A discussion on the future of the ad industry took a somewhat unexpected turn this week when panellists mused on the possibility of agencies adding psychologists to their staff.
The discussion, hosted as part of the annual Advertising Week conference in Sydney, asked four ad agency executives to consider what they thought an agency might look like in 2024. And while much of the early discussion was dominated by the impact of technology on marketing, an off-the-cuff remark sent the debate off on a different trajectory.
When asked what job titles she thought might exist in the future, DDB Sydney managing director Priya Patel said she wondered if there wouldn't perhaps be a "stress manager that locks you out of spreadsheets or shuts your computer down if you've spent too much time in front of the screen".
"I think that could be quite good for people's mental health," she said.
While the audience was having a giggle at the thought of having their screentime policed, GroupM chief executive Mark Lollback argued that Patel had touched on something hugely important.
"It's a serious issue for the whole industry," he said.
"I would be very surprised if sooner than five years we don't have psychologists on the payroll. I asked my head of talent only last week at what point we're going to have to move down that route."
While it might seem a bit extreme, advertising wouldn't be the only high-pressure environment to provide workplace access to psychological guidance. Professional sports teams have long employed psychologists to assist in ensuring that players have the mental fortitude to deal with challenging patches in their careers. Recently, the Herald executive team also provided access to psychological experts to assist journalists covering the Christchurch massacre.
Advertisers are unlikely to face a stadium filled with furious ultras or the harrowing stories of distraught family members, but they endure the constant uncertainty of knowing the account they're working on today could be gone tomorrow, and that they're only ever as good as the last piece of work they did.
The effects of this pressure were shown in research conducted at the end of last year by UnLtd, a charitable organisation that supports social entrepreneurs. It revealed that employees working in the media, marketing and creative industry were 20 per cent more likely to show symptoms of depression than the national average across Australia, and 29 per cent more likely to show signs of anxiety.
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A staggering 56 per cent of the 1800 employees who participated in the survey admitted to displaying mild to severe levels of depression.
The study identified stress, pressure and overworking as key contributors to the problem, with 81 per cent of those surveyed saying they often take their job home with them, 73 per cent saying their job can keep them awake at night and 69 per cent that their job tends to directly affect their health.
A comparative study has not been conducted in the New Zealand market, but numerous local heads at some of the nation's biggest agencies have told the Herald they are concerned about the mental wellbeing of their staff – particularly in light of poor mental health that particularly affects younger Kiwis.
In further discussing the issue, Lollback said at least some of the onus rested on executives to ensure their staff are not being pushed to the point of burnout.
"We cannot walk away from duty of care," he said, before adding that this sometimes means making tough decisions that can cost a company money in the short term.
"We have actually resigned accounts on a duty of care basis," said Lollback.
"Things got to the stage where we weren't going to have respect on both sides. Our teams were working under so much stress, and [we decided] we would rather not have the business."
Lollback also recalled rejecting clients that offered more work to a team already doing as much as they could. He said he told the client company to keep their money because the additional funds simply weren't enough to justify hiring a new staff member and the existing team simply couldn't keep the standard of their work at the expected level if even more was added to their load.
Displaying this duty of care sounds like a great idea, but it can be challenging given the declining margins in the industry.
At a time when every agency in town is hunting down every dollar it can get, it can be difficult to say no.
If you don't want to do the work, the client will probably be able to find someone else who may be willing to do it even more cheaply.
The other problem is that the purse strings in the industry lie with marketing heads, who don't owe that direct duty of care to the staff working at agencies. These clients don't always see the late nights worked by staff on their accounts, nor the disappointment on the faces of a creative team told they'll have to come up with an idea for a business pitch initiated right before Christmas.
The great hypocrisy is that the big companies pushing their agency partners to the brink often trumpet the importance of work-life balance in their own businesses. It's always easier to set unrealistic expectations if you don't have to look the team doing the work in the eye every day.
Another potential obstacle to taking care of staff lies in the endless pursuit of growth in the industry. The international holding companies, which own most of the big agencies in New Zealand, set budgets requiring local arms to grow their revenue and profit.
Every year needs to be bigger than the last, which means agencies are constantly chasing more business, asking more of their staff and pushing that much further. In this context, there is perhaps an argument for a more sustainable form of growth that also takes into account the wellbeing of staff.
It's good to see the Government taking steps to improve wellbeing at a national level, but those changes will take a while to trickle down to the people working in advertising and media.
The question ad agency leaders really need to ask is not whether things need to change, but how long their most vulnerable staff can wait before it happens.
•Damien Venuto travelled to Sydney courtesy of Facebook