Stressed out? Get a life

I don't know if this is the advertising industry's equivalent of urban legend, but I vividly recall a tale that circulated when I was just starting out in this business - the story of The Crazy Art Director....

I don’t know if this is the advertising industry’s equivalent of urban legend, but I vividly recall a tale that circulated when I was just starting out in this business – the story of The Crazy Art Director.

It was 1989 and we were in the middle of a recession that saw the death of Christmas bonuses and really good graft. Agencies had laid off tons of people and those of us left were pulling the weight of the missing bodies.

Apparently the pressure got to this one art director who worked for some big-time agency. This guy had been putting in super-human hours and one day he simply snapped. His partner found him curled up in the fetal position on his office floor – speaking in tongues. Word had it that he was hospitalized and was never heard from again. Poor bastard.

Now whether or not this really happened, it certainly did epitomize the times and sent a shock of fear through me and my agency friends. We were all working insane hours, too. Around the same time, there was a young lady working in media who tried to organize the peons at MacLaren, like some kind of Norma Rae of the Revised Blocking Chart Democratic Party. We heard she got canned.

Thankfully, times have changed. Believe it or not, it is possible to lead a balanced life while working in an advertising agency. Especially right now when there’s a lack of qualified talent out there. Agencies have become very flexible in an effort to attract top talent. Same goes for client side.

If you feel you’re lacking balance, here are some ideas to help you find it. Take it from me, an agency person who has kids, teaches a class, writes a column, plays in a volleyball league and is not a mental case – in the laying-on-the-floor-speaking-in-tongues sense of the expression.

Establish priorities. I’m a big believer in the idea that the answer to almost every question in life comes from knowing yourself and what you want. If you know what’s important to you, your decisions in life are clear. If your priority is to be the best writer of ad strategies, then that hour-long conversation with your buddy about the wardrobe design of the Charlie’s Angels movie should be low on your priority list.

Communicate your priorities to your boss. If your boss doesn’t know that you have a tap dancing lesson every Tuesday night at 6:30, she’s not going to rearrange workloads to accommodate that. If she does know, then she’s likely to forgo scheduling a presentation at 8 on Wednesday morning. You don’t get what you don’t ask for.

Set parameters before you take a new job. If you’re interviewing, do yourself and your prospective employer a favour and state up front, in the very first interview, what your priorities are. You might find yourself amazed by how flexible big cheeses are these days. Before I started my job, I clearly outlined my needs and what I could offer in exchange for having those needs met. It’s a give and take that agencies are prepared to negotiate for the right person and fit.

Make sure you’re working on the right account. There are some pieces of business that simply can’t accommodate your lifestyle. It’s neither good, nor bad. It just is. If you want flexible hours, don’t expect to do that with a telco or a hi-tech account. If you’re not working on an account that suits your lifestyle, ask to be moved to one more suitable. Find a new job if your agency won’t help you find a happier situation.

Don’t put in ‘face time.’ This is the equivalent of hanging around the agency until all hours so that you look like a star. You think you look like a shooter, but you don’t. It sends signals that you can’t manage your time and are generally a lame brown-noser. Good bosses evaluate you based on the quality and quantity of your output, not how many hours are on your timesheet. (By the way, your client can figure out that you didn’t spend 57 hours trafficking that there newspaper ad.)

Be a time-management freak. Though it may sound obvious, the easiest way to spend less time in the office is to refrain from those half-hour bowling sessions in the hallway. It’s great fun until you find yourself alone in the office at 9 at night, all bitter and whining about the time you put in. You get no sympathy from bosses who trip over your pins on the way to the printer, either.

Don’t complain – act. The occasional whining session is a staple of agency life. Sure, this is a tough business, not suited to the thin of skin, and the occasional group crybaby session makes us all feel better. So if you’re not happy with some aspect of your work life, refrain from incessant and chronic complaint – find a solution. Do something about it. People can’t stand constant whinging without action. It makes one an office pariah who never gets invited out with the cool kids.

Don’t be a martyr – speak up. Do you find yourself hiding many, many files under heavy objects because the magical Ad Fairy might take them away forever? You just might be in over your head and you do no one any favours by gutting it out. Eventually you’re going to do some damage – to your client’s business, to your team and your agency, but most importantly, to yourself. Talk to your boss immediately. There’s a good chance your boss doesn’t know how badly off you are and will remedy the situation. Do this today.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew. There is nothing a boss despises more than a worker who says he can do something and doesn’t come through. No matter how bright you want your star to shine, know your limits and be clear about them. It is far preferable to decline a project than to embarrass yourself and your agency by not getting the job done when promised because you couldn’t balance what you said you could. Don’t be afraid to say no.

Take care of business at home. I see some of my friends with kids going absolutely bonkers with stuff they schedule for their kids. Hockey. Ballet. Karate. Soccer. Swimming. Yadda, yadda, yadda. They race around all weekend long and are happy to get back to work for the break. I wonder if their kids are stressed out, too. Finding balance in life means looking at more than just work.

Help others find their balance. When you find yourself with some extra time, seek out someone else to help. This isn’t altruistic so much as supremely selfish. You see, the next time you’re jammed up, someone’s going to owe you. You’ll be able to ask for the help you need and get it without feeling guilty. Diabolical strategy, that.

Get a life. The best employees are those who have interests outside of power-point presentations. People with fulfilling and balanced lives are resilient, interesting, productive and a pleasure to be around. I have an agency friend who is studying esthetics because one day she wants to own a spa. I have another friend who wants to be a jazz singer. Two of my friends, who are suits by day, are accomplished fine artists. Another runs marathons. Another is a roadie for his wife who is a competitive equestrian. Go out and do something that you’ve always wanted to do. It’ll make you a happier person.

Pamela Davis is a group account director at Publicis in Toronto. She can be reached at or (416) 925-7644.