As advertising lost another young life to work stress, are agencies still refusing to acknowledge that burn-out is a real issue in the industry?
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Can copywriters ever dream of having a work-life balance?

As advertising lost another young life to work stress, are agencies still refusing to acknowledge that burn-out is a real issue in the industry?

Can copywriters ever dream of having a work-life balance?
  • Over the years, the advertising industry has normalised in-human working hours. Last week, the advertising industry lost a young gem due to cardiac arrest, which was induced by work stress.
  • We speak to a few young copywriters to find out how stressful the job is, why does the problem exist and what kind of policies we need to execute to change the situation around.
  • We also spoke to a few agencies that have managed to create a healthy workplace and addressed examples of overworked and stressed employees at work.
Last week, the advertising industry lost a young professional due to cardiac arrest, which was induced by stress. We were all left aghast to hear that she was only in her 40s. Many CEOs and Creative Directors sent their heart-felt condolences to her family members and to the agency she worked with. But did they make any concrete changes to make sure this is not repeated or did it start a much-needed conversation on how toxic advertising culture can get?

This unfortunate incident has taken us back to the same problem/question that keeps popping up every year but it is never addressed. Will the stress level in the advertising industry ever subside and can copywriters ever dream of having a work-life balance?

Over the years, the advertising industry has normalised inhuman working hours. In 2017, Tadashi Ishii, CEO, DAN Japan, had to resign after the suicide of an overworked junior employee. It did raise some questions back then but the topic was brushed under the carpet as always. This time, in India, we have lost another life to advertising's work stress. It is time we realise the severity of this problem and start talking about it.

Nikhil Narayanan, Creative Director at Ogilvy, took to LinkedIn to share this angst against people who take their job too seriously. He wrote, “I am no expert on other industries, but advertising is one that has normalised inhuman working hours. People flaunt dark circles caused by a lack of sleep like a badge of honour. When you leave work at 6 in the evening, you are asked whether you are taking half a day off. Jokingly. "If you aren't willing to work 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, you aren't cut for this, dude," some say with condescension. Well, sc*w that.”

With work from home, the stress levels, tough deadlines, demanding clients and high pressure have all quadrupled. The person who does have the ‘audacity’ to prioritise a personal task over work, is frowned upon. People boast about how many hours they work, depth of dark circles under their eyes and for treating work like their life-time partner. There is a series called Thinkistaan written by N Padmakumar, who has spent 17 years of his life in the ad industry, that aims to talk about the toxic work culture that the advertising industry has built over the years.

I reached out to a few of the top agencies of our country including DAN, GroupM, OML, The Glitch, Leo Burnett and all of them denied to comment.

Agencies that did agree to speak to me told me all is well now. They do offer flexible working hours to their employees. But ground reality is not the same. I spoke to junior copywriters from the same agencies and they painted a different picture altogether. They said that they are overworked, constantly in-between calls and do not have the time for their families even if they sit right next to each other. They eat their meals as they work and even have to keep their personal life aside on the weekends.

So why do we still continue to pressurize our employees and deny them their dues? Young copywriters and art directors told me it all boils down to the notion that you cannot say no to your client. Clients are treated like God in our industry. Agencies, on the other hand, are often treated like the client’s extended family, who can be cut out if one thing goes wrong because there are too many fish in the sea who would even agree to do the work at a lesser price.

A young copywriter at a digital agency, Yesha Shah, describes the toxicity in the industry saying, “Working in an ad agency is like getting back with your toxic ex-boyfriend. You know that it is so toxic but you just can’t let it go.” She resigned last week due to the ever-increasing workload.

Many creative people have resigned over the years and never looked back. They have decided to settle for a 9 to 5 job instead and kept their passion aside for peace of mind. People who do survive in the industry have to accept the fact that they cannot have a life apart from work.

Shah has never kept her phone on silent and attended calls even at 3 am due to a false sense of emergency created by her clients about a mundane task. She has nightmares about getting fired by the client, she lives and breathes work. She says that she feels guilty for taking an off when she is unwell. She also tried to discuss it with her HR representatives and Client Managers, who did understand her problem but let it slide by saying, “This is how it is. We cannot say no.”

“A colleague of mine once worked from 10 am to 7 am and that is the benchmark they have set for us now. I once left at 11 pm on a Friday night because I was done with my work and the entire team paused and frowned -- like I did something wrong. We are expected to stay until 4 am on a Friday night. Now, I don’t even have the time to eat food. I have roti, kapda, makaan but not the time to enjoy these basic rights I deserve. Eating food is a privilege here. I used to love writing but if I continue working like this, I will be dead when in my 30s,” shared Shah.

Shah is 22 and has reached her burn out level already. She is going to leave the advertising industry and is reconsidering her life goals completely now.

Another intern with an integrated agency spoke to us on the condition of anonymity. He told us about a pitch he and his team worked on for a month. The client (a digital wallet app) created a false sense of urgency at first and kept postponing the meeting later. When he did set a date to meet with the agency, he sat through the presentation for five minutes and walked off mid-way.

Jay Morzaria, Creative Partner, Atom commented on Narayan’s post talking about a similar problem he faced. He said, “It's also a lot to do with boundaries which many ad agencies have failed to set with their clients. In a bid to 'maintain relationships', we have turned ourselves into slaves. Till now, out of all the 'urgent' jobs I have done, most of them eventually got cancelled or delayed.”

Where does the buck stop?

“How do we change this toxic culture? Need to plan work better, stand up to clients and learn to say NO. When we succumb to survival fear, we open ourselves up to exploitation,” said Hamsini Shivkumar, Leapfrog Strategy Consulting.

A lot of agencies have introduced HR policies that allow employees to consult an in-house counselor for free, take an off on Monday once in a month or stamp in on a time-sheet that alerts the HR representative when they overwork. But are these policies religiously followed?

A seasoned Creative Director, Nazim Ahmed (name changed to maintain anonymity) who has nearly 15 years of advertising experience and is currently working at one of the top advertising agencies of our country, also said that agencies do offer the right HR policies but the ground-reality is quite different.

“There are no boundaries at work or fixed timings. In advertising, you walk in at 10:30 am but there's no fixed time to leave. Before COVID, signing off from office meant you’re done for the day. But when at home, you cannot leave for the day. Now, because we are working from home, all hours are working hours. To address stress-related concerns, our HR started an activity called townhall where employees were allowed to raise their concerns but the entire team is on the call. You cannot really discuss your issues in front of the entire agency so people chose to speak about smaller issues. The biggest reason behind all this workload is that agencies can only do so much and clients are very demanding. At the end of the day, if you don’t deliver, the client will tell you they have other options available. During this lockdown, we have done a lot of work under this false sense of urgency created by clients and a lot of that work never saw the light of the day. They call it off, not even having the decency to inform us at times. Work stress has always existed in the industry but the problem has magnified now. The boundaries are completely blurred,” said Ahmed.

In case an employee does muster the courage to say no and breaks the chain, he/she is either fired or someone else in the team is assigned the task. The pressure is passed from one person to another but there is no end to it.

Learning from a few examples

We spoke to a few agencies that have managed to find basic solutions to ease the workload.

MediaCom has taken a few measures to reduce burnout and stress amongst its employees. Navin Khemka, CEO, MediaCom South Asia said, “We are encouraging employees to take leaves, emphasizing on the importance to give rest to ourselves, reduce our stress, be resilient and ensure our mental well-being. This is an agenda which is being accentuated in all our leadership calls and town halls. We have, in fact, highlighted employees who have not taken a single leave in the entire year, and reported them to their respective managers, to encourage employees to take breaks and avoid burnouts.

Khemka also lets his employees take a week off after a hectic schedule. He said, “This was implemented with the team members being given time off on a rotation basis. This has been very well appreciated by both teams and clients. We have also spoken to our employees to go back to their hometowns and WFH. This also ensures that they get quality time at home and are not staying all alone in a big city. They have been told that they will be given at least 2 weeks’ notice before we reopen offices.”

Gozoop was ranked on No. 20 amongst India’s top 50 Great Mid-Size Workplaces in 2019 by a publication. Its Chief Happiness Officer, Bansi Raja, told us a few problems they decided to address to create a healthy workplace.

She said, “Life in the advertising industry is as stressful as someone working in the stock market or even the telecom industry. Instead of focusing on reducing the stress, let’s shift our lens to providing a strong work culture and helping build resilience within your team. Enabling constructive feedback conversations, having each other’s back through tough times, leading with compassion and empathy balanced with tough love, pushing back unnecessary deadlines, being real, and extending professional help around mental breakdowns are ways to build a culture that stands strong in the face of adversities and strengthens your team from within. When you truly care for your team as your own, you’ll know exactly what will make them thrive. So focus within and build a culture that you wished you had in your early years. That’s the only way we’ll build a future that we’re proud of.”

Sudish Balan, Chief Business Officer, Tonic Worldwide also said dealing with work pressure is never easy but it’s worse when you don’t get support for dealing with it.

Talking about a few policies they introduced to address problems related to work stress, Balan said, “The HR team at Tonic sends out frequent communication to our clients on the working hour policy that we have. Sometimes it’s to express our gratitude to the clients in helping us ensure the work hours are maintained. As soon as lockdown was announced and working from home became the mode of operation, we initiated a Timesheet system. The sole purpose of the timesheet is to track overworking teammates. We have a Red Flag algorithm incorporated in the time sheet to track based on the number of hours. The Team lead is held responsible if the flag is raised. Our HR team monitors this system closely on a real time basis and takes actions on a weekly basis. As a creative person myself, I consider myself as a lamp which can burn brighter if I spend more time switched off than when I am switched On. It’s the same logic we have for our people at Tonic 'Switch OFF so that you can Switch ON and be awesome.'”

BBH & Publicis Worldwide India has also introduced mental wellness programs for its employees.

Subhash Kamath CEO, BBH & Publicis Worldwide, India said, "Working from home, though it cuts down travel time etc, brings its own stress and problems. A lot of people have felt that the lines between working hours and personal time have started to blur, and they feel they’re putting in more work time at odd hours as well. Plus, people living alone can feel isolated and anxious, having to do everything in the house while coping with work.

As a group, we’re acutely aware of this and we’ve always maintained that people safety and health come first. So, a number of initiatives have been introduced for the benefit of our employees. We’ve tied up with a professional organisation, which has many years of experience in this. It gives our employees and their dependents free access to trained, independent counsellors who can help deal with personal or professional issues. The areas of counselling not only include mental wellbeing but also physical wellness and nutrition. And all if it is done in complete privacy. And the Employee Assistance Programme Hotline is available 24x7. In addition, we’re encouraging all team leaders to be in regular touch with their teams. And every now and then we all meet online informally, as well as continuing with cultural activities like music jams, guest speakers etc.”

Famous Innovation’s Creative Director, Ketan Sudhir Kadam, says he has been privileged to find an agency that allows him to maintain a balance between personal and professional life.

“I accepted an offer letter from Famous Innovations and just a day after the lockdown announcement was made. To be very honest, I was worried about how I would blend in a new agency without even meeting anyone in person before, except Raj Kamble whom I met at a few industry events before joining. Since my joining, I did not find any kind of work pressure and it is just because of the culture we have here. The situation is new to everyone, we all have to work together and make it better for anyone who is affected by the pandemic. I believe, we all should, without hesitating, take a break whenever we feel that the work has reached a point where it isn’t keeping us happy but causing stress. At Famous, we have breakthrough sessions where we play housie, charades, or listen to international award-winning creatives, every Friday to just forget about work, connect with each other, and enjoy a day without worries. I hope agencies find ways like these to keep their employees motivated during this tough phase. Because at the end of the day, our work is a reflection of us. And if we don't feel great, the work won't be as great,” shared Kadam.

Nazim Ahmed (name changed) said it isn’t just agencies that need to put their foot down if their client pressurises. The whole industry has to come together to flag off toxic clients.

He explained, “We're at gunpoint from the client’s side. The industry should take a collective stand and refuse to be treated this way. They will say they will move on to the next agency but that shouldn’t happen. The next agency should put their foot down and say we heard you treated your previous agency poorly and we don’t want to be on your side. It should be a chain reaction. Just like the credit card industry, we should blacklist clients that exploit agencies for pitches - they call 100 agencies and take the best ideas to the agency that charges the least. No agency should participate in those pitches. We need to stand together, everyone is fighting for survival after all.”

Ogilvy’s Narayan reminded in his LinkedIn post that the advertising industry doesn’t save lives. Its job is to sell products, which can wait.

He wrote, "The thing is, advertising isn't as important as people in the industry make it out to be. We are not out there curing bloody cancer. At best, we are trying to convince people to choose a fancier hospital through messages that often create false hope. That's about it. We might be needed, but we aren't indispensable. We might be creative, but we are not artists. We might be necessary, but we are not that important. So slow down. It's just a job. Treat it like that.”


The DDB Mudra Group reached out to us and spoke to us about the issue and the responsibility that agencies play in addressing it as well as coming up with effective solutions.

Aditya Kanthy, CEO & MD, DDB Mudra Group said, “The first step is to acknowledge that stress, burn-out and work-life balance is a problem and has been for some time. It is simply not acceptable to say that this is how things are and we should just live with it. We also have to understand that it is a complex problem and there isn’t a silver bullet to solve it.

While, we have put in place policies which help our employees cope better, such as the Employee Assistance Program which provides free mental health counselling for all our people; compulsory leave to help them switch off; and tools like Asana and Sunday Trackers to help manage and safeguard their time; but we know that policies can only do so much.

We get the outcomes we want when everyone involved makes a serious effort to change. This includes a push from our side in building a culture of empathy and transparency that empowers our employees to voice their issues, ask tough questions of us and assert their life choices beyond work. It also includes bringing our clients into the conversations, setting boundaries and building partnerships with mutual respect for each other’s time. We’ve got to hold hands on this one and make it better one step at a time - every moment, every day.”