occasions) the actual work, including the planning, happens the night before, stretching to moments before the team has to leave for the client presentation

– long hours and working on weekends is a must on many occasions (and that is a good thing with many positives) in the advertising business; but that does not mean that such a practice should be worn as a medal and those who manage time and their responsibilities well enough should be seen as shirkers

– the industry at large is not in a position to address the issue at a fundamental level and bring in work-life balance because part of it involves saying ‘no’ to unreasonable demands from clients, implementing changes to agency remuneration, investing in resources etc. The ad business is not in a position to initiate discussion on these topics, forget implementing them . Reason: the industry’s position with clients is relatively weak compared to what it was years ago and with other ‘consulting’ industries.

I had referred to ‘not getting it right’ as one of the issues which leads to re-work and unnecessary late night work. One of my ex-colleagues explained it well. When a team takes on a project, enthusiasm is at 100% (maybe higher); but at the first instance of re-work enthusiasm levels dip to 90%; second time around to 85% and 3rd time around to 80%. But often, at the fourth revision the enthusiasm levels dip to 20%, not a marginal dip to 75% like in the earlier rounds. So re-working – working on the same campaign or script is a colossal waste of time & energy. Often times the reasons for rework itself is vague: working on a trial and error basis just to satisfy the whims of a client who is either unclear on what he wants or is unable to judge the work, over-researching a script and giving in to every feedback of the consumer who suggested changes in a focus group discussion and so on.

Making large scale changes to how the industry operates involves huge investments (in better talent or more resources) which the industry is not in a position to afford. Our destinies are tied to larger industry sentiments and consumer spending. If those take a hit, advertising budgets are the first to be cut usually. Financial discipline is a good thing and the agency business is a business like any other. So profits are a must and unaffordable investments must be shunned. In any case big ticket investments like better talent, more resources or salary hike are linked to our remuneration from clients – they don’t go up automatically every year. Retainer fees are decent only with a few large spenders while most of the industry operates in wafer-thin margins. So agencies can never afford to ‘rock the boat’ and are perpetually at the risk of losing the business or being called to pitch for a business they are working on. This insecurity leads to saying ‘yes’ to almost everything, including re-works and unreasonable demands even from the junior most guy in the client brand team. The agency business used to be about the CEOs of two companies working closely together and partnering each other. That scenario has given way for most client-agency interaction to be at the junior level, with some inputs or direction from the CMO. Very few agency-client relationships are a ‘partnership of equals’ – it is mostly a buyer-vendor relationship at play. Of course, agencies can do a lot to change this scenario and raise the level to one of equals or partners (more on that perhaps on another post). Confession: I have been part of the problem and practiced the very same things, which I am ranting about now, when I was in advertising.

Of course there is a positive outcome of working late: the high of diverse agency teams coming together and put the pieces of a puzzle together is unmatched. The camaraderie and the joy of creating something together is a big boost for the positive spirit within the agency. And many a times, the best thinking and creative output happens under such pressure. But working late as a habit…as a culture is a negative, wasteful effort. I am told that there are some agencies (small, independent) which implement a ‘no working late’ policy. Their rationale is that agency business thrives on inspiration from life around us and we must find time for work-life balance that actually enhances our output.

Some of the ills of our business which have gone on to become the norm and accepted practice can be corrected through some effort by individuals and their immediate bosses. Some others (remuneration, raising the agency profile within the marketing fraternity) are in the hands of industry captains.

“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”
~ Mahatma Gandhi

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  1. Bang-on, just as you stated, the reasons for this malice run deeper. Also, the ability to say ‘Sorry, have to leave’ and its repercussions vary across cultures, countries and organizations.

    • Thank you so much for dropping by, Kaushik! Yes, as a culture perhaps we accept long hours at work or odd timings (like BPOs) lot easier than others.

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