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Burnout – a preventable disease

I want to show you one of the saddest things I have seen in our industry press over the past few years. It was a comment written by someone working in a large advertising agency here in Auckland, New Zealand. The person was responding to an article written about a large number of recent agency redundancies:

An agency on your list has blatantly lied about their numbers. This is an agency which is a bottomless, never-ending pit for burning through staff. If you want to stay ignorant to their empty promises and sell your soul to the devil, look no further.

“Yeah, they churn out some good work, but at the expense of everyone’s will to live.

“Their negligence and heartless tactics come to play year after year of unashamedly trying to convince everyone they ‘care’ about their staff. They pile on useless perks to keep everyone’s heads just above water without having to fix their broken management and severe lack of values. It’s a vicious cycle of brainwash.

“Escape while you can; there are plenty of other reputable agencies to work for without sacrificing your life.” (, 23 July 2020)

Ouch. All the fury and vitriol here is toward the agency, and nothing to do with the redundancies.

I have seen for myself how burnout can affect people. I remember talking with one girl who had resigned from her job at a large agency, and she looked like a mere shadow of the person I had previously met.

Working in an agency is unlike most workplace environments. I used to say that I spent my agency client service career working in a constant state of ‘high octane stress’ – there didn’t seem to be any peaks and troughs to the tempo of agency life.

When I try to break down why that was two things glare back at me. The first is that agencies operate in an environment of conflicting deadlines, constant demands and highly-combustible creative egos. The second is the way that agencies handle client billing. For most agencies (and based on the conventional method of setting hourly rates), any time that a salaried employee works over and above their contracted 40 hours per week is unpaid and total cream for the agency. This factor alone means that agency management is unlikely to want to deter staff from working late into the night.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing if agencies billed in blocks of time (e.g. weekly units) or by value rather than hours? That way management would be pushing their staff out the door at 5:30pm (because time worked over and above the agreed-to total would amount to free labour for their clients).

OR, what if an agency changed all their salary-based employment agreements to contracts, whereby all staff got paid on an hourly basis, and any overtime worked had to be remunerated (now there’s a novel thought!).

As long as these ingrained agency practices still exist (and they won’t be going away any time soon), then it’s up to management to prove that they genuinely care about the health of their team by putting safeguards in place and changing the culture of the agency. The onus is also on agency staff to stand up for themselves to try to break the burnout cycle.

It’s an astounding thought that any company, in this modern, hypersensitive world, could compromise the physical and mental health and well-being of their staff the way that some agencies still do (and get away with it year after year, decade after decade). It’s a shame that disgruntled staff are not making more of a ruckus – but even the person in the comment (above) did not name-and-shame the agency in question – not in a small industry where it’s dangerous to burn bridges or to be known as a ‘whistle blower’. I don’t like the silence, but I do understand it.

Like the writer of the comment said, “there are plenty of other reputable agencies to work for without sacrificing your life.” That’s very, very true!


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