Anonymous agency interviews reveal juniors eager for attention – and seniors on their phones
As part of his guest edit of It’s Nice That, Richard Turley interviews creatives of all roles to garner an honest appraisal of working in our industry today. In this second part, we speak to an art director, an ECD and an account director.
The impulse here is twofold… First to expose some of the inner workings of life inside the creative industries and to put the fears and realities of our day-to-day lives into a more public forum. Why? Because there is often a subtext running through agencies and so forth that we're lucky to be working there. How you have to like the work you’re doing and be grateful for the opportunity to do it. That the money is a bit gross, but we’re not really doing it for that reason.
Equally, I expect most of you reading this will have been catfished into a job which promised an environment where you’ll create “the best work of your life”, the promise of working on a fancy account, or some other carrot dangled in front of you to get you in the door – before it dawned that the reality is anything but. I think we just assume that no-one else is feeling that way, when in fact WE’RE ALL FEELING THAT WAY. Including the boss. And mostly we are very certainly doing it for the money. Including the boss.
The second is to (hopefully) demonstrate that no matter what you may think of those more senior than you, no one is quite sure what they’re doing (or often why they’re doing it). This applies whether you’re starting out or tapping out. Careers batter us all. Most are far less in control of their career and where it’s going than they’d ever want to admit. People who have risen to the top because they’re better at playing the game, rather than necessarily making anything interesting. It’s why there is so much banal, turgid shit out in the world, but that – as you might have read elsewhere – is another think piece.
So I thought it might be informative to get some people talking honestly about their work life. Across two articles, we have asked a range of “creatives” – from juniors through to executive creative directors and studio owners – a handful of similar questions. Each response is anonymous, offering them the freedom to answer openly, both about companies they work for or have grown themselves. – Richard Turley
Art director, in-house at a brand
Hours worked: 9-6pm. Late working is rare but I receive messages, usually via Slack, in the early hours of the morning on occasion.
Working set up: I’m in the office twice a week, to catch up with everyone, gossip, or collaborate closely on a project. We’re encouraged to come in three days a week, but it’s not enforced.
Salary: $160k, plus company equity.
What sorts of projects do you work on?
I work on two different styles of projects. I work on every campaign we have, which begins with a brief I’ll start from scratch. I’ll do all the concepting work, and once a direction is decided I’ll do all the production. Over the last six months or so I’ve really branched out to different types of projects, an activation or something on social – that’s a little more special than what we usually do.
The other thing I do is ongoing everyday management of the creative team for our social media. Instagram, basically, and I work on TikTok too, and Twitter a bit. I have two people who report to me who do most of the work and I offer feedback. I’ll also do a lot of photo shoots, online work, 15-second stuff for adverts for Hulu and YouTube. It’s kind of like you’re farming all this stuff out to different places and just being like, “Yes, this is good”, “Yes, this is on brand” or “We need to change this”.
What are the budgets you have for the work?
It’s changed a lot through the years. When I first started, on a freelance contract for a specific campaign, the budget was like $15 million. I felt like I was going to work with big budgets all the time. But usually we do a small project that will have to be done in a short timeline, like one to two months and the budget is like $20k. For $20k you can’t really do that much, that’s just a photoshoot. I mean, because of the pandemic and inflation, our budgets are really getting cut.
How does that $20k get apportioned?
Usually when a project is briefed, they give us a budget and say: “If you come up with a really good idea, we can figure out how to make this happen.” They usually don’t like us to be constricted by budget, but that’s something I always get really frustrated by, because they’re like, “You can do anything you want.” Then, we’ll spend a week thinking of all these ideas, and a lot of them are too expensive. Then we’ll end up doing something that we’ve kind of done before, that’s expected.
How do projects get briefed in, how are decisions made, who signs it off?
Projects are briefed in by our strategy team. They’re not like creative strategists, they are marketing people, and their brief is really simple. It’s like: “Hey, we want to promote awareness for this product and increase sales.” They will always link a few examples of things other brands have done and after that it will be pretty open. And they love using the phrase “out of the box”. They’ll tell us the audience too and it’s usually either millennials, or millennials and Gen Z-ers, or Gen Z-ers. It’s those three buckets.
How do you feel about strategy?
I never really feel constrained by our strategy because it’s not that specific. If we ask for some insights they’re like, “We gave you this, it was these two sentences.” I don’t have a bad relationship with strategy, I actually find it helpful. But I also feel like I am able to sense what could be culturally relevant – they never tell us what’s going on in culture which would make a project good. You have to do research on your own.
Who signs off decisions?
Our strategy team will sign it off, then we’ll show it to the head of marketing to get their blessing. We used to show it to someone who was the head of the sales and marketing team, who was more of a business-y numbers salesperson. I feel like the higher up you go to get things signed off, the less opinions people will have.
So there’s not a lot of push back?
I think that because we know each other so well, I would say I know what people are looking for at this point. I always try to do something that I like and think is a good idea. I’ll always push for that one, but I don’t have that much friction getting it chosen, ever.
Have you ever had a boss whose vision didn’t align with yours?
Yes. We had this ECD for a while who was a horrible person, they were really dumb. I would show them stuff and they would be like, “I don’t like it, I don’t want to show this to strategy.” I knew it was what they wanted though so I would go behind their back and show it to the head of marketing… Everybody hated this person, so it was really easy to work around.
Who is the most important person in your company?
How far have you seen your company go to keep that person happy?
He usually stays out of our work, but sometimes something will trigger him emotionally and he’ll come in hot. Last year, we spent around ten months working on this campaign and made a very expensive advert that was so good it caused IPO rumours (we’re a private company at the moment). He got so nervous he killed the commercial after a week of it being on air, never to be seen again. We weren’t allowed to tell the animation company we worked with that it barely got air time – drama!
What’s the worst behaviour you’ve seen at work?
On the creative team it’s people having big egos which prevent them from collaborating with others. They aren’t communicative and do shitty things like delete slides people worked on over the weekend when no one notices. I literally don’t get why people care about making a project “theirs”, when we’re just trying to sell [redacted] and [redacted] at the end of the day. But generally everything is chill at work and the only bad behaviour is people having a bad tone on calls.
What’s the kindest act anyone has shown you?
I don’t have any examples of stuff relating directly to me. This is corny, but I do really appreciate it when something bad happens in the world, like a school shooting or the subway attack in Sunset Park, and someone writes a message to the whole team acknowledging everyone’s emotions about it and sending extra love that day. I know it’s super corny, and sounds weird that it’s a dumb Slack message, but I appreciate it.
Executive Creative Director
Hours worked: Unfortunately, I’m never not working. I don’t think the industry realises this. Some people have brains which can’t shut off, and they don’t. You’re in our heads at 3am. There should be a price for that.
Working set up: In the office three days, home office two days a week. I’m really lucky to have a nice home office space which I’m very grateful for.
Describe your work style and how you fit into the teams you work in?
I don’t know. I feel like most ECDs are Apex predators – hungry to be in a league table or get the best seat on the coach to Cannes or whatever. I never wanted to play, but it’s hard not to. It’s a game that sucks you in. If you’re not playing, you’re a loser. Your team starts talking about how so-and-so has won a thousand golden gonks this year, and you start to wonder if that’s what everyone really cares about. Multiply that by the anxiety and the paranoia of social media and it’s a recipe for disaster.
In this industry you either have to be oblivious and disconnected, or become a fucking psycho. I aspire to be an inspirational leader to a freewheeling team of oblivious makers (ones who never look at gonk-lists in AdWeek).
How much did you earn at your first job, and how much do you earn now?
£12k when I started. In my most lucrative year I made almost 100x that amount. I’m not sure if I created the same value as 100 of my 22-year-old self, accounting for inflation.
How much does a junior earn at your company?
The good ones don’t earn anywhere near enough – it’s their contribution that gives most places their heartbeat.
How do you feel about that?
I worry that we’re like the town of Hamelin and Web 3 is blowing its merry flute and taking all our children away. The whole game radically needs to change, otherwise the “creative industry” (as we know it) won’t be able to attract any young talent.
The people you want to hire are already making ten times what you’d pay in a year, in a month, trading NFTs. Or, they’re taking direct commissions over Discord to make stuff for people. It’s not just about money. It’s about ownership, transparency and collaboration, about being able to rewrite the rules. Once you’ve been involved with online communities, and seen behind the curtains of Web 3 and DAOs, it’s hard to imagine people coming back with the same ideas of value and labour.
What’s the worst behaviour you’ve seen at work?
Obviously there’s the tabloid stuff: petting zoos; saunas; “top fives”; strippers; Timmy Mallet getting spiked by Jerry from finance at the wrap party, etc. But the really insidious “bad behaviour” is the everyday obnoxiousness: ego-driven bullying; intolerance; stealing; grabbing; lying; self-promoting; credit taking; brown-nosing – and that’s just the management! Obviously that doesn’t happen all the time everywhere, but they’re things that happen when the culture has gone stinky.
What’s the biggest waste of time in your working day?
Meetings. Well, meeting people is great. I’m a horrible introvert, but I still love meeting people (in the right way) and I like talking to people (under the right conditions).
I hate “meeting” meetings – the ones with loads of people and agendas. And formality. It’s the faux-formality that I hate the most. The worst meetings feel like I’m in the middle of a really fancy meal with cutlery I don’t understand, with people playing Dungeons and Dragons in Welsh. Most presentations are shit too. Banal displays of tepid regurgitation. Meetings were shit already before Zoom, now they’re actually the worst thing in the world.
But I love hearing about other people’s ideas. I love introducing people to other people who I know they’ll like. I hate networking. I hate the beginning of parties. But I like the middle bit. And the end.
What is the kindest act anyone has shown you?
Someone very important to me (and to many in the advertising industry) saw that I was capable of more than I knew. They convinced me to make a big leap… then a disproportionate amount of trust in me, giving me a role and responsibilities that neither of us knew I could handle.
What’s the creative process at your place of work? How are ideas formulated, packaged and produced?
All I see is process. A brief comes in, the planners roll out slight variations on the same banal insights we’ve all seen a ton of times, mood boards are made and culture is scrapped for ideas. Ideas are then tweaked by designers and art workers, and scripts are written. We meet in windowless rooms to look at it all, with juniors eager for attention and seniors on their phones.
We all know that whatever is on the board at this point will get scrapped, so no one really engages. A few dispense with whatever is there and rewrite it, according to what the account team thinks can be sold. A client meeting happens, they’re either pleased or not. We go home and sulk. The client buys something. We figure out how to make it. We moan about how shit it is.
There is generally a lack of originality, playfulness and experimentation in advertising. How have such creative companies become so formulaic in how they do things?
How often do you see ideas recycled? Either within your own team or in the wider industry?
Two answers: a lot, and loads.
Why is this? Laziness? Because we have fishbowl brains which only remember the last thing we saw?
It’s not always a bad thing – sampling has led to great music. People recycling other people’s code on GitHub has meant software has eaten the world. Maybe a total amnesty on recycling creative ideas is needed. Death to the originality myth! What if everyone was allowed to build on things that have been done or thought before – what if they were even celebrated for it? Would it be mayhem or creative renaissance?
When was the last time you saw creative work that made you think, “I wish I’d done that?”
Multiple times a day on TikTok, in magazines, on Instagram, Discord, books, Twitch, UKTV Gold, Reddit, YouTube, scratched into toilet walls. In advertising spaces not so much.
Do you feel clients are risk averse to new ideas?
Of course, because they’re unproven and uncertain. Most businesses don’t allow for that very much. Stakeholders or shareholders want to know what the ROI is going to look like. They’re hooked on data and predictions, and they like it. The fantasy of getting to take a client on an uncertain journey died a while ago.
If you could do anything about your job, or the industry, to make it more interesting, what would it be?
To issue a mandate that advertising must reverse wanton consumerism and replace it with a more sustainable form of desire and wealth creation.
Sounds very idealistic. Don’t you see yourself as a huge part of the problem?
Absolutely. Advertising – or any form of creation really – that has turbocharged our human desire to acquire things is to blame… You asked what would make the industry more interesting. The brief to reprogram humanity would make it more interesting, for me anyway.
What do you think about the long-term viability of agencies, with the rise of in-house creative teams, etc?
There’s another question here: Do creative organisations need clients? Bad agencies need clients, just like bad clients need agencies. Good agencies, full of entrepreneurial spirit, could easily pivot to making and selling things. It’s never been easier to make and sell a product, and most parts of the supply chain are now available as a service.
Equally, a lot of what agencies do has been productised and commoditised. The things that used to be big money makers for agencies can be bought for $8.99 a month. Buy templates, grab stock, use an AI copy optimiser, boosh. Of course it will just look like everything else, but when everything else just looks everything else, it’s hard to put up a fight…
In the short term, there will be a continued need for talented people who can bring fresh perspectives and things you don’t know how to do yourself. But this is in danger too, when clients and agencies are too similar.
The tension between an agency and a client used to be quite productive. The client knew about their business and the agency didn’t, but the agency knew about creativity, production, culture, talent, design and storytelling, which the client didn’t. In healthy relationships there was respect and excitement about working with people who knew stuff you didn’t.
Now we have Zoom calls of mostly similar opinions where we waste even more time trying to make sure no-one is upset. We end up with work that makes nobody feel anything at all – apart from not upset.
Hours worked: Officially 9-6pm. If I’m working from home I’ll break at 5pm-ish, then check in after dinner around 9-10pm. If I'm in the office, I’m there until at least 7pm.
Working set up: Advertising agency in London, 70 to 100 team members.
Describe your role and how you fit into the teams you work in?
I lead the account teams. I used to be very hands-on with the accounts, but now I oversee the whole department.
Do you think the work you do justifies your salary?
Compared to what a doctor or teacher does, no. But I’m not complaining.
Where do you see the biggest waste of time on any given project?
There are so many people involved on both the agency and client side who are trying to justify their jobs and so everything becomes very process-led. For example, there is a lot of input from people who don’t really need to be involved. This is because if something goes wrong on a project (which it invariably does) and someone in the food chain hasn’t been consulted, then it becomes an issue to beat the project team with – as if they should have spotted the issue and it could have been resolved. The thing is, projects always go wrong for a multitude of reasons which you can’t legislate against. Covering everyone’s backs wastes time and gives the illusion of control.
I also often don’t push through ideas the creative teams want to go with because I know, from experience, that clients won’t buy them. They might pretend to be interested for a while but they won’t go for anything that isn’t bang on the strategic insights, or is a little risky, and that wastes everyone’s time. I’ve seen it so many times now. I just can’t be arsed anymore.
What do you class as a risky idea? Why do you think clients don’t like them?
It can be anything that is too expensive, anything a bit left-field, or which doesn’t have the product front and centre; anything that the brand can’t “own” or that customers won’t immediately associate with the brand. Attention spans are so short now. You have such a small window to grab attention in any campaign that they just want to know that the topline message of the brand and product is out there. Everyone also wants to keep their jobs.
What’s the creative process at your place of work? How are ideas formulated, packaged and produced?
It’s the same. Brief. Strategy. Refs. First round of ideas. Tissue meeting. Ideas are developed and sold.
What was the kindest act anyone has shown you?
I’ve always had good bosses who really care about the welfare of their team. I try to carry this forward with my teams. I don’t think younger people on my team who earn £25k should be asked to work late or deal with difficult clients. They should be having fun outside of work and learning the ropes inside in a way that doesn’t break them.
What does your company really care about? What’s important to the people at the top?
Making money and keeping clients happy. We are a service industry. At the end of the day, we do what the client wants. I think this is a big misunderstanding. We’re selling mainstream products to mainstream audiences. If you want to make a creative masterpiece, do it in your own time. If this is what you’re pushing for, you will become frustrated very quickly.
But do you think it’s an agency's role to challenge clients? To push them to be braver, to create better work?
No. Who benefits from that in the end? The energy it takes to push through a really good campaign which is creatively satisfying and hits all the client’s KPIs is almost impossible. It’s the creative ego which wants to achieve that, often the campaigns that the creative teams are happy with perform the worst for the client.
Are you proud of the work you’re making?
Not really, but I’m not under the illusion that this is a creative industry. I don’t want to seem negative, but it’s a job. I make adverts that sell products – I don’t see it as anything else.
Us vs Them with Richard Turley
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