In the 25+ years since I started my career in the ad business, I’ve been lucky to find myself at the bottom of the pecking order at least eight times.
No, I’m not about to tout my humility here.
(I prefer to remind myself about that at the altar of the universe where I’m that proverbial speck of dust, not with my job.)
But what I learn each time I find myself at the lowest rung of the ladder is how much distance there is from the top. And how disconnected people at the top can be from everyday realities beyond the breathless boilerplate banalities of visions, strategies, margins and profits.
And yet the chain that connects all the people up and down the ladder only yanks the ones in the lower rungs, and painfully so.
It’s critical to see the chain for what it is—shackling, sometimes even debilitating, wearing down people who don’t have the time / experience / mental and fiscal resources to withstand its constraining effects.
A “driven” CEO outlines a “disruptive” idea over a Friday evening chat with her CMO. The selectively overzealous CMO barks his orders down his chain of command just as a not-so-hapless brand manager is about to sneak off for the weekend (in current times, that probably only means turning off the webcam).
The brand manager says, “Why should I enjoy this misery by myself? Let me spread the suffering.” And promptly calls the account lead at the agency.
The account lead, under pressure from her agency chief to meet business targets but conscious of how close she is to burnout, attempts to muster up the energy to fend off this weekend-devouring monster.
“For the love of my job,” she says and pulls herself together to round up the team to brief on this urgent assignment that was triggered by an unthinking CEO, cascaded by an unquestioning CMO, compounded by an unempathetic brand manager, taken on by a passionate account lead.
On the other side of the food chain, the agency chief does not think to stop this madness in its tracks. He does not proclaim a cease and desist order to his team. He does not push back to either the brand manager or the CMO, that this is an unacceptable, unhealthy practice.
In the name of “Advertising is not a job, it’s, <fill in your favourite inspirational noun>,” the team pulls something out of a hat, sacrificing their weekend, and a slice of their well-being.
The art director falls by the wayside during the weekend, burnout and a continuing inability to prioritise his health combining to take the inevitable toll.
The never-say-die account lead rolls up her sleeve and unearths freelancers—at way more than standard in-house costs—at the last minute.
The brand manager is tapping his virtual feet impatiently on Monday morning for the work to hit his inbox, having completely taken his mind off work over the weekend.
Somewhere in the mix, a junior/mid-level strategy/creative team – seeing this “challenge” as an “opportunity" — has burnt both ends of the candle while an entitled creative head has not bothered to “go below his pay grade” on such an assignment.
The brand manager likes the turnaround time, even the work, and forwards it on to his boss, who promptly bombs it.
Brand manager re-lights the fuse on the account lead’s head, never mind he liked the work just a few hours earlier. Demands another round of work. In under 24 hours. Because, obviously, creativity and physical energy are always on tap at the agency.
The creative head hears of the disaster from the agency chief and, instead of standing up for them, unloads on his hapless team.
After doing the impossible — for the passion-that-is-not-just-a-job — this time it goes from brand manager to the CMO who takes it to the CEO, who by now has forgotten her brainwave and the accompanying request.
The project dies an ignominious death then.
But wait, the CEO has another request, because an investor said something on an earnings call. That needs to be acted upon, pronto.
And the rigmarole begins all over again.
An opportunistic anti-incumbent awaits just such an opportunity when the CMO cries on a rival agency chief’s shoulder about his current agency being perpetually late with delivery. And their ideas suddenly not even being that great.
“Call for a pitch. Or better still, retain your agency, but give us a chance with this project. I know just the right production house who can create magic for a film coming out a brief like this. Wink wink. Nod nod.”
And qualm-lessly, the rival agency backstabs an industry compatriot, without a thought that someday they may be in the same shoes.
“Record results, outstripping analysts’ expectations,” smugly says the Wall Street-facing agency holding company CFO in an exclusive interview, his bonus and raise assured by the “efficiency measures” that are making life not so rosy for the rank and file.
Does any of this sound familiar?
I’m guessing most readers will know this exact scenario or something like this playing out across the industry. Not as an exception, but as business as usual.
How does one break this chain?
Empathy alone doesn’t seem to suffice.
It feels like this will take something else.
The courage to stand up for what’s right.
For the account lead to stand up to her client.
For the agency chief to stand up for his account lead, and his team.
For the rival agency chief to stand up for a common cause.
For the creative head to acknowledge his sense of entitlement, remember his real role, and his journey, and change his attitude and actions.
For the CFO to reprioritise people over profit and not just in press releases.
For the brand manager to question his bosses about the impracticality of their ask, and their total lack of respect and empathy for their agency partners.
For the CMO to inculcate a true sense of partnership, not an imbalanced power game between client and vendor.
For the CEO to recognise the unthinking cause and effect of her actions.
For industry bodies to coalesce around a common cause and establish rules of decency and mutual respect, to enable more humane business practices across all levels, all stakeholder interactions.
For every individual in the industry to feel empowered enough to call BS on everything that enables this chain.
Because the biggest damage we do is not just at an individual level. We damage our industry, our ability to attract and retain the best talent, to produce the best work that reinforces that what we do is to give businesses the last legal unfair advantage: the power of creativity.
But to break the chain, we all need to act now.
By seeing the view from the bottom of the ladder again.
By saying no, a lot more than we do now.
Narayan Devanathan is CEO of Dentsu Solutions India / APAC Lead for Strategy and Consulting for Dentsu Creative. The views expressed here—unlikely to win him any popularity contests—are his own, with the express wish that they are shared and acted upon by many others.