Shreyas Kulkarni

Has the advertising industry failed its people?

Everybody knows the ills affecting the sector, and yet remedial measures are postponed for the proverbial EOD that never arrives.

That the advertising world is as famous for its poor work culture as it is for its glitz and glamour should not raise eyebrows. 

What should raise eyebrows are the smirks on the faces of the advertising folks, when the 70-hour workweek debate was the talk of the town. Why? Because these very ad executives had, starting Monday, worked over 70 hours and it was not even Wednesday yet.

Unfortunately, people’s acceptance of this state is so deep and normalised that even the mere thought of doing something against it brings more exhaustion to the already weary body and mind. 

One would have expected the ad world to change after the pandemic but what one remembers is of a week-long mental health leave that included the weekend. 

“I've seen good ideas being crushed within meeting rooms because the CMO or the CCO or the creative head may not like it."
Nidhi Sinha, vice president of planning, Publicis Worldwide

The increasing attrition rate that this sector faces, and the growing number of mid and senior talent quitting companies to start their own agency are enough indicators of the dissatisfaction. 

Has the advertising sector, time and again, failed its people?

“It has,” says Nidhi Sinha, vice president, planning and strategy, Publicis Worldwide. She blames it on the demand of immediateness that follows every single brief an agency receives. 

“The sword of ‘deliver it tomorrow’ hangs over your head. How do you then have the time to absorb something, think through it, experiment… it often ends up in one department blaming the other.” 

On the other hand, Aalap Desai, founder of tgthr, a full-funnel agency, believes advertising can never fail its people, and that what we have are some complications. 

“We have gotten out of the pandemic and are still getting used to the digital revolution in India. An institution so big will have some blips. We are all trying to figure it all out and fix it. It will let us down when we stop doing that. That’s not today,” he states.

“As an industry, we've forgotten how to say no because it has become a tradition - we have to deliver. If we don't, somebody else will.”
Pallavi Chakravarti, co-founder and CCO, Fundamental

The power of ‘no’ and privilege 

Pallavi Chakravarti co-founded the creative agency Fundamental in 2022 with former DDB colleagues Nishant Saurabh and Anand Murty. Their agency is one of the many breakaways ad land saw in the last two years. 

On average, she reveals, eight out of the 10 people she’s met who have left the place cited poor pay and a lack of personal life as the reasons for their exits. 

The thing about advertising, especially creative agencies, is there are certain periods in a year like the run-up to the festival season or the awards season where the workload sees a significant increase. 

Chakravarti feels this spike is now a year-long phenomenon. She admits that in this sector there will come times when one will have to work the extra hour and on weekends and that she has not shied away from telling this to the people who have reported to her.

“I understand as an agency leader, the buck stops with you. You are responsible for running the ship and making it profitable, and that people are fed. But, it does not mean people have zero right to their time.”

(L-R) Nidhi Sinha, Aalap Desai, Pallavi Chakravarti
(L-R) Nidhi Sinha, Aalap Desai, Pallavi Chakravarti

If people, she says, are discerning enough, they can see work-life balance despite the stresses now taking over the entire year. “As an industry, we've forgotten how to say no because it has become a tradition - we have to deliver. If we don't, somebody else will.”

Not everybody has the agency to say no or put their foot down. Quite often, the question of pending bills and images of food on the table for family members make ad folk agree to harsh work practices. 

“Leaders who are connected to their teams are people who are torn between business pressure and work culture every day. It is torture.”
Aalap Desai

Fundamental’s co-founder agrees. “It is a conversation of privilege because there are very few who have the guts to break away, have the resilience to be able to do it, and able to sustain the breakaway.”

It has to come from the top

Change always comes from the top. Management scholars Donald Hambrick’s and P Mason’s ‘Upper echelons theory’ says organisational outcome depends on the managerial background of its top-level leaders – people make the place. 

Balancing steady and a manageable workload whilst keeping the bottom-line healthy is easier said than done in a sector where margins are barely visible and there is always someone ready to serve a client at a cheaper rate than yours. 

“The pressure on numbers and business is at an all-time high, the losses have piled up and the top brass is under pressure to deliver them or their jobs will be at stake. It is not that they don’t understand the issues but they too have bills to pay. They are just under too much pressure,” remarks Desai. 

He goes on to agree that it does not justify business being prioritised over solutions. “They need to start being less scared and prioritising solutions just like they prioritise business. Just because it doesn’t affect their position in the company, doesn’t mean that these solutions don’t matter.” 

While people do make the place, sometimes they occupy such an influential position that it becomes hard to move forward. 

Publicis Worldwide’s Sinha harked to it during our conversation saying conversations and decisions no longer remain about the brand but about that person. “I've seen good ideas being crushed within meeting rooms because the CMO or the CCO or the creative head may not like it,” she states. 

Such a culture creates hindrances because when a person becomes bigger than the agency, it begins to harm everybody. 

Legendary football manager Sir Alex Ferguson has always said nobody is bigger than Manchester United. He did not hesitate to sell David Beckham to Spanish football club Real Madrid because he felt his off-field life would hinder his on-field performance. 

A growing rebel alliance 

Since the past two years, there has been a steady ship of mid and senior-level people quitting their jobs at established and legacy advertising agencies to start their own agencies. 

There is Talented, Fundamental, tgthr, Curativity, The Titus Upputuru Company, Steve and Priya’s upcoming creative agency, and many more. 

It is a pointer to the dissatisfaction many have felt with the industry. Talented’s co-founders disclosed their employee handbook as an example of how one can do good work without breaking people’s backs. 

“Leaders who are connected to their teams are people who are torn between business pressure and work culture every day. It is torture,” reveals Desai as the reason some of them left their jobs to start something on their own. 

Fundamental’s Chakravarti feels not everyone will get to reap the benefits from this renaissance that happens every one or two generations and will benefit those who take a stand. 

“Certain chunks of people will break away and certain people, especially the younger lot in today's world, will start drifting towards more peace of mind-giving pursuits,” she says. 

The advertising industry is not a small machine; it is a beast, and changing it is, quite honestly, a near insurmountable task. It will need actions from everybody or a place so big and influential, everyone else will follow. 

Until then, utopia remains an abstract concept.

Cover Photo by Anil Xavier on Unsplash

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