Agencies must do more to eliminate sweatshop conditions. It is now a matter of life and death, Simon Labbett writes.
I was recently introduced to this bizarre game called Karoshi in which the goal is to die at work. It has several iterations, including the rather disturbing Karoshi Suicide Salaryman. What does Karoshi mean? In Japan, it is the corporate equivalent of hara-kiri. Death by overwork.
It was just before Christmas when we heard of the tragic death of the young copywriter Mita Diran in Indonesia, allegedly due to a combination of overwork and excessive consumption of energy drinks. Her father posted this heart-rending account: “She collap-sed after continuous working overtime, for three days, last night. Working over the limit. I have not slept since.”
I can also recall the loss of an account director many years ago, a young lad who took his own life. What makes it all the more tragic is how utterly avoidable it was.
At the time of these deaths, a real sense of purpose ensued within agencies – a sense that well-being could somehow play a key part in how agencies are structured. Yet nothing has changed since.
We all understand that such is the dedication to secure, and sustain, a job in advertising that graduates will go to great lengths to prove themselves — a behaviour that is all too often exploited by agencies. Add to this the complex, dynamic and ever-changing business that we work in, where we are all setting ourselves elaborate and ambitious goals.
These tragic tales reveal the inadequate framework that the creative industry has built, where we are yet to develop the well-being of our businesses. In a people-led creative environment, why are we failing ourselves? Are we still handing out the T-shirts that Steve Jobs once distributed, with the slogan “Working 90 hours a week, and proud of it”? I hope not, because work should not result in a shattered spine or a broken spirit.
Industry research last year revealed that 70 per cent of marcoms agency employees believe work affects their health and that agency bosses must do more to safeguard the well-being of their staff. Nabs has helped implement a range of services designed to tackle the issue of stress in our industry — focused around building resilience to anxiety, stress and the everyday pressures of work and life.
To change our attitude would require more than re-labelling good management practice. And it is not enough to insist that employees not work on weekends — except for Sundays (and maybe some Saturdays). This is precisely what a memo from Goldman Sachs said last year, weeks after the report of the death of a Merrill Lynch intern from an epileptic fit in his shower after he reportedly pulled three all-nighters at the bank.
There are many in our industry calling for change. Ben Bilboul, the group chief ex¬ecutive of Karmarama, says: “We need to develop a better system of pastoral care and not just look at HR as a way of getting staff out the door as quickly and efficiently as possible.
“Another way of looking at this is to think: what would it take to turn this into an industry that people in their thirties, forties and, God forbid, fifties would want to remain in? There’s a clear value to clients in having more ex¬perienced heads around the table, but very little to keep the best talent retained if we can only promise lost weekends, cancelled holidays and a 24/7 e-mail culture.”
The IPA director-general, Paul Bainsfair, says: “Somebody once said ‘more is worse’ and I think that’s a pretty good thought to hang on to. My own view is that there’s nothing wrong with working ridiculous hours once in a while; in fact, it can be exciting and rewarding. But there’s everything wrong with doing it all the time.”
Nils Leonard, the executive creative director at Grey, believes “energy” is the biggest commodity in this industry and it needs to be nurtured. “It has taken me this many years to work out that my real job is the creation and fostering of energy before ideas, and that those who have energy can conquer any task,” he says. “To those lucky enough to foster the energy of others, I say stay vigilant. Fight for what they won’t — that same light that shines in their eyes when they’re cracking a brief can’t shine that bright forever.”
The well-being of our employees means encouraging a culture that fosters a positive working environment with a sense of purpose and fulfilment to help nurture the next generation of talent. We need the entire food chain in our industry to support this change. Nobody would want their child to be au fait with the Karoshi concept (or the games). And if there is one industry that could take the initiative to guide the rest of the corporate world on how to create happy souls at work, it is the advertising industry. It is not a difficult brief to work on.
Simon Labbett is the founder and creative director of Hometown