Stress in the Advertising Industry — Marketing magazine

STRESS. The very word is enough to make your head throb and your chest tighten. It’s everywhere – the Zeitgeist of the 1980s. Ever since those cunning psychologists came out of the closet, attempting to demystify their latest phenomenon and wreaking havoc among the business world in so doing, we laymen have had yet another burden to cope with. Before Dr. Peter Hanson (The Joy of Stress), stress was a nuisance. Now it’s a necessity, or so we might be forgiven for thinking. 

Stress is certainly no stranger to the advertising world, where, given that type A people are generally attracted to the adbiz honey pot and are themselves innately most prone to stress and stress-related factors, you’re betting on a double whammy for starters.

A more cynical observer might add that the ad world also tends to breed Mammon-worshippers – overworked underachievers pushing themselves to the limit like aging racehorses straining for the finish: No guts, no glory.

A popular perception, among my journalist friends, is a world of Renaissance inadequates, destined to churn out materiae vulgares instead of Elysian poetry or lyrical prose – an applied, not pure, creativity.

Whatever your point of view, stress is no laughing matter, and it’s affecting the ad world in a very destructive way.

Advertising, the quintessential service business because it often involves having to be externally pleasant to nasty or boring people, separates the sheep from the goats to some extent, proving more-than-sufficient reason for many to steer clear of it in the first place. Add to this the all-pervasive uncertainty which typifies the business – the glowering threat of takeover or merger, the massive exodus of above-the-line dollars to the collateral areas, the enormous instability of it all as accounts leave as capriciously as they came in – and you have an industry to which the proverbial slings and arrows have not been kind.

Insecurity, then, is a prime factor – corporately and individually. Coupled with internal rivalries, a highly competitive workplace and the Messianic zeal with which many people attack their work – especially single women, in terms of intensity and the sheer number of hours – the overall combination can lead to a potentially devastating state of affairs.

In his book, Stress without Distress, Hans Selye, guru of the stress ‘movement’, defines stress as a ‘non-specific reaction to any threat, real or perceived’. Stress becomes, therefore, what you do to yourself in response to external forces, and physiologically it happens as a result of the primal triggering of a primitive reflex deep within the anatomy of the human psyche.

WHEN Neanderthal man had a bloody great sabre-toothed tiger charging at him, his system responded in one of two ways: The much-bandied ‘fight or flight’ instincts.

As soon as the ‘real or perceived’ threat was acknowledged, his body became completely geared, within the space of about eight seconds, towards either confrontation or escape.

However, during such a response, in order for the body to maximize efficiency, the stress reaction simultaneously drains blood from the brain and shuts down the capacity to actively think during the crisis. The mind, typically, goes blank, and the equivalent of an involuntary autopilot kicks in.

In today’s modern world, however, if you have cause to experience threat – real or perceived – your body goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode but you repress your natural instinct. You conform to the social mores of the day. Social convention often prevents you from either overcoming or escaping from the threat – and so instead it attacks the weakest part of your physiology.

The result can be anything from migraine or lower back pain to diabetes or even heart attack.

A recent Time article goes so far as to attribute immuno-deficiency problems, such as herpes and shingles, to stress-related responses. So there’s nothing fanciful at all about the symptoms.

But can we really prove that advertising is a particularly stressful occupation?

The Sunday Times’ “Guide to Careers,” compiled by experienced academic researchers under the chairmanship of Gary Cooper, Professor of Organizational Psychology at the University of Manchester and a leading expert on occupational stress, gave journalism the highest stress rating (at 7.5 out of a possible 10).

But advertising, at 7.3, came a close second (cf. accountancy, 4.3; sales, 5.7; public relations, 5.8; marketing, 5.8; and banking at 3.7).

The circumstantial environment, ripe for stress to flourish in, doesn’t of course mean that everyone succumbs to it, although the stipp-upper-lippedness of adbiz folk is such that many of them equate acknowledgement of the symptoms with an admission of failure, and so struggle on regardless, often at their peril.

Other professionals, meanwhile, are apt to take speedier action and are less concerned about the ‘appearances’ of taking affirmative, stress-combatting action.

Patty Crosbie, general manager of the National Advertising Benevolent Society (NABS), confirms this. ‘The pride factor is dramatic,’ she says. ‘Many people are extremely reluctant to come forward. Although most of the individuals we see are unemployed, and therefore under considerable stress, job-related stress is certainly a very important component which often contributes to their substance abuse or whatever. And the numbers are certainly up in the last six or seven months.’

HOW PEOPLE deal or don’t deal with stress is as idiosyncratic as are the individuals themselves. Defensive coping – alcohol or drug abuse – is among the most common form of escaping the travails of the office.

UK figures suggest that more than 40% of all middle-to-senior ranking ad executives are either divorced or separated.

Perhaps some of the stress is due to the fact that – more than in any other industry, and rather like baseball – one tends to make one’s fortune by transfer, not by promotion.

Still others leave the business altogether, although Keith McKerracher, president of the Institute of Canadian Advertising, says that the actual number of people employed in advertising has remained quite stable over the past decade (although in real terms, given the huge expansion of the industry, this means that the same number of people are now doing far more work).

McKerracher has little sympathy with people who ‘have had 15 jobs in 30 years and then go running to NABS for help’ when they hit hard times. He cites lack of loyalty as being a major, contributing factor to their own misfortune.

The Rev. Dr. Graham Tucker, director of the King-Bay Chaplaincy in Toronto, who counsels mostly middle-to-senior executives in the banking and financial sector, disagrees. He feels that the days of corporate loyalty are long gone, and blames organizations who, over the past decade, have fired or dismissed most of their loyal employees, for eroding the glue that kept the mutual loyalty system working so well for so long.

Tucker doesn’t see nearly as many advertising people as he’d like to, but sees literally thousands of ‘fast-track’ executives suffering from stress and its effects, or dissatisfied with their everyday working lives.

Five years ago, the chaplaincy ran a program called Operation Bootstrap, mainly for laid-off or unemployed managers which, in all, had more than 1,400 participants, including many admen and marketers. Bootstrap was a secular program which took a value-based approach to life and careers and where, through group work and frank discussion, people got back on their feet again with the confidence to tackle uncertainty.

However, in advertising, many people constantly fear losing their jobs, and the stress of ‘not knowing’ is enormous. It often comes as a relief when people are, in fact, let go, says Tucker, citing the ‘Blitz Syndrome.’ During World War II, people living in the heart of London knew the bombs would drop, and psychosomatic illness went up by 75%. But in the suburbs, where nobody knew for sure what would happen – whether bombs would fall or not – psychosomatic illnesses increased 300%. In other words, ‘not knowing’ was more stressful than near-certain calamity.

BUT DO people who go from job to job in any profession – in this case the ‘agency hoppers’ – constantly in quest of the ‘right’ job, ever find true fulfillment?

Graham Tucker thinks not. He runs regular low-cost ‘Right Job for Me?’ seminars, where managers, currently unhappy in their jobs but unsure of the next step, meet to reorient themselves and redefine their goals.

Of these participants, Tucker says about 50% modify their jobs and lives to some extent, and 50% opt for a completely radical change. He believes stress to be pervasive throughout the entire business environment of the 1980s. Since corporations have been run as ‘lean and mean’ organizations, the net result has been twice the amount of work being done by half the number of people, as Keith McKerracher has conceded. Tucker feels this leads to employees being taken terribly unfair advantage of by their companies. ‘When the economy was depressed in the early ‘80s, this was perhaps an unfortunate necessity for the survival of many operations’, he says. ‘But today they aren’t allowing the pendulum to swing back sufficiently in the other direction, finding a more human way to work, despite the economic upswing.’

He laments the fact that the hard-nosed types brought in during the downturn, when a lot of the ‘decent human beings who had been running things before were regarded as too soft,’ continue to hold sway.

Sheldon Heath, himself a regular contributor to Marketing and a practising psychiatrist & psychoanalyst, agrees, finding many ad agencies particularly unprotective of their people. He feels the human element of people management has been severely mismanaged by agencies who, in their frenzy to retain billings and prestige, often trample roughshod over their workers. A lot of people who got into the business because it was hyped as being ‘glamorous’ feel short-changed by the reality, he says, and can’t reconcile the everyday experience to the promise.

“The human element of

people management

has been severely

mismanaged by

agencies, who in

their frenzy to retain

billings and prestige

often trample

roughshod over their


“A lot people who

got into the business

because it was hyped

as being ‘glamorous’

feel shortchanged by

the reality …”

Many of these unhappy people blank out their discontent by immersing themselves ever more in their work, as if to avoid having to confront their inner well-being. The more mature less reluctantly seek help.

Dr. Jeff Bloom, a family practitioner at Toronto General Hospital, feels companies should take much greater heed of employees’ emotional and mental health, and address the underlying causes, not the symptoms.

It’s estimated that, of 100 white-collar managers, 20 will love their jobs, 20 will hate them vehemently, and the rest will fall somewhere in between. That means that 30% – 40% of typical middle managers are, at any given time, anything from moderately unhappy to downright miserable.

The blue-collar experience is, of course, very different.

Blue-collar workers tend to have unions as their support systems – and, for better or worse, feel unions are on their side. But in a field such as advertising, there are no professional associations to speak for or represent the average employee.

The blue-collar man is also much more likely to regard his job as simply a means of earning his livelihood, and therefore looks to his outside life for much of his sense of personal fulfillment. The job doesn’t consume him.

In addition, he has the much greater likelihood of seeing the fruits of his labour directly – the house being built or the car being manufactured. The corporate paper jungle means an individual’s input is much less immediate or tangible – and as agencies become increasingly marketing-oriented, in the instances where there is no distinct account planning function, for example, many account people feel that the creative work is almost incidental – a secondary byproduct of the primary market analysis. It feels that way.

FEW OF the ad execs I’ve spoken to see themselves as being in the ad industry long-term. And most of them say that their agencies do ‘little or nothing’ to help with their employees’ stress management. Significant numbers, when probed, see a real discrepancy between the mores of their domestic and working lives, and react positively to the idea of taking a less schizophrenic, more holistic approach to their lives. Women, in particular, feel that they face special problems, especially those trying to juggle running a household and raising children. Many of the women I’ve talked to feel that their agencies could do an awful lot more in terms of flexibility, and those who feel their agencies are trying to help are overwhelmingly grateful.

A little seems to go an awfully long way as far as working mothers are concerned, but ironically, the most contented women seem to be those with the fewest expectations from their employers. They seem to be more pragmatic, more resigned than their more openly-frustrated sisters. Blitz Syndrome, perhaps.

However, all need not be doom and gloom. There are numerous companies in Canada at the vanguard of the new wave, in terms of their commitment to employee health as being an active and integral component of corporate policy. Ontario Hydro is the company here in Ontario that many ‘stress professionals’ cite in terms of the outstanding calibre of its approach to corporate wellness.

I asked Dr. Don Henry, section head of Hydro’s Health & Wellness Division, to explain how Hydro had come to be seen as leading the field in terms of stressbusting.

Henry says part of the credit may be due to Hydro’s having an extremely strong and well-established employee assistance program, which among other things refers troubled employees to the appropriate source of help for their particular problem (and he says that more than 50% of all Fortune 500 companies have similar programs). But further, he acknowledges that the type of individual Hydro employs is likely to be a very different animal compared to the average adman.

The Hydro employee is fundamentally more ‘cautious’ (although Henry admits he runs the risk of stereotyping in making this distinction). Whereas the adman is highly motivated by megabucks (or their promise), status and the entrepreneurial push, the Hydro executive is likely to be the opposite – well-paid but careful with his money, non-flashy, and highly stable in his job. He drives more slowly. He can wait for an elevator without having to constantly look at his watch …

Even given intrinsic differences in personality types, however, Henry sees the communications business as singularly delinquent in addressing the issue of mental health in the workplace. The pumped-up energy of the adman, he feels, can often be an enormous barrier to achieving what needs to be done. And he thinks that any organization which puts on a ‘daily show’ – to suppliers, to competitors, to real and potential clients – is at considerable risk.

RICHARD Lazarus at the University of California, Berkeley, cites ‘everyday hassles’ as being at the heart of the problem, exacerbating an already-bad situation and often proving the final straw for stress-prone non-copers.

The cumulative effect of rush-hour traffic, the parking spot hunt, the fight to get lunch with the rest of the world in the same 60-minute period, is fraught enough, before you add a stress-ridden job and an impatient world. It’s enough to make even the sturdiest irascible.

In 1985, Charles Handy of the London Business School predicted the whole future of work as we know it will change dramatically in the next few decades, and that full-time employment will soon become a thing of the past. In his view, flexibility will become the keynote of tomorrow’s career plans.

But will this alone help to reduce the stress in so many people’s lives? When I asked Professor Dan Ondrack at the University of Toronto’s School of Management Studies to comment on his colleague’s prediction, his response was less optimistic.

‘The capability for non-full-time employment is certainly here. We have all the technology, but most studies so far indicate that people miss the social contact the office brings them,’ he says. ‘And they miss the ‘order’ it brings to their lives.’

Very few people have the self-discipline, self-reliance or self-management to work, say, from their homes to full capacity, he believes. So although the work scene may indeed be radically different in 20 years’ time, it’ll be through technological and communications innovation, rather than because of any intrinsic change in human behaviour patterns.

Ondrack predicts the development of the ‘disaggregated office’ – groups of micro-offices clustered around a city, able, collectively, to handle the same volume of operations as is handled by a single macro-location.

Perhaps the idea of an archipelago of little account groups working out of vice-presidents’ living rooms doesn’t seem immediately appealing, but it is in many instances already quite plausible.

Experts believe that stress has not yet reached its zenith in the business world, despite the attendant publicity its current vogue has created. They reiterate the power of personal praise as a strong motivator, the need for more time to establish meaningful relationships within the office environment, and the responsibility of management – especially in the so-called ‘people business’ – to initiate and assume responsibility for stress-management programs.

The benefits of affirmative action are enormous. Graham Tucker reminds us – as does Tom Peters in In Search of Excellence – that the building of a strong sense of community within a corporation or company is one of the most important ingredients for its success as a creative and productive organization.

Ad agencies need to do much more on that score – and quickly. 

Paula Terry was formerly an account executive with a Toronto ad agency and is now a full-time freelance writer.

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<b>Stress in the Advertising Industry — Marketing magazine</b><br>