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‘People have worked hard for generations’: SG independent agency heads on burnout

Globally, when it comes to the world’s most competitive economies, IMD World Economic Rankings said that the Lion City has dethroned the United States and Hong Kong in 2019, climbing up from its third spot in 2018.  The study found that Singapore’s rise to the top was driven by its advanced technological infrastructure, the availability of skilled labor, favourable immigration laws, and efficient ways to set up new businesses.  But simultaneously, what has also gained in prominence with the rise of the competitive economy is the issue of burnout.

According to a study by tech company Kisi, Singapore has been ranked the second most overworked city.  The study which spanned across 40 cities saw factors such as average number of working hours per week, minimum number of vacation days offered, amount of time spent commuting to work, gender parity as well as perceived level of happiness, playing a role in the work-life balance.  The study noted that today, over a fifth (23%) of Singaporeans worked more than 48 hours per week, and on average Singaporeans worked 44.6 hours.

Taking this into consideration, over the last month, Marketing spoke to several agency heads on the issues they faced in retaining staff. A published article two weeks ago on our interviewing global agency heads, based out of Singapore, saw several stating overtime and client demands, coming across as factors leading to burnout. Many of them also shared that they were taking taking active steps to address this issue and were also tapping onto global resources to overcome the issue.

But anyone working in the ad scene long enough would know that today, there is an influx of local agencies in the market. Many of which have lean teams, and are hungry to grow. As such, Marketing spoke to many of these players on their views around burnout:

[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.]

Gary Tang, managing director, The Media Shop
 

Burnout is a legitimate problem in the media industry, especially in our fast-paced society where Singaporeans continuously strive to get ahead of one another. In the past, I have worked in network agencies and I can testify on the long working hours being a norm. Recently when I caught up with a few ex-colleagues, they shared with me that they are expected to work over the weekends and public holidays to rush work for their ever-demanding clients.

The workaholic culture in Singapore often creates excessive stress. Singaporeans are brought up to study hard and work hard to provide a better life for themselves and their family. Even while physically being by their family members, it has also became a norm for Singaporeans to be mentally occupied with work, leading to less quality time with their family members. This makes it essential for us to pace ourselves and invest our time on other aspects of our lives as well. Furthermore, the advancement of technologies and communications has become a double edged sword situation. We are now always expected to respond in the quickest manner and this will increase anxiety and stress level, which ultimately lead to burnout to the individual.

As we do not have the luxury of big budgets like global agencies do, we find innovative ways to prioritise our staff.

Talents are our best asset and thus, we do our best to take good care of their well-being. We actively promote work-life balance in the company and implemented flexible work arrangements such as flexi-time and flexi-place where the staff are able to work from anywhere and anytime. We believe the culture in our company matters. Everyone loves a workplace that is positive, rewarding and fun. Similarly, our clients prefer to work with an agency that boasts happy and engaged employees. We organise regular team bonding activities that encourage interactions and strengthens connections between departments to cultivate a healthy working environment.

We also believe that it is vital to ensure open communication with our clients and ensure fair deadlines based on the scope of work. The reasonable time frame also helps to ensure that we can focus on producing the best work for our clients that achieves their business goals and ultimately propel their brand to greater heights.

Fiona Bartholomeusz, managing director, Formul8

I’m sure I’m going to be run over by a bunch of Millennials for saying this but burnout isn’t a new thing. It’s just brought to the fore because we now have a massive “me, me, me” generation with social media and citizen journalism blowing it up online.

People have worked hard for generations, and Singapore has been built on the back of this.

We just hear more about it because in many ways complaining about work life imbalance or getting burnt out becomes the anthem of a new generation. Back in the days when I first started working in the ad industry, we were just happy to be gainfully employed and we worked our asses off to ensure that it stayed that way. Now, you pull a few all-nighters or work a weekend and it’s the “I’m burnt out” mantra.

We work in a very competitive industry that is constantly hinged on better, fresher, smarter and faster ideas as well as with clients who expect more from their agencies. So it has to start with clients because all we are doing as agency owners, is to keep them happy and loyal. This problem is further magnified because Singapore is one of the most expensive cities in the world to run a business and to live well in.

I think people need to realise that walking into a job in this industry will be part and parcel of the job description. Anyone in investment banking will tell you the same thing, burnout is quite inevitable.

Some careers breed longevity because of the pacing and lesser demands, I just don’t think advertising is one of them.

It attracts a certain breed of individuals who thrive in this sort of environment, and advertising really isn’t cut out for everyone. Every firm has its own approach to staff welfare. I think it’s quite a no-brainer for a network that’s listed and worth billions to allocate a certain percentage to staff activities. If one were to look at it on an expenditure value versus turnover percentile, I think independent agencies do fairly well in that regard, but one also has to keep in mind that it’s easier to spend someone else’s money than your own.

Local agencies don’t have a safety net, if we aren’t profitable, HQ isn’t going to come rescue us.

What we do boils down to understanding each agency’s own culture and what their team members prefer. We’ve done a ton of things –  we’ve flown to see concerts in Australia and Dubai, tandem skydiving and scuba diving overseas, we attend most of the major concerts here, we hold a massive agency retreat annually where we fly the bulk of the team to some island to bond, drink too much and behave badly, this year it’s in Koh Samui.  On top of that, we host client-agency movie previews several times a year and pay for weekly body combat and pump classes. But, this doesn’t take into account the professional courses and events we send our staff to or that we give our people a fully-paid month off when they’ve been with us for five years.

As an agency owner, I think it’s the right thing to do because we have a fantastic team who are very business-led and understand how important it is to be responsible for the agency’s wellbeing. It’s a huge financial undertaking in totality when you have over 36 people in our Singapore office alone, so I’ve always ingrained the idea that we only have the liberties to do so because it comes on the back of hard work and responsibility to our clients. I think it’s also imperative to blow off steam outside of the office and to see your colleagues in a different light and with more avenues to b***h about the boss.

Shaun Quek, managing director, TMRW

Personally, I think we need to stop perpetuating this myth that burnout is a creative agency by-product. It affects every industry across the world, and more so in trying economic times where the task is to deliver great results on leaner resources. Given that the intense fight for talent now extends beyond the creative industry with the likes of Google and Facebook, we need to be looking at how this systemic problem can be addressed – and motivate and engage our teams in today’s work climate.

If anything, I feel that organisations that rely heavily on creative talent are working hard to stub out the issue by designing programmes that encourage flexi-hour working and workplace connections, and even introducing wellness initiatives.

In this respect, we also have to acknowledge that it is commonplace for global agencies to retrench as soon as their pockets get shallow. If there is one thing local agencies have, it’s a heart. I know that my fellow entrepreneurs do everything they can to ensure job security and that basic welfare is met – if there isn’t a need for a job, what welfare is there to speak of? Because for us, it’s personal. The people we hire become our extended family. We share a story that goes beyond the job.

Many indie owners I know have created magical workplaces stockpiled with benefits the big players can’t. These include company trips, direct mentorship with the management, skill upgrading and much more. It is not that size difference that allows us to do more, but because we want to do more for the community as local independents.

Deeper pockets mean nothing if they can’t be used to directly influence and improve the way we work.

The work-life balance generation is one we have learnt to not just work alongside, but to embrace.

Rowena Bhagchandani, CEO and co-founder, BLKJ

As an individual who has been in this industry for the last two decades, this is an industry that is constantly pivoting, mirroring client brand partners’ changing needs. And in the last five years, with greater integration and evolution in marketing functions within organisations, this has in turn demanded nimbleness, agility, speed, efficiencies more than ever from agencies.

To service this demand effectively is the delicate balance that we constantly manage, and to successfully manage that balance is the key to unlocking quality creative output while ensuring productivity (read: minimal churn). But productivity can only be achieved if the right talents are in place, and the talents are performing at their best. Which is why certain values are important such as:

Caring about our talents’ welfare, as all talents being equal.

It is also important to evaluate new business opportunities and try to not spread ourselves too thin, burning out our people and compromising our efforts.

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