Fear and Loafing

In the week that Catherine Zeta Jones came clean about having bipolar issues I just wonder how many people who work in advertising suffer from panic attacks ?

We all know the stat about 1 in 4 adults suffering from mental health issues, but on a bad day in advertising it can feel more like 1 in 1.

And I don’t think it’s a question of saying “if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen”, because some of the most valuable people in the industry are going to be sensitive types.

I can remember once preparing a pitch for a trendy shoe brand. We were in a large warehouse-type space and as we waited for the client’s arrival I saw our planner hiding behind a pillar and popping something into his mouth. I remember thinking – “That’s either a beta blocker or diazepam or acid.”

Then I thought “I hope it’s acid.” Because I’d never seen a planner present on acid before.

But actually I never would have thought this guy, who was super-bright and a great presenter, would need anything to help him through a meeting. He did, though – and lots of others have too.

An ECD I know swears by Rescue Remedy, and I must say I like that too – it’s a bit like taking a nip of brandy.

I’ve tried various things myself, from half a Natracalm to 8 grams of ketamine, but the latter just made me lash out wildly with my fists and then fall asleep in the middle of a word.

We didn’t win that pitch.

But of course nobody should really suffer from that kind of anxiety. As Tim Mellors used to say – it’s only advertising, nobody dies. Although, actually, let’s revise that.

Because stress can kill people.

Accounts seem to be moving more often, and that’s the big pressure point in an agency, the threat of losing an account. Any meetings can get to you, particularly with clients who threaten to move their business on a regular basis, but pitches and re-pitches bring the highest pressure.

I’ve been in pitches where it felt like the overall standard was so high, the clients were making a decision based on knocking out any agencies who made any kind of mistake.

And that “one mistake and you’re out” approach is a recipe for completely unsustainable stress levels. As well as being antithetical to the spirit of experimentation we need (take a look at Ken Robinson’s brilliant TED talk about creativity being about the need to fail …)

So my recipe for dealing with all this would be about taking more risks.

I actually think a respect for the creative process, for the value and fragility of great ideas, for the discomfort you’re bound to feel when first hearing these ideas – should be the essence of our industry. It would change the focus from a “service” industry, where we’re reliant on intangibles like “chemistry” and drinking unfeasible amounts of alcohol in the name of client entertainment – to a product-focussed industry, where there’s a stronger sense of reality.

We need to respect what we can do brilliantly – which is come up with business-transforming creativity. Rather than kicking ideas around like they’re empty Tango cans and hoping that the client will like us for that.

Because in losing that respect, it’s not surprising that we lose our raison d’etre and our sense of what we can actually achieve.

(And on that note – I’m off on holiday.    See you when I get back … )

  • Carol Fisher

    Steve, it may have ‘felt like the overall standard was so high” (amongst competing agencies) during a pitch, but I can assure you that in all my 25+ years of attending pitches as a client, NOT ONCE have I ever had the luxury of 4 or even 3, strategic & creative ‘winners’. I have had 4 duds plenty of times, and once had completely identical ideas pitched by 3 agencies out of 4-& I say this as a client who was well known for ‘buying’ edgy creative work & taking risks. I have compared notes with contemporaries & they have always confirmed that their experience matches my own. The good news, therefore, is that your great idea will almost never be pitching against 3 other great ideas- but if by ‘taking risks’ you mean ignoring the client’s brief & presenting what you think they should have, regardless, then don’t be surprised if the only award you receive is a wooden spoon.

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