Ad agency culture promotes 'backstabbing, bitchiness and bullying'

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Agencies must be better at allowing those who have had a knock to regain their confidence and refocus, instead of just spitting them out.

It’s a peculiar human condition but there are few things that people privately find more enjoyable than watching someone who has been at the top of their game fail—especially spectacularly.

A small dose of schadenfreude is a universal guilty pleasure that none of us should feel particularly proud about. But for those who can’t hide their glee, the advertising industry more than caters for their needs. This isn’t necessarily because the business attracts more unpleasant people than other sectors—although the inherent hyper-competitiveness can make it a bit bitchy—but because of the way agencies have created structures where backstabbing is seen as the best way to shin up the greasy pole.

Some industry "legends" built their status on the way they ruthlessly treated their staff on the way up—and, for them, there is less sympathy when they find themselves on the way down.

But the fact remains that pressure is applied and felt across the board: Nabs figures reveal that one-quarter of the calls it receives are from agency personnel seeking emotional support, and the numbers have more than doubled since last year. Things don’t seem to be getting better. They’re getting worse.

How can it be right that we have created an industry that is geared towards the creation and inflation of monstrous egos, while simultaneously setting them on to a path that can only lead to them crashing and burning?

While we must all take individual responsibility for our actions, I can’t help thinking that the industry’s structure is something on which we should take collective action. How can it be right that we have created an industry that is geared towards the creation and inflation of monstrous egos, while simultaneously setting them on to a path that can only lead to them crashing and burning?

The mantra that "you’re only as good as your last ad" is a destructive one, as is the industry’s obsession with youth over experience. Given this structure, it’s little wonder that by the time many creatives have reached their mid- to late-30s, they feel either burned out or dried up.

Look at how few top creatives of any real age there are working in London creative departments. It’s not necessarily because they don’t want to or don’t have the talent to do so, but because they have become in some way "unfashionable" or are regarded as past their best.

Perhaps it’s why the Lion of St Mark can sometimes feel like a survivor’s medal as much as a reward for continued creative excellence.

Advertising doesn’t seem to offer an enduring career—rather, it is geared toward making creatives as famous as possible as quickly as possible (and that may or may not be down to the work they produce), while leaving others to drown.

It’s little wonder, then, that there is such a fear culture, where anecdotal stories of bullying are commonplace and where you are unlikely to find many people in the creative department over the age of 40. And everyone just sits by, waiting for those who have reached the top of the pile to self-combust. What a waste.

The mantra that "you’re only as good as your last ad" is a destructive one, as is the industry’s obsession with youth over experience.

To combat this, there needs to be a wholesale re-appraisal of the way that we (and this includes executive creative directors) recruit, train and manage our staff—and our own egos.

Of course, it’s nice to be recognized and honored for our creative achievements but surely this isn’t our whole self: It is what we do rather than who we are—and if we do it well, then great.

Agencies must be less quick to judge and become better at allowing those who have had a knock to regain their confidence and refocus, instead of just spitting them out.

And, most importantly, the undercurrent culture of bullying that is tacitly—if not explicitly—accepted as part of the cut and thrust of a creative department must be consigned to advertising history, along with all those other disreputable working practices and outdated cultural mores.

Not only would this result in a happier, more productive workforce where the wellbeing of staff is central to agency culture, it would also lead to a more representative workforce where people of all ages are accommodated—not just the hungry, desperate or those set on knifing their way to the top.

Moreover, it would allow us to respect ourselves and the work that we do—and, at a time when the value of creativity is being threatened by clients who don’t respect us either, that would help preserve our long-term future. Even those who enjoy a Roman holiday.

—Trevor Robinson is the founder and executive creative director at Quiet Storm.