Nicola Merrifield
Jul 7, 2022

Agency leaders must tackle burnout or ‘risk talent exodus’, IPA president warns

Wellbeing initiatives and flexible working policies do not address the root causes, according to Julian Douglas.

Julian Douglas
Julian Douglas

The rising mental health crisis among adland agencies must be addressed or talent will leave the industry, the president of the IPA has said.

Julian Douglas warned colleagues that while agencies had “redoubled” their efforts in response to the crisis by providing wellbeing initiatives and flexible working, this did not go far enough.

At the IPA’s Business Growth conference in London yesterday (6 July), he told industry figures the “root causes” needed to be addressed, by leaders “engag[ing] in healthy practices themselves”, in addition to creating “trusting” relationships with staff and clients, establishing “clear” work boundaries and stopping burnout before it happens.

He said: “If we want to make meaningful change in relation to mental health – and we must, or we risk a talent exodus or even worse, outcomes – then we need to operate at system level rather than an individual or company level.”

Speaking to Campaign later, he added: “To tackle mental health, we can all say we need to be nicer to each other but really you need to cut some of the unpaid work, the unresourced tasks.”

Douglas told the conference his concerns about burnout were what led him to launch the Pitch Positive Pledge earlier this year. The joint initiative between the IPA and ISBA encourages agencies and advertisers to ensure pitches will take place only if they are necessary, that they are run in a positive way by both sides and will result in constructive feedback. 

He said: “The pitch process is the most extreme moment in our industry. It’s the pitch point that brings about the most pressure, the most intensity, the most negative outcomes for individuals – both in the agency team and the client team."

The pledge has now been made by more than 200 companies, including major advertisers such as Unilever and Samsung, and has resulted in some pitches being delayed until after the summer so staff can spend more time with their families, Douglas said.

Douglas’ concerns around mental health were echoed by others at the IPA conference, including consultant Caroline Johnson who warned “ill-defined processes, systems and commercial practices” were to blame for the problems.

Johnson, who is director at The Business Model Company, said agencies did not have enough commercial options to deal with both long-term and short-term clients. 

Speaking as part of a different panel – on the key components for effective business partnerships – she suggested that if agencies charge short-term clients more accurately to ensure profits, this would result in better plans for resourcing the project and less pressure being placed on staff.

She said: “So when you are looking at short-term value for your clients, you need to bank the margin first. You need to take your margin off the table first and then you need to plan the resource model, the shaping, the pricing around that. 

“Because what often has a negative impact on all the things we’ve talked about as opportunities and challenges is how we monetise and extract value and then how we put unacceptable pressure on people in our companies to deal with that.”

Earlier this year advertising industry wellbeing charity Nabs reported a 15% annual increase in calls relating to mental health to its helpline.

The results of last year’s UK industry-wide All In Census showed 31% of adland professionals reported being stressed or anxious, with women, LGBT+, disabled and younger people being most affected.

Campaign UK

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