Give Ad Agency People a Break

In a famous campaign for Duracell (then owned by P&G), a herd of drumming bunnies slowly run out of battery power, but the Duracell Bunny outlasts them all. The TV ads, which debuted in 1973, brilliantly encapsulated Duracell’s core proposition.

When P&G neglected to renew the trademark on its furry pink ambassador, Energiser came out with a great counter-campaign in the 1990s, but that’s another story.

The point is that the Duracell Bunny is what ad agencies do best. It’s creative, memorable, and communicates in less than 30 seconds what no corporate brochure or website ever could.

But the Duracell Bunny also masks a tragedy. Because advertising agencies started to think of their own people as a bit like Duracell Bunnies too. Juice them up with a good salary and their arms will go on pounding out great campaigns day after day, night after night, year after year.

The problem is that advertising runs on brains. A battery with 5% of its charge remaining can still power a toy rabbit. But a human brain with only 5% of its processing power can barely function at all, let alone think a creative thought.

Some advertising agencies are already wise to the problem and it’s no surprise that it’s the agencies which view creativity as their lifeblood. Other agencies for whom the client relationship comes first increasingly risk losing their most talented people.

Part of AP Global Talent’s mission is to guide people to the agencies that best match their preferred working style before they reach the level of burnout that can cause them to exit the industry. Because, make no mistake, the ad industry is one of the most intellectually engaging places to earn a wage.

Compare that to a client-side position where the agency refugee confronts a new set of problems: lack of creative work, management of external agencies, and a new set of political and organisational challenges to overcome.

Our work happens to be mainly in Japan, a challenging market where a culture of long office hours allied to a customer/client-is-god mentality mean that ad agencies are far from the only offenders when it comes to draining the battery life of their employees.

A distinctive feature of Japan is that peer-group pressure, and not just demanding clients, is the reason behind much of the culture of overwork. People simply don’t feel able to leave the office before their colleagues, meaning everyone has to fall in line behind the mythical Duracell Bunny, however low their batteries may be running.

TIME TO RECHARGE

An expectation of long hours has many negative effects. It can cause energy conservation during the day – why burn yourself out by 7pm when you know you’ll be here for at least another three hours – leading to reduced levels of creativity and engagement. Efficiency is another casualty.

Overwork can also cause people to avoid leisure-time activities in favour of simply taking a rest. That means people in advertising may be missing out on the cultural and social experiences that prompt new insights into creative and consumer trends; also known as having a (mindful) good time.

We think it’s vital that people who work at advertising agencies are granted time to recharge their batteries. Leaving the office on time shouldn’t be viewed as lacking the necessary passion or ‘drive’. Instead, it should be seen as that person’s commitment to arrive at work fully charged the next day.

At the management level, advertising agencies must come around to the idea that it’s part of their competitive advantage to send their people home. The recent introduction of monthly ‘Premium Fridays’ in Japan feels like a gesture. What’s needed is a total redefinition of how we measure attitude and performance.

Our clients are coming up with some interesting ways to promote a better work-life balance. One agency is evaluating managers based on the number of hours worked by their subordinates. Starting this year, it will also offer free counselling and provide training on time and stress management to all employees.

Another agency in Japan recently became a separate corporate entity from its Japanese parent. The idea here is to break the chains with domestic management and promote more progressive ideas about work and performance in line with its global network.

Several agencies are prioritising the need to retain female staff and ramping up provision for flexible working to address the shocking statistic that women comprise fewer than 10% of managers in the ad industry in Japan.

These are the first positive signs to emerge after a year of hard knocks and hard lessons for ad agencies in 2016. Faced with competition from startups and consulting firms, the industry is learning that it can’t rely on an endless influx of young talent and instead needs to work harder to keep its best people.

And that starts by giving them a break.


AP Global Talent is the search specialist for advertising, marketing and digital jobs in Japan.

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