Li, a member of the company's technology team, reportedly collapsed at his desk around 5 pm on Monday (13 May). The death was apparently due to sudden heart failure, according to reports, but media coverage linked Li's demise to overwork, and social-media reactions also focused on the industry's reputation for demanding long hours, especially from young employees.
"We are all devastated at the sudden loss of Gabriel Li this week," Marion McDonald, managing director of strategy & measurement for Ogilvy Public Relations Asia Pacific Region, told Campaign Asia-Pacific on Thursday. "The team are supporting each other and Gabriel's family are just recovering from his funeral yesterday."
Whether Li's sudden death had a direct connection to his workload can of course never be known for certain, but that hasn't stopped many in the industry from discussing the issue.
Bob Pickard, former CEO of Burson-Marsteller Asia-Pacific, commented that Ogilvy, a well respected agency, should not be unfairly singled out, especially because in ‘Confucianist countries’ like China, Japan and Korea, overwork is a real HR challenge for many firms in the marketing-services industry.
Some of the worst overwork seems to occur on the Asian end of global procurement accounts, where some Western multinationals expect much more work for less money compared to what they would reasonably expect in their home markets, Pickard said. Often as a result, too few and more junior staff are deployed against big work scopes enforced by local client contacts who have small resources.
“I wouldn’t call it a sweatshop," said a mid-level source working at a major network in Greater China. "It’s a hardworking business and sometimes there are long hours, especially around events. There are periods when you might work 12-hour days for a week. But it is more about company culture than anything else."
Vincent Pang, ECD of BBDO South China, agreed that overtime is a reality. "To us, 11 pm is late but not really that severe," he said. "I have been in agencies where the people work past 1 or 2 am every day."
Pang indicated that industry dynamics drive the long hours. When too many agencies are chasing too few clients, and those clients call frequent pitches, reject work and demand new work the next day, people who work in an agency have to be open to the idea of working late, Pang said.
Agencies should work hard, but not be slaves to client demands if those demands are unreasonable. Clients expect top creative work, so working in the ad industry means long hours and hard work. "But a good work-life balance starts with respecting time," he said. "Your own time, and others people's time."
Bikker added that the post-1980s generation believes that putting in long hours will reflect positively on them, when what really matters is the work that comes out. "I would rather have a guy in my team delivering a few pieces of top work and being healthy, than a guy delivering a high amount of crap work and being unhealthy," Bikker said.
Presenting a different aspect of the debate, Pang suggested that some creatives come into work late (using a late night the previous evening as their excuse) and others waste time while at work. In most agencies, you can claim overtime after 8 pm. "I believe a lot of people are exploiting this clause," Pang said.
Seeking healthy balance
Kevin Phang, founder of Novus Marketing in China (previously market leader, sports & youth marketing at Burson-Marsteller China), argued that the issue is not about overtime or work-life balance but more about modern lifestyles with regards to diet, exercise and vices like drinking and smoking. "I think it's how you take care of yourself that matters," he said. "My grandparents and parents worked 18 hour days too, and you cannot say their lives were less stressful than ours."
Phang swears by a 10-minute walk outside during lunchtime, even in winter. "I don't see the younger kids wanting to break a sweat during lunchtime," he said. When a person dies on a flight due to thrombosis, is it the plane's fault? Phang asked.
Philip Beck, media industry veteran and former COO of ZenithOptimedia China, said that deadlines are part of the buzz of working in the industry. "It's addictive, and I suppose like any addiction, it has the potential of doing you harm if you don't look after yourself and find some stress-busters," he said.
Beck added that while he hasn't witnessed a death, he has seen a lot of people burning out. David Ogilvy understood this well, Beck noted, and the company had a policy in the '90s of allowing staff a month's paid leave every five years to go and do something completely different from their day job, like working in an orphanage in Nepal.
Impact on recruitment
What agency executives agree on is that the perception hurts the industry's ability to attract and retain talent.
"A lot of the '90s-generation kids come in, try advertising, and announce they will join another industry," Pang said. "'The work is too hard and I finish too late' is a common complaint. I applaud these kids. They know their priorities. Why get stuck in a cubicle working until 2 am when there is a whole life to be lived? I don't think agencies know how to get out of this rut. I sincerely worry for our future."
Eddie Wong, national ECD of Draftfcb, said the perception that the industry works its young talent too hard will turn off some fresh blood, or at least make some potential employees hesitate. "But I believe that passion will overcome that, given time," he said.
The mid-level executive quoted above said the industry is still an attractive one for interested people, especially given that marketing and PR are blending together. "If you have the marketing skill and writing talent, it’s still a good industry," the source said. "I wouldn’t call it the most intellectually stimulating, but it does require hard work and can be rewarding."
Should the industry take specific actions to try to change perceptions? Draftfcb's Wong said an agency could in theory impose regulations to control overtime work, but cited a downside: "You hurt creativity. You hurt productivity. I believe everyone needs to learn how to balance life and work. It’s an art."
Pickard pointed out that the human resources function is definitely under-resourced in Asia-Pacific, and HR investment levels should be significantly higher.
"As an industry in this region, we need to combat the commoditisation of our craft, which can result in objectified and atomised employees," he said. "The best way to do that is focusing relentlessly on client-centric people development, achieved through much larger investments in skills education and management training, aided by more aggressive international talent transfer."
Phang, as an agency owner, suggested promoting a "healthy lifestyle" by, for example, offering lunchtime yoga or badminton outings, and by trying to set an example.