The culture of “living at the agency because they don’t pay extra hours”


Ever since I moved to the Middle East, this has been the ultimate case. In every ad agency I’ve heard of, worked for or knew the name of. There’s this culture of expecting employees to work long hours, unpaid and unjustified.

It is not a contractually written requirement, but for decades it’s been understood that if you want to make it in your job — particularly as a creative — then you’d better be prepared to dedicate a your life to your craft.

The inconvenient truth is, this lifestyle is a choice, and a bad one too.

Our industry execs work long hours because that’s what industry execs do, not necessarily because it’s the best way to operate. It’s a culture that some suggest to be “detrimental” to both agencies and their clients in the long run, as employees get burned out and the quality of their work begins to suffer.

It’s an outdated way of working, It’s not only unnecessary but that it’s also an unsuccessful strategy. People reach a saturation point, and if you keep them in an office environment for too long, then you see diminishing returns from them in terms of output anyway. It’s built on this culture of paranoia and the fact that creative talent can be replaced at any time.

There’s a mindset in place in which employees work late nights and weekends despite the fact there’s often no real reason to, That trend is getting worse as agencies are placed under increasing financial pressure by their clients.

Bigger agencies work long hours because they think that’s the right thing to do. It’s a lot easier to say ‘we are going to work the weekend’ than actually make the wholesale change that most agencies need to do.

Most agencies “act” that they’re on their knees revenue-wise (while they show organic growth whole the rest of their network is declining worldwide) so they will literally say anything to win a pitch or keep a client. Most senior agency folk — especially the more entrenched — are desperate to keep their jobs so they work the hours as a sign that they are committed even when that work is totally fruitless.

The last point is an important one. Too often at agencies, It’s those employees who work the longest hours that are deemed the most committed to the cause. The culture is one of bragging rights, in which, he who logs the most time in the office is often deemed most important to the organization, despite the fact he might simply be inefficient.

The system often rewards quantity over quality. And it trickles down. Account people are often expected to stay around late with creatives — out of “solidarity”.

Key thoughts to settle this argument?

  • If you’re an agency CEO/chair person, then hire a smart Manager, or Managing Director who actually understands the simple “life/work” balance equation that nobody should mess up with. Because “Happy Place = Happy Space.”
  • Make sure your clients understand that they pay for what you as an agency deliver. And agencies sometimes “over deliver” to make clients satisfied, but don’t make it a habit and turn your employee into that circus horse that clowns ride.
  • If you’re an employer and you want to convince your team to do more proactive work, then make a healthy process and hire proper traffic and project managers and NOT a flunk of fresh grads, but mid-seniors to manage their time rather than kill spirits with endless briefs and reward those employees with extra days off, free dinners, launches, drinks, short trips and personal trainings, give them a better health insurance… don’t make their life a living “hell” with your “amazing” HR department.
  • Don’t be a greedy CEO, your agency will keep losing its “replaceable” talent that got you the “money” in the first place.
  • More tips are always welcome.

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