Of toxic work culture and taking the business of advertising way too seriously

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I recently came across a post on Twitter which shared a response from a digital agency to a comment (complaining about the agency’s ‘toxic’ work culture) posted by its ex-employee on Glassdoor. The official response from the agency justified late nights, working on weekends and even giving up on personal life as normal – almost an expected thing to do to survive and get ahead in the advertising business. I happened to go through a few responses from the agency and their stance seems to be pretty clear – get used to our way of working if you want to work with us. The agency specialises in ‘digital’ advertising covering social media, SEO, online reputation management and such like (as against the traditional print, TV and outdoor). The comments on the above Twitter thread reflect the outrage over such an attitude to work in advertising.

At the outset, one must make it clear that nothing can be achieved in life without hard work, dedication, training and sacrifice. One must also acknowledge that working long hours becomes inevitable in certain industries (media, advertising, IT services, medical profession to name a few) and situations (as a startup, when chasing exponential business growth). Work pressure related to deadlines or meeting some service expectations is also to be expected across all professions. ‘By working faithfully eight hours a day you may eventually get to be boss and work twelve hours a day’ is a relatable quote attributed to Robert Frost.

But somehow the concept of work-life balance seems to be alien to the business of advertising. And this is not a phenomenon linked to the rise of digital advertising. Even back from the era of Mad Men (as dramatised in the famous TV & web series) it appeared that work was everything, even at the cost of personal health and life. When I was in advertising too (early 90s onwards) late nights and weekend work was considered as routine.

Let’s also accept that the business of advertising is unlike others and has some unique ‘characteristics’. It’s a business which depends on creative ideas (which are subjective), inter-dependent on various stakeholders for on-time and on-quality completion of a project and has to be agile to cater to ever-changing end-customer or market demands. Each of the above three traits has an impact (often a domino effect) on timelines and stress. A wrong or poor brief from the client or account management may need re-work. A sub-optimal idea or good idea not sold well may lead to late nights and work spilling into the weekend.

One must also acknowledge that this service industry is made of businesses for whom acquiring and keeping a business calls for several sacrifices including giving up on sleep or personal life. This is especially true of relatively smaller shops. But the moot question is: can all-round growth (both business & personal growth) happen without compromising on personal time and totally losing work-life balance? In my view, it can if there is collective will, resolve and a mindset change.

A combination of factors are at play for the prevalent work culture in advertising.

Business model: ever since the advent of retainer fee as compensation (as compared to the media commission) price cutting has been a common phenomenon. There’s always another agency willing to offer similar services at a lower price. Agencies too have not attempted to re-position themselves as a valued consultant rather than a ‘vendor’ who can be easily replaced. When there is constant fear of losing a business, the natural tendency is to do whatever it takes to keep the business – which may include tolerating poor margins, unreasonable client behaviour and such like.

Compared to the earlier model of all services under one roof (including media planning & buying) with a Business Director orchestrating brand plans, the current model of several ‘specialist’ services can (operative word being ‘can’) or has more scope for teams to operate in silos.

In my view, the industry has pushed itself into a corner by positioning themselves with a ‘we also do creative‘ message – with data, analytics, programmatic and such metrics and ‘technology’ taking centre stage rather than the creative product. Almost all big spenders in media can get the skills sets pertaining to number crunching, technology or metrics. What they cannot get easily is the ‘X-Factor’ of creative ideas. A few big-spenders such as CRED in India use the services of freelance creatives to script out and produce television spots rather than go to a traditional ad agency. Sure, ‘creativity backed by technology’ has been the calling card of a few digital agencies – but not all brands, categories and business objectives ‘demand’ technology to be the pre-requisite for a creative solution. Also, creative awards for so-called technology driven ideas which most often are created for the sole purpose of winning awards and not solving the real business problem of a brand and help in sales, are hyped a lot and get media attention. The desire for accolades in the form of creative awards could then supersede the desire to do business-building work, which is tougher and takes time. The creative teams may in turn see such made-for-award work as opportunities to something different and satisfying than the routine work that gets approved. Clients should also share the blame for the state of affairs as many approve safe work while claiming to see clutter-breaking, ‘bold’ work.

Indiscipline: I admit that the business of advertising & marketing is quite unpredictable. It is not a typical 9-to-5 routine – each day comes with new challenges and can be very different. Many a times, a quick turnaround is not only expected it is mandatory – especially when there’s a business opportunity. Topical ads for example, will lose relevance if the release is delayed. Similarly, ads reacting to a competitive move have to be timely. The brand teams have to be alive to such opportunities and cannot afford to ‘shut out’ work after office hours.

The rise and demand for ‘moment marketing’ has only heightened the need for such tactical responses, often with crazy deadlines. Our news cycles are fast-moving and what takes centre stage one day may disappear the next day. So, brands are under pressure to make the most of such opportunities in double quick time. However, the industry needs to ‘educate’ clients that it is okay to ‘sit out’ on such imaginary opportunities – brands do not have to pass a comment or create social media posts on every trend, news event or occasion.

However, a lot of the reasons for late nights and weekend-work can be attributed to innate indiscipline in the agency world. Otherwise, why would most pitch-work happen just the night before the big presentation? Or why would TV scripts be thought of when on the way to the client’s office? When I was in advertising, it was common for actual work to start well after half way through the day. Poor briefs – right from the client to the agency and thereafter are also a reason for frustration. Very often the creative work is used as a starting point to clarify what’s expected instead of having a clear idea what needs to be said. One could go on: approval by committee, vague feedback on creative output, eagerness to say a lot instead of focusing on one key message are all contributors to the late nights and stress.

Taking the business way too seriously: there’s a thin line between passion for one’s work and obsessing over it. The latter attitude may result in taking one’s profession way too seriously. Sure, every ‘job’ or profession is important – however relatively ‘light weight’ it might be. But is a complex surgery that can potentially save a life or a the task of security forces to be compared with writing text for an Instagram post for a pizza brand? I am not calling for agencies to be slack or to disrespect deadlines but only to watch out for over-reacting to everything but cultivate a mindset of ‘it’s only advertising’. The profession is important in the business of building brands but there has to be a sense of proportion – not every social media post or tactical ad has to change the world. General public does not think about marketing & advertising as much as industry insiders do. We all have mundane, everyday things to worry about and do not have the time or inclination to spot ads on our Instagram feeds or look out for billboards when out in the streets. But industry insiders tend to over think on many aspects of advertising and forget to have fun and enjoy the process in the bargain.

When we take ourselves seriously, we take others seriously too — that’s why their opinions hurt us. You let their judgment define your identity — you accept the labels people give you.


Short-term outlook: focusing on the tactical rather than thematic can be attributed as a fallout of the perceived need to be present 24×7 across media and platforms. Brands ‘demand’ that their agencies out out 2-3 social media posts per week, create a campaign for every major occasion or festival and capitalise on every event in the news cycle. As a result there is an ever-changing message from a brand. Successful brands have been built on singular focus and repetition. They have invested on creating distinct brand assets which have been consistently used across campaigns and mediums.

A testimony of their effectiveness is that a lot of the work produced decades ago is still recalled. Many in India would be able to recall the words of many popular jingles back from the 90s.

Got me thinking though – I am able to remember Thanda Matlab Coca Cola in ganne ke khet, and the Sundrop kid doing cartwheels on giant food and the beautiful jingles of Liril and Nescafé like it was yesterday. That was our pop culture! Cut to today’s scenario, given the rapid rate at which content is produced and consumed, will we ever have a collective nostalgia-inducing piece? 


Having said all this, I empathise with CXOs and business owners who are trying to make a mark, create work that resonates with their audience and turn their passion for advertising into a profit-making business. It is easy to pontificate about the ills of the industry from outside without facing the heat every day. I acknowledge the day-to-day struggle to get clarity on communication tasks, the chaos in the process of crafting a campaign, having it approved, produced, released and above all – getting paid for it on time. But I also wish the industry takes a moment to pause, reflect and fix some of the ills which lead to a perception of toxicity and poor work-life balance.

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