Just a year and a half ago, I lived a life familiar to any senior creative executive working in the advertising agency business. I worked long hours, but it never occurred to me to mind. I relished the challenges of the day, thrilled by the creativity and the mission of making brands famous.
I was having the time of my life, helping to run some of the best agencies in the world. I lived in France and in America. Worked for iconic brands and met extraordinary people. I was rewarded for my work with a healthy salary, bonuses and the fame that comes with hundreds of international awards. But I was paying a price in my personal life. My wife and I had a young family, with two daughters, yet my parenting was often limited to a long-distance phone call or video chat and the occasional weekend. It was just the way it was. Most of my colleagues led similar lives.
The fall of 2016 changed everything for me. It was a tipping point in my career and, most dramatically, in my personal life too. I joined FCB as worldwide creative partner to Susan Credle. I was offered the unbelievable opportunity to join Susan in her goal to transform FCB into one of the most creative agency networks in the world, and to do so while being the father I wanted to be. After many lengthy conversations with Susan, a role was created for me that would meet both FCB’s organizational needs and my family’s needs. I would partner with the New York-based global chief creative officer, but I would stay in Paris with my family – and I would work part-time. Part-time!
A part-time senior global role that truly has significant impact on an organization is virtually unheard-of in this business, but 18 months into the job, I’m convinced. It shouldn’t be. My job is uniquely structured for our network, but with a supportive culture and inspired leaders, the model can easily be applied to other global organizations. First, we identify our biggest creative opportunities around the globe. Then I fly to that office and hunker down with the local creative chief for an intense working session that lasts anywhere from a week to three weeks. I work as part of the team until the creative challenge is solved. And then, I’m off. If I spend two weeks on a project, I’ll spend the next two weeks off. And I do mean "off." Not off, but reachable, and responding to email, and reviewing work from home. Off.
I take a break and take a breath of fresh air. I spend my days enriching my creative life outside of advertising. I take up shop in my wife’s art studio and paint, sculpt, write, whatever inspires me. And I parent. I spend time with my daughters. More than a year into our new life, they still seem surprised to see me picking them up at school or to hear that I can name their best friend in school. They are getting to know a whole other side of their father, and I’m getting to know them, too. I am helping them become better humans. And they are helping me become better, too, in all my roles in life. In the last 18 months, I’ve done more and lived more with them than in the last six years. Is it important for the work and the business of our clients? I believe so. It is important for me.
The restorative value of time off has been well documented by the scientific community and, culturally, it’s no longer considered a badge of honor to overwork and under-live. It’s certainly not what millennials look for in a workplace. Flexible work environments are becoming more commonplace. It’s about working smarter and giving your body and mind a chance to recuperate. A three-year study of the relationship between well-being and time off from work conducted by the Harvard Business Review found that without periods of rest, the ability to perform at high levels diminishes significantly. Designer Stefan Sagmeister has long been an evangelist for time off and the impact it has on creativity. Every seven years, he shuts down his studio to take a yearlong sabbatical to refresh and recharge. My restorative cycles are shorter and more frequent, but I’ve found that they are just as effective.
It allows space in my life for other types of creativity, the space to be influenced by the world outside advertising. It helps inject new thinking and fresh perspectives into my creative process and helps me give our local CCOs what they need and expect from me – a shot of energy and inspiration. Not every day is a win, but we’ve started to see the returns, with new business gains and celebrated work in markets around the world.
Still, this way of working isn’t for everyone. It takes humanity, generosity, confidence, trust and a bold, forward-thinking vision to shake established norms. You have to be agile. You have to understand the dynamics that surround you – fast. And you have to be generous. It’s not easy. You have to be willing to make some trades. You may not make as much money as you would with a more traditional role. You may not have as much time to work the awards show circuit. Your priorities change. You give some things up, but what you gain in exchange is invaluable.
I’m a part-time global creative leader. And, as unattainable as it may seem to most, I am here to tell you, it works. And it works beautifully.
Fred Levron is worldwide creative partner at Interpublic Group’s FCB.