We’re burning out more than ever, and here’s why

For as long as I’ve been in the business, “burnout” has been as synonymous with agency life as “Lorem Ipsum”.

If you want to punch a clock, start promptly at 9 a.m., take a 60-minute lunch and be gone by 5 p.m., this probably isn’t for you.

Working ungodly hours used to be an accepted reality. We nervously laughed when we heard, “If you don’t come in on Saturday, don’t bother coming in on Sunday.” We loved that Chiat/Day was occasionally referred to as “Chiat/Day & Night.” Creatives were told that we’d develop our best work long after everyone else had left the building. For many, working late, jamming on ideas, pumping out strategy decks, putting out fires, and burning the midnight oil were a badge of honour (worn over a casual presentation blazer).

Maybe it was because I was young with no spouse or kids. Or maybe those late nights became a default social life with people whose company I enjoyed. Regardless, we often talked about burnout but it didn’t feel like it does now, did it? Is burnout worse than it was in the past? Yeah, I think it is. Here’s why:

Mental health is health
With a hat tip to awareness campaigns like the one Zulu Alpha Kilo created for Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health last year, we’re simply more aware of someone’s total health, and have begun to question advertising’s systemic barriers to achieving it. Mental health is health, but we’ve been so focused on treating burnout that we haven’t got around to preventing it. Can we update the work-back with that line item? Thanks.

The end of the retainer 
As media became more fractured and tactics became more diverse, the exclusive brand agency partner was suddenly joined at the boardroom table by a slew of specialist agencies. Budgets got divided, retainers got removed, and many agencies were forced to shift to project fees. When in place, agency retainers paid for a dedicated staff based on an expected workload over an entire year. Constantly pitching for projects made it difficult for agencies to commit to a lot of dedicated full time staff. Dial up the freelancers, dial down institutional client knowledge, and it shouldn’t surprise you that it’s taking longer to get the work done.

Always on. Never off
Remember when we’d focus our client efforts on one big push for one big campaign? Everything before was preparation, and everything after was a post-mortem meeting and reliving stories from the shoot. Yeah, it’s not like that any more. Now, a client’s seasonality is daily, from 7 a.m. to 3 a.m. Who has time for a post-mortem when the next Instagram video is due in 17 hours? Clients need to be always on. So do agencies. Burnout used to be manageable because of the valleys in between the peaks. We lost the valleys. We live on peaks.

Low cost of production. High cost of process
It certainly is getting better, as both agencies and clients figure out more efficient ways of working, but the lower costs of production haven’t always been met with lower costs of process. You can shoot a Facebook video for $4,000, but don’t expect a two-day casting session, a pre-production meeting, and three director treatments. Right now, whether you’re shooting on an iPhone or on a Phantom it doesn’t really change the amount of work an agency has to do. The process should be as innovative as the technology.

Nickels and dimes
This is going to sound cranky, but it’s not. I totally understand and respect the role of procurement departments and the move to a more accurate billing process. That said, there was a time when agencies had enough profit built into the retainer model that discussions of “scope creep” rarely came up. Whatever the client wanted, you did. “You want a video to kick off your sales offsite? No problem, here you go. Free of charge.” Now, there’s not enough margin for agencies to live outside the scope. Constant estimate negotiations can cause stress, create uncertainty, delay the proceedings, and limit someone’s perceived control over their role.

It’s tough, but I’m confident we’ll figure it out.

I love where this business has been, but I’m more inspired by where it’s going.

We’re progressing toward efficient processes that create better work that is more relevant and valuable to the consumers our clients serve. We can be proud of that. Let’s just not forget to have each other’s backs. We can treat the symptoms, but let’s not forget to remove the elements that cause them.

Ron Tite is the founder and CEO of Church+State and an acclaimed public speaker on topics including creativity, advertising and corporate strategy.