Advertising confessions: 9 current and former staffers at companies like WPP and Publicis share stories of pandemic burnout

Summary List PlacementAd agency workloads have increased during the pandemic, leading some to work up to 75 hours a week and others to burn out and leave the industry, ad pros told Insider.
When the pandemic hit, many marketers shifted messaging, leaving agencies to have to deliver digital ads in days and hours.
Even after the crisis subsided, some agency employees said, clients have come to expect quicker response times and tighter turnarounds on deadlines. 
Some said it’s been tough to get PTO during the pandemic. They said they’re afraid to push back on increasing demands out of concern for their jobs, and agency leaders don’t push back for fear of losing business in an already tough business climate that’s been marked by layoffs.
The pandemic has worsened conditions in an industry already known for long hours. One former agency employee who requested anonymity said that once, during a job interview, executive creative directors “bragged that they hired someone just because she told them she wanted to die making advertising.”
Insider talked to nine employees who detailed what work has been like during the pandemic. Some asked for anonymity to protect their job prospects. Interviews have been edited for clarity.
‘We’re not firefighters or doctors’
“I’m on the lower end of the food chain, so I’ve definitely been experiencing the agency burnout. Junior and mid-level employees tend to burn out faster. Leadership often doesn’t take PTO days, and it’s a trickle-down effect. If they aren’t taking the time, the more junior employees aren’t going to.
The work and expectations continue to increase, but pay and promotions haven’t. It’s not unusual for us to work 70-hour work weeks.
As a social strategist, I’m creating social-first campaigns, which is what everyone wanted to do during the pandemic. With agencies, there’s always an expectation that you’re available.
My days are filled with meetings, but you still need to get your work done. So now I have to put together a client presentation but the only time to do this is after hours. [Leaders] bend over backwards for these billion-dollar corporations, but not for employees.
Everyone wants to think their jobs are important, but we need to realize it can wait until Monday. We’re not firefighters or doctors.”
— A social strategist at a holding company-owned agency
‘At the end of last year, I felt it the worst’
“We were pitching non-stop. There was no delineation between home and work life.
At one point between August and December, I was working 75 hours a week. Pitches went throughout the holiday. Some clients acted like there was no holiday.
A pitch at an agency is an all-hands-on-deck moment. We have this sprint to get to the brief. You need the brief in 48 hours. Creative teams then go through several rounds of reviews with internal leadership.
Agencies are pitching more, hoping something sticks. They are too fearful of further loss of revenue. The work picked up in the summer, and the timelines were far shorter. Clients got used to shorter timelines. I had a one-week deadline for something that used to take three weeks.
What has happened is a monumental shift over the last year to always be producing. Just because we were able to do it doesn’t mean we should have to.
[Internal teams] were talking on Slack, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Google Chat. We were even chatting on Instagram Messenger. It took a toll on people.
[Layoffs] have put back in a level of fear that it can happen to you at any point. People don’t want to take vacation time because they say there is no where to go. People are banking those days for later. Agencies should have mental health days on top of vacation days.”
— An executive creative director at a WPP agency
‘I had a breakdown in January’
“It wasn’t pleasant. My doctor was quite forceful, telling me to take time off and that my immune system was low [because of] stress.
I did a lot of work alone last year. I did work for 20-plus people, and I didn’t have 20-plus people. The pressure ramps up quite fast. You can’t say [to bosses], ‘Hey man, I don’t have enough time to do this work.’ You have a gun to your head; they’re saying ‘Well, you have to.’
I was working more than 70, 80 hours a week. There were points on the weekend, instead of going to see my girlfriend, I would knock out for 12 hours because I was just exhausted.
I don’t know what senior staff do. The ammo seems to be to crack the whip. There is no empathy. If a client complains, their solution is to throw someone lower under the bus.”
— A former Publicis employee who quit during the pandemic
‘No less than a dozen projects at once’
“I had between five to 10 things to work on at any given time. Creatives have no less than a dozen projects at once to oversee.
The executive creative directors have called all-creative department meetings after 6 p.m., with seven minutes notice. Every Monday morning meeting there are at least two to three people who talk and thank various teams for hard work on Friday evening [or for] working the weekend.”
— A former creative director at a top independent agency
‘I work 15 hours a day’
“When I was a junior creative and even going through ad school, anytime you had an actual ad professional speak to you, they had this fraternity-esque mentality. They’d say, ‘If you don’t have what it takes, you won’t succeed. You have to be scrappy, pick yourself up by your bootstraps.’ What they were really saying was, you need to work a lot of hours.
I work 15 hours a day. The process now to get an idea through is 25 rounds [of reviews] because of bureaucracy and hierarchy. Account directors, business managers. They’re not communicating with clients [on behalf of employees]. They get compensated based on happy clients.
Five to eight people have left my company in the last couple of months, and we’re a small agency. Half a billion people are out of a job, and this job sucks so much, they’re leaving. 
My partner and I have both been looking.”
— A senior art director at a San Francisco agency
‘I’ve got to pay the bills’
“People are forced to take vacation days to meet their annual quotas, but they end up just sitting in the house thinking about what they could be doing.
Timesheets are just an annoyance, but I got to the point where I found myself crying over them. I just thought, ‘I can’t do this,’ and I had to stop. I had to go paint a wall or something and not be present in a working environment.
I don’t know how much longer I have this in me. But here I am, it’s Tuesday and I’m back to work because I’ve got to pay the bills.”
— Nathalie Gordon, a freelance creative director based in London
‘We’re working harder than we ever have’
“Three years ago I left the agency world because I was burnt out. I went client side and last month decided to go freelance.
We are expected to be connected all the time. You feel guilty for taking a lunch or a walk. You’re always giving people updates on what you’re doing. I have more meetings than ever.
I think the layoffs made people scared. Everyone has been stuck. For nine months, there was nothing [on the job market].”
— Eammon Azizi, a freelance copywriter who left his company due to burnout
‘There’s an unlimited amount of work’
“I’m very burned out for numerous reasons, so I purchased a campervan to travel the country and reset, focus on art projects and work on creating a completely new type of role. I want to create a role that’s basically a talent culture strategist.
It may end up that I never want to work full-time again.
I was working these incredible hours, sometimes all day and all night and all weekend, on something you believe is in a great place, and then it gets wrecked by a client or client says it’s great but then their boss doesn’t like it, so then you have to scrap everything.
In COVID, we had things we had to turn around in days or hours.”
— Joe Cole, a freelancer with the We Are Rosie network who left his agency job at Muh-Tay-Zik Hof-Fer last year due to burnout
‘The agency can’t deny a client’
“Someone asked me how I was dealing with burnout earlier. I’m not. I was already having legit panic attacks when COVID happened.
Everyone started to do whatever because the agency owners and directors can’t deny a client. They’re not saying no to new projects. They’re not saying no to clients asking us for five revisions of copy. I’m a paid-media person, and they’re asking me to write copy. They’re saying the client needs this. Needs? This is marketing; it’s not life or death.”
— An independent agency employeeJoin the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: Why ‘moist’ is one of the most hated words in the English language
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