The Reason Ad Folks are Unhappy

In the Mad Men television series, Harry Crane of Sterling Cooper helps out Paul Kinsey, a former colleague. Kinsey lost his copywriting position at the agency and went on to successively fail at McCann, Y&R, K&E, and B&B before going in-house at grocer A&P. When that didn’t work out he joined the Hare Krishna.

Crane is largely an unsympathetic person but he shows empathy for Kinsey. Crane says to Peggy Olson, “Don’t you know how lucky we are?” Crane cannot believe his hare-krishna-diner-mad-men-640x448own good fortune in the agency world. This episode and much of the series examines those in advertising who make it and those who do not. Mad Men beats up the profession while simultaneously aggrandizing the ad world.

The show profiled tensions and issues that persist to this day. A big one is employee morale. CampaignUS recently shone the light on growing unhappiness. On October 24, 2016 they published their 2nd Annual Morale Survey.

It found that nearly half of agency employees suffer from poor morale. Forty-seven percent of employees rated their morale as either “low” (31%) or “dangerously low” (16%). That is up 36% from the previous year. As alarming is the fact that 63% of those claiming poor morale were actively job-hunting. One assumes that means not switching to another agency.

On the same day (a cool coincidence) Advertising Age published an article titled, These Are the 50 Companies Creatives Would ‘Kill to Work for Full Time’. It covered the survey conducted by Working Not Working. Twenty-four of the fifty companies identified were not agencies.

Creative folks would much rather be at Vice, Spotify, Tesla, National Geographic, or Nike over McCann, JWT, Leo Burnett, Y&R, or Ogilvy.

The article stated, “According to Working Not Working co-founder Justin Gignac, this year’s survey saw the continuing trend of creatives wanting to work more in tech, media and publishing over traditional agencies.” It proved that creative folks would much rather be at Vice, Spotify, Tesla, National Geographic, or Nike over McCann, JWT, Leo Burnett, Y&R, or Ogilvy.


The causes of this unhappiness appear consistent at first glance. Respondents to the CampaignUS survey cited “company leadership” (73%) as the top reason for workplace suffering. Next up was “lack of advancement” (45%) followed by “dissatisfaction with work” (38%). The least-cited causes were “lack of diversity” (13%) and “company performance” (14%).

The publication hosted an online forum to further explore the issues. Agency personnel tweeted using the hashtag #MoraleCamp and there were interactive discussions. These identified issues concerning talent development, career path, doner-games-foosballsupport for working parents, overwork, campaigns that go nowhere, oppressive creative oversight, and more.

Morale has also been related to the –isms. Ageism and sexism exist and cannot be denied even when old white guys heading agencies ironically do so. Still progress in these areas has been solid and will continue. I could not help noticing my alma mater DDB putting North American President Wendy Clark and Chairman Emeritus Keith Reinhard on stage together at the last Advertising Week in New York. It was symbolic and important.

There is another –ism that not getting proper attention. I call it millennial-ism. Much has been written and talked about in this area. This group has created an interesting tension in advertising agencies. Yet, the issues go beyond blanket claims that these younger workers are entitled, spoiled and unreasonable.

That is too easy an analysis and it offers no solutions. So tensions are growing in agencies. I have run focus groups of 30-somethings that are incredibly agitated because the 20-somethings are driving them nuts. Agencies know they need millennials but are struggling to manage or lead them.


The industry is not digging deep enough. It is too easy to blame leadership or naïve not to recognize that low morale is shared throughout the business world. There are many other considerations.

This is Universal People: Most stress and morale studies are consistent with CampaignUS’s findings. People all over and in other industries are not having a good time. Almost half of Americans said they had experienced inordinate stress in the last year, according to a survey by National Public Radio, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard School of Public Health.

Curiously New York City, the home of Broadway, the Statue of Liberty, Central madison-avePark, and Madison Avenue is ranked as the No. 1 city where Americans are unhappiest, according to the U.S. Census, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Harvard University and the University of British Columbia.

 One could argue that the ad industry is doing better than most. Reports on other industries suggest that burnout is rampant. Stress leaves, absenteeism, and counseling are costing businesses more than ever before. Productivity is at an all-time low according to The Association for Talent Development. Clearly there is a universality to this unhappiness.

Unhealthy Responses: People, not just those in advertising, are responding to stress and low morale by sleeping less, eating poorly and avoiding exercising. The rate of antidepressant use has surged 400% over the last decade according to the CDC. Heavy drinking has increased 17% since 2005. Obesity continues to grow (all pun intended) and is now the biggest strain on the U.S. healthcare system. Binge television watching and device addiction are clearly bad for us but we have not quantified or truly identified the impact of being tethered to technology.

Unrealistic Expectations: Read any self-help book or pick up the latest Psychology Today and you will discover that unhappiness has one clear attribution. It is the difference between our expectations and what we actually achieve or attain. This I call the “Unhappiness Delta”. Once again, this is not confined to the alcohol-baradvertising industry. We all want more without properly defining it.

People today are more prone to compare and judge. As a result we have taken the notion of “keeping up with Jones’” to illogical extremes and created perpetual unhappiness as a result. Social media has accentuated the issue. Steve Furtick brilliantly observed, “The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.”

Everyone’s social media self is nothing but a highlight reel. This has led the masses to try to earn more so they can buy more. Then they end up shackled to those possessions.

No Such Thing as an Advertising Agency: I have consulted to over a dozen agencies in the last three years. They claim to be digital, creative, brand, loyalty, performance, etc. None call themselves a traditional advertising agency. They are all trying to be anything else.

Ad agency offices now look like funky restaurants and aspire to graft on a successful tech company culture. They resemble Nobu and want to be NEST (with the requisite foosball table).


This is because agencies are going through both an identity and a confidence crisis. That is a scary place to be in the lifecycle of an industry. So no wonder half of agency staff are down and many want out. How can they align with a business and industry that is proving unable to define itself and demonstrate value?

This is because agencies are going through both an identity and a confidence crisis. That is a scary place to be in the lifecycle of an industry.

Two Types of People: Broadly speaking there are two types of people in advertising. There are those who like to fool people and there are those who like to serve people. The former are old-school, jaded types who believe advertising is about creating myths and trying to snow people with them. Those who want to serve believe the job is finding a truth that connects people and brands for mutual benefit. The industry is losing too many of the latter because they cannot work with the former.


All of these factors are relevant but there is something bigger going on. Advertising folks are paid to be observant, curious and dissect human behavior. Now they are witnessing people drinking more, popping antidepressants, eating unhealthy foods, and losing sleep. They see people having career and money pressures as they chase the perceived good things in life.

Why is there low morale in advertising? Perhaps because advertising plays such a big role in the selling of booze, drugs, and fast food. The industry contributes to a social and economic cycle that lowers everyone’s morale. Advertising presents idyllic lifestyles creating unrealistic expectations. It could be that agency folks are down because they are questioning the role the industry plays in society.

The advertising industry is at an interesting point in its history. It is soul searching. I would go as far as to say it is trying to self-actualize. To move up Maslow’s Hierarchy the industry must keep the people who like to serve and lose the people who like to pull fast ones. Then it can accurately and meaningfully define why it exists.

As Bill Bernbach said, “All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level.” It is time to lift advertising up to a higher level. Imagine advertising people with real purpose. They would be incredibly productive and fulfilled. Now imagine how that would impact morale.


7 replies
  1. Darren Gerst
    Darren Gerst says:

    Very intriguing theory but I am not sure I buy-in. I think it is archaic leadership. I bet 90% of agency CEOs cannot explain social media or understand the new channels. Another thing is agency structures only benefit the top 1%.

    • jscadmin
      jscadmin says:

      Hey Darren, you may have helped prove the point. Agencies are only a reflection or mirror to society so your 1% statistic is spot-on. Cheers!

  2. Cynthia Matthews
    Cynthia Matthews says:

    This important stuff for the industry so I am happy you address. I wanted to point out that the Campaign survey included media, digital, branding and other agency types – not just advertising.

    BTW – I recently left an agency and joined a yoga and spa business. It now has 6 locations. So it is not just big tech brands that are taking agency talent.

  3. Tex the Creative
    Tex the Creative says:

    My take is agencies are desperate to reinvent but don’t know how. Just go to any major awards show or conference and it is Google, Facebook and the others dominating the event. For a good long term career would you pick Mother or R/GA over Google?

    • jscadmin
      jscadmin says:

      Hey Tex. I do not think it is either or in absolute terms but you do hit upon a big issue. If the agencies do not wrestle back ownership of the category conversation they will end up being the art departments of the big tech businesses.

      And it must be said that Mother and R/GA are great shops 🙂

  4. Sheldon T.
    Sheldon T. says:

    Here is my case for consideration. I started my career at a startup. It was tough. Long hours, pay slashes, friends let go but we made it. We got bought up by eBay. For awhile it was ok but it got really unfun fast. Too much politics and bureaucracy. I saw ad agencies coming in and everyone looked pretty happy so I approached one and got hired for digital. It sucked. All three places had issues but the agency was full of some pretty awful people. They backstabbed and were bullshit artists. Guess what? I am back at eBay and that agency is no longer on the roster.


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