Columns / Advertising

If Advertising Is So Great, Why Are We So Unhappy?

Ernie Schenck
“Clap along if you feel/Like a room without a roof/Because I’m happy/
Clap along if you feel/Like happiness is the truth/Because I’m happy/
Clap along if you know/What happiness is to you/Because I’m happy/
Clap along if you feel like/That’s what you wanna do.”
—Pharrell Williams

Look at us. We work in an industry that is arguably the closest thing to the entertainment business that most of us will ever know. We have a dress code that is virtually nonexistent. Some of us get to travel to exotic places that I’m pretty sure the guy who prepares your tax return every April will never come close to experiencing.

And yet, study after study tells us that we’re not happy. That’s right. I’m talking to you, associate creative director in Omaha. You, too, newly minted creative technologist fresh out of Hyper Island. And don’t worry, global chief creative officer in New York City, I didn’t forget about you. Regardless of who you are or what you do or where you do it, chances are, if you’re an advertising creative, there’s something missing.

A recent Campaign US poll claims that 37 percent of advertising employees described morale in their shop as “low” or “dangerously low,” and 70 percent said they were “actively job seeking.” Unsurprisingly, 60 percent say that morale is lower now than it was a year ago.

Uwe Hook, former client director at media agency Initiative, under­stands those numbers all too well. After 20 years in the business, Hook decided to call it quits to found innovation consultancy Gretchenfrage. “It wasn’t fun anymore. We all used to come up with innovative ideas, but now we don’t. The bravery has disappeared. Innovative work is cut immediately because you don’t know how it’s going to perform. So you just repeat what you did last year. It wasn’t always this way.”

Which would explain why an increasing number of young creatives are turning, not to advertising, but to companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter, companies where creative freedom is virtually infinite, where their ideas are more likely to result in something tangible and where, rightly or wrongly, there’s a sense of purpose—compared with the frequently suffocating atmospheres of agencies.

I’m not letting my passion and my creativity take a backseat anymore.”

So where did we go off the rails? It wasn’t always like this, after all. Long ago, in an advertising business far, far away, if you were fortunate enough to be a creative, you spent your days and nights swimming in a universe of ideas. Nobody cared how you got to those ideas as long as you kept coming up with them. Didn’t matter if you did that in a coffee shop or on a toilet seat—as long as you kept killing it, and killing it big, nobody cared.

Then the world turned upside down. The hours got longer. The pay got smaller. The egos got bigger. The layers of approval got deeper. The gratification factor went on life support. If you’re young, pretty soon you’re looking down the barrel at the big three-oh with no social life, a lifestyle that’s unhealthier than a Chernobyl cockroach’s and one hell of a sad portfolio. So if you’re still in this business, that leaves you pretty much screwed, right? Well, perhaps not. Maybe the reason so many of us are so unhappy with advertising has as much to do with us as it does with advertising.

Not long ago, Lady Gaga was seriously considering quitting the entertainment business. It used to make her happy, until it didn’t. “I started being honest with myself,” the pop diva said in a speech at Yale University. “I thought, ‘Well, I don’t like wasting my time … shaking people’s hands and smiling. … It feels shallow.’ … I feel sad when I’m overworked and just become a moneymaking machine and my passion and my creativity take a backseat. … I started to say, ‘No, I’m not doing that.’ … And slowly, but surely, I remembered who I am.”

Maybe you don’t feel much sympathy for someone blessed with so much good fortune. Shaking hands? Taking the occasional selfie with a fan? Well, boo-hoo. But Gaga has a point. In the end, if advertising isn’t making you happy and if, for whatever reason, you can’t or aren’t willing to strike off for greener pastures, then at some point you’ve got to start saying, “No. I’m not doing that. I’m not letting my passion and my creativity take a backseat anymore. I’m tired of shallow. No. No. No. I’m not doing that.”

It’s not easy to do. It could mean pulling up stakes and moving on—to where the layers are fewer, where the creative opportunities are richer, where you don’t have to choose between your work and your kids, and where the penny-pinching howls of holding companies are a distant echo. Not an easy thing, I grant you. For most of us, unlike for Lady Gaga, saying “no” can, and usually does, come with a price. And why would it not? With all due respect to Pharrell, sometimes finding your happiest you takes a little more effort than just clapping. ca

Ernie Schenck (ernieschenckcreative.prosite.com) is a freelance writer, a creative director and a regular contributor to CA’s Advertising column. An Emmy finalist, three-time Kelley nominee and a perennial award winner—the One Show, Clios, D&AD, Emmys and Cannes—Schenck worked on campaigns for some of the most prestigious brands in the world in his roles at Hill Holliday/Boston, Leonard Monahan Saabye and Pagano Schenck & Kay. He lives with his wife and daughter in Jamestown, Rhode Island.

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