Global agency heads’ take on talent burnout in the SG ad agency scene

If you have worked in the ad industry long enough, you’d have realised, burnout, is a very real issue. Earlier this year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) as well recognised this growing syndrome, stating that burnout is largely an “occupational phenomenon” and not a medical condition.

Meanwhile, a study released in July 2019 by recruitment expert Hays, outlined that employers played a significant role in establishing a positive, balanced and healthy relationship with employees who may be facing burnout. Hays CEO Alistair Cox said interestingly:

One probable cause of burnout include professionals identifying being busy as something to be proud of, ultimately leading to unrealistic demands that employees put on themselves.

While there aren’t too many clear statistics on burnout issues facing Singapore ad industry employees, year after year, through our conversations with agency heads, we have heard of issues such as loss of talent and high churn rates plaguing the industry.  When asked what is leading to this phenomenon, many claim the long working hours and client demands are a driving force to the burnout phenomenon.

David Haddad, CEO, IPG Mediabrands Singapore says that firstly, an integration of life and work has to be accepted, and that work is a subset of life and not the other way around. The issue of employee burnout and overtime has been a consistent issue, he explained. “Talents leave the industry all together, no longer believing that agency management will one day solve constant overtime leading to burnout,” he said.

Having a similar stance on the topic of overtime is Rika Sharma, Digitas’ ASEAN MD, who says pervasive burnout is almost symptomatic of the agency culture. She then added that working long hours are seen as “normal” and even applauded, while taking a holiday or childcare leave is frowned upon.

In worst scenarios, employees in some agencies feel the need to wait for their “boss” to leave the office before doing so themselves.

According to Sharma, agencies have to ease pressure off talent and utilise them in ways that ultimately drives value for the organisation. Here’s a look at some of other leading industry players sharing views on tackling burnout in agency world.

David Haddad, CEO, IPG Mediabrands Singapore

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The issue of employee burnout and overtime has been a consistent issue within our industry for as long as I can recall.

What I have come to realise is that we have to accept an integration of life and work, in that order, as opposed to striving for the notion of work-life balance.

My boss will rightly remind me from time to time that; work is a subset of life and not the other way around. Burnout is a real problem in our industry and every now and then we see talent leave the industry all together, preferring to pursue another career, no longer believing that agency management will one day solve constant overtime leading to burnout. There are many reasons we can point as to why overtime is so prevalent in our industry and I’m trying to focus more on what we can do as an agency to identify the causes and find solutions.

From experience, agency management is great at providing band-aid solutions to what is a long-term problem.

Some examples include giving people days in lieu, shutting the office early once a month, creating more flexible working environments and helping staff prioritise their workloads. We do all these things already, but I don’t feel burnout is being eradicated as much as it should be.

We are now shifting focus to really address the cause of the burnout. Manual processes for example, can be replaced with automation and simple technology solutions being adopted, and we’re trialling some of these at the moment. Honest scope of work discussions with clients that allows for fair remuneration in line with deliverables; is another area we are pushing for with our clients. We need to have a better handle on scope discussions and to ensure that we are focused on what matters, instead of doing a lot of unnecessary work that a client will never look at.

Burnout leading to mental health issues, such an anxiety, is a conversation that all industries are responsible for addressing and being open to. Our focus as an agency is about business outcomes for ourselves and our clients.

Timesheets should never be a measure of someone’s value in an organisation.

[Celebrate and reward your star employees and teams at the inaugural Marketing Talent Awards 2019 on the 4th of October 2019 at Four Seasons Singapore. Book your tables here.]

Rika Sharma, ASEAN MD, Digitas 

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Pervasive burnout is symptomatic of the agency culture. Some indicators of this are: Is working long hours “normal” and even applauded? Is taking a holiday or childcare leave frowned upon? Do employees in the agency wait for their “boss” to leave before they leave the office?

Yes, there will always be client pressures. Yes, there will always be tight timelines. Yes, there will always be pitches. Yes, there will always be financial pressures.

But I think as the demands on the agencies evolves – the culture, the ways of operating, the structure and the mindset needs to as well.

This is definitely starting to reflect in new-age agencies and in fact is essential to attract the highly sought-after digital, data, tech talent and importantly. Agencies need to be able to retain these talent as the ad industry faces stiff competition from start-ups and tech giants that offer better talent initiatives.

The ad world has to evolve.

So, the questions to start asking more of: Are we just being brief takers or are we brief makers? Are we just doing stuff or are we solving real marketing problems for our clients? How are automating mundane processes? How is technology being used to improve our own agency processes both to drive efficiency? How are agencies partnering with ad-tech and mar-tech vendors to deliver for our clients? Talent is an agency’s greatest asset. All these are ways of easing pressure off our talent and utilising them in ways that drives value for organisations.

Here is my philosophy on how I operate the agency and the culture we foster within the agency. First and foremost, the team is not just employees. They are our talent and imperative to the success of our agency. Each managers job is to bring out the most in each of one them. Attached is a quote I use for our talent:

You really have to have a good reason to work past 6pm. Working late is frowned upon unless necessary.

We also have a generous annual leave policy at the agency even for junior and mid-levels (quite different from most other agencies) and its mandatory for employees to take all their leave within the year, with no carry over so we can ensure everyone is getting the much needed time off. We also have breakfast offered until 10am so we encourage employees to come in on time and leave on time.

I’ve been in the industry a very long time and a few things that I ensure not only to avoid burnout but also be an inspirational leader are:

  • The non-negotiables: Pick three personal non-negotiables that are important and stick by them. This way you don’t feel like you are compromising or guilty for missing out on what’s important.
  • Passion fuels a long-lasting career: Love what you do and do what you love. This way you can’t feel burnout as you are enjoying everything you do. The key is the bad days shouldn’t outweigh the good ones.
  • Be the change: Burnout happens when you are buried with work and can’t see the big picture. I believe that when you walk into work everyday, look for a way to add value.

Nimesh Desai, CEO, Wunderman Thompson Singapore

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Burnout is an age old issue that is not confined to the agency world. I don’t believe there is easy gauge to indicate if it is increasing or decreasing in prominence – maybe people are just feeling more comfortable raising it openly these days. I also believe it is an issue at any level.

The first step is for the management to acknowledge the issue exists and talk about it in open forums.

Having open and honest conversations on the hours they and others are working is a good start. This two-way communication is essential to find ways on how to tackle it as it goes beyond operational efficiencies.

The reality is this is easy to map out in theory but the practicalities are often driven by the pursuit of top and bottom lines.  Nevertheless, we have to start somewhere. Businesses have to create an environment where staff recognise they can say “no” to long hours, take their annual leave and also ensure there are channels they can escalate to without fear of repercussions.

In addition, managers have to be trained to identify signs associated with burnout (aside from fatigue).

There also needs to be open dialogues with clients and the industry bodies on acknowledging and governing these issues. This is a systematic issue that won’t and can’t be resolved in a short time and without commitment from all parties involved.

Sorcha John, managing director, Iris Singapore 

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It’s well documented that ambitious people and high achievers are most prone to burnout, and they are the people you want in an agency driving momentum and change. Therefore it’s imperative that agencies (and primarily good managers within those agencies) understand how and why burnout occurs.

I think there’s a difference between physical burnout (relating to excessive hours) and the emotional burnout of unrealised ambition and potential. Agencies are fuelled by the ambition and scale of our people’s ideas. We encourage them to be as expansive and original as possible, that takes a significant amount of emotional and intellectual investment and I think it can take a toll on talented people.

To me, welfare is not something you can tack on to your business as usual such as through investment in special programs. Welfare and care has to be hardwired into your agency’s operating model. To be blunt, the quality and efficacy of our product is solely dependent on the energy, ability and quality of our teams, if the business isn’t set up to enable that, everything is going to suffer including your growth and profitability.

We have a team of skilled integrated producers that enable our agency to function. Ensuring the right conditions (time, clarity of requirements etc) are in place for physical and emotional wellness is a big part of their methodology. We’ve also designed the office so that there are spaces to work at that support, soothe and amplify the different characters and energy levels we have on our team – quiet nooks and single working spaces for the more introverted, ideation walls and an auditorium for the extroverts.

There’s always more that we can do and we will continue to look for ways we can better support our people in this area.

(Watch this space for the next edition featuring leads from independent agencies in Singapore sharing their views.)