The unique nature of ad industry anxiety, and more advice for how to cope

While stress and anxiety have been a rising cause of concern across the working world, there is evidence to suggest the problems are uniquely acute in advertising, media and marketing.

The non-profit nabs (National Advertising Benevolent Society) exists to help people working across the industry when they are facing difficult times in their lives. Fully 19% of calls to the nabs support line are now related to mental health problems—about 10% more than the average in other industries. And 10% of callers are dealing with anxiety, 25% more than national averages. The findings come from 2019 research conducted by nabs with HR consulting firm Morneau Shepell.

“We all know the business is a very competitive, high-stress, immediate type of business versus other businesses—that can create a lot of the anxiety that we see,” said Jay Bertram, nabs executive director.

Some of the fundamental changes to the industry that have been underway for years—like holding company cost pressures and the disappearance of long-term AOR relationships—show no signs of abating, meaning more stress and anxiety across the industry. For the first time this year, nabs saw more people under 40 calling the support line than people 40 and over. “I think the stress is being felt at all levels now,” said Bertram.

“This is such a tricky subject in our industry, where talent is so subjective and largely in the eye of the beholder,” said Marketa Krivy, co-founder of Toronto agency Ruby & Foster.

“It ends up adding extra layers of self-doubt, anxiety, insecurity and stress. Creative people in particular have these feelings of inadequacy always operating in the background. And when you couple that with today’s untenable work-loads, timelines and high expectations, you have a recipe for disaster.”

Leaders are starting to realize the costs to their business of stress and anxiety which lead to underperformance and absenteeism, said Bertram. “But one of the things that still hasn’t changed is the stigma of telling HR, and the fear that it will be seen as showing weakness.”

Removing that stigma is one of the primary objectives of this week’s Bell Let’s Talk Day. The Message wanted to join the conversation by asking some industry leaders about how they manage their own anxiety and stress. We recognize that mental health is an extraordinarily complex matter often requiring professional help, and there are few quick fixes or easy answers. But by sharing these stories we hope to help normalize the discussion itself and remove the lingering stigma that persists around mental health. (This is actually part two, with our first group of respondents published on Wednesday.)

Marketa Krivy, co-founder, chief brand officer, Ruby & Foster

How do you manage work stress?

This is so much easier to navigate when I have a partner I trust and can lean on. I found being solo in agency creative leadership positions to be the most challenging and stressful.

I felt alone quite a bit. But as most moms know, if you’re not good to yourself, you’re no good for anybody else. So whenever I felt overwhelmed I’d just leave the building and go for a walk. Treat myself to something sweet and indulgent. If I could clear my schedule, I’d go hang out with my kids—that’s always the best dose of perspective.

I think the best overall strategy is to know and set boundaries. Literally make a list of what you’re willing and not willing to do, and then make it known. Don’t suffer in silence—no one is worthy of your silent suffering, and definitely not a holding company.

Do you have any specific tactics for managing stress?

As a rule, I never start my morning looking at my phone or checking emails. I delay that until after I’ve kissed my husband and kids, snuggled the dog and had my coffee. It’s a small thing but I find it helps start the day off on a positive note.

How do you handle moments of self doubt or feelings of imposter syndrome?

I have an incredible group of friends and confidantes that I can talk to about anything. These women lift me up and shake the doubt right out of me when I’m being my own worst critic.

Guybrush Taylor, executive creative director, Camp Jefferson

Do you have any specific tactics for managing stress?

Doubt is a self-fulfilling prophecy—if you think you won’t succeed, you won’t. Which means that success is just as self-fulfilling. So I start with the belief that there is a powerful answer, that we will find it, as a given. Then it’s all just a process of discovering how close we get, and how successful we were. Everything becomes degrees of success, which is entirely positive.

How do you handle moments of self doubt or feelings of imposter syndrome?

I find that imposter syndrome appears when you’re around people smarter than you. And that’s an amazing situation to be in: it’s the opportunity to learn, adapt, and evolve to a higher standard. It’s not a negative thing. That said, if you’re actually an imposter, please don’t take a job in management.

Stephanie Hurst, president, John St. 

Do you have any specific tactics for managing stress?

Being a natural control-freak (aren’t all account people?) I had to learn to let go of things I can’t control. When stressful situations arise, I try to figure out what’s in my control, work like hell to influence that, and let all the other stuff go. Of course exercise and wine help, too.

How do you handle moments of self doubt or feelings of imposter syndrome?

When I am feeling this way, I try to listen more, ask more questions, and let myself off the hook if I don’t have the answers right away. Not saying it works all the time, but I try to mirror what I appreciate in others—not being afraid to show your vulnerability, asking for help, and putting in the hard work.

Katie Ainsworth, executive creative director, Cossette Vancouver

Do you have any specific tactics for managing stress?

I’m a classic creative. I’m left-handed, right-brained and not at all naturally organized. I’ve had to learn those skills over the years. Like everyone, I’m most stressed when I have the least time to perform a lot of tasks. Then I do something a bit counterintuitive. I go for a walk. I just walk away from it all. Half an hour out of the office is like a little miracle for me. I can completely reset, then come back, focus and get things done.

Another trick is taking a break from my phone and computer for a bit and write whatever I’m working on in a book. E-mail, social media prompts, texts—those little distractions all day long can be very stressful. It’s hard not to respond to each one immediately. And then you’ve lost the momentum on the thing you’re supposed to be doing.

Are there times you’re most susceptible to anxiety on the job?

I’m most susceptible to stress or anxiety when I’m overbooked—when my calendar is filled in with multiple meetings at the same time (how does that even happen?). I worry that I can’t do everything well. Or anything well. I used to try though. I had an angry stress rash on my face at one point. Now I step back and figure out who can help me.

Niall Kelly, partner, creative director, Conflict

How do you manage work stress?

When I’m stressed out I take a walk. It helps me immensely. A long stroll with a great cup of coffee can sometimes provide the moment of clarity you need to remind yourself that no one clicks on banner ads anyway and we’re all going to die.

Do you have any specific tactics for managing stress?

Wine and sarcasm. Which could also be a good title for my autobiography. Being able to laugh at horrible, awkward, stressful situations is a gift. Doing that with a drink in your hand? Even better.

Do you have any mental life-hacks to regain balance and perspective?

There are no easy mental life-hacks. My daughter who’s almost seven has very significant special needs. She can’t yet walk. She’s non-verbal. And that’s been a rough road for my wife and I. But talking to a therapist occasionally has helped. I think of them as a personal trainer but for mental health. And when you don’t go to the gym for a while, you start feeling like shit. There’s a reason airlines tell you to put your own oxygen mask on first. You can’t take care of anyone around you if you don’t take care of yourself first.

Rob Sweetman, founder and creative director, One Twenty Three West

How do you manage work stress?

Usually stress at work is caused by a project going sideways for one reason or another. For me, with anxiety comes tunnel vision. It’s easy for me to fixate on the problem and run mental laps around it. But I’ve learned over the years to park the problem for as long as possible to give my brain some time to work it out. It’s like going to the movies when you have creative block; distance often gives you clarity.

Are there times you’re most susceptible to anxiety on the job?

For me anxiety creeps in when I’m stretched thin. I have a hard time letting go, and I’m horrible with time management skills. That cocktail often equals a lot of unproductive tension. Even as I write this, I’m thinking about the scripts I need to write for research, the pitch I have to help prep, and the three other briefs I’m ignoring to write these words. But, the life hack that works for me is lists. I write out exactly what I need to do in a given week, then order it in terms of importance to myself. If it’s a brief I’m dying to jump into, that’s top of the list. These questions ranked lower (sorry I was late David).

Nadia Beale, senior vice-president, MSL

How do you manage work stress?

I learned early on in my career how important it is to nurture a personal and professional network or community. I try not to bottle things up and open up as a release. It can be hard sometimes to let others in, but letting things stew is not an option for me as it will quickly spiral.

I have a very supportive team and president, who are there for me to lend an ear and provide perspective when I need it. Perspective is, honestly, such a gift and when you are in the moment, it can be hard to maintain it. So having people around you who can lend some can be so helpful.

On a personal level, I lean on my family and husband a lot. And having a personal passion or interest outside of work is so important to help balance you in every aspect.  My horse is my therapy.

Do you have any specific tactics for managing stress?

I try to remember that everything is temporary, including what I’m feeling. In the moment, it can be so hard to remember that. I also find that staying positive in how you think, act and talk, and not allowing negativity to creep in, is key to solving a problem in a clear-headed, logical way. It can be a mental fight, but so important to stay on the positive side.

Most important, I definitely don’t project my stress on my team. I try to remain as calm as possible… because, as we have all experienced that feeling can spread throughout an office so quickly.

Shari Walczak, co-founder and chief strategy officer, The Garden

How do you manage work stress?

It really does work wonders to remove myself from the situation, get outside and go for a walk… even if only for 10 minutes. Our office is located inside of a residential neighbourhood, and particularly in spring and summer, there’s nothing like sunshine and the sounds of birds chirping to help clear your head. It may not be “forest bathing,” but it does the trick.

How do you handle moments of self doubt or feelings of imposter syndrome?

Being entrepreneurs, the ups and downs can feel particularly acute. Having someone who understands this intimately, that you can talk a problem or stressor out with, is extremely important. From day one, my partner Shane Ogilvie and I promised that we’ll be honest and open with each other and provide a supportive sounding board, no questions asked. We try as much as possible to not let anger or issues simmer without addressing them head on.

We’ve also learned the value of having outside advisors and mentors who can provide perspective and an outside-in view. When you’ve struck out on your own, there can be a lot of stress knowing the buck always stops with you and you can find yourself questioning your decisions: is this right for our team? Have we thought through all of the business implications? Are we doing the right thing? What should we do?

Everyone needs feedback, advice and guidance. We’ve now found that we have to identify those individuals outside of our organization who we respect, and not be afraid to seek out their guidance and perspective to either validate or challenge our assumptions.

David Brown