What New Grads Can Do to Avoid Falling Into the Ad Industry’s Burnout Rut

Finding an acceptable work-life balance is key

Animation: Adweek; Source: Getty Images

Long before we all watched Don Draper sleep off a late night in the office, the ad industry has been known for intense schedules and heavy workloads. This is particularly true for those on the lowest rungs of the agency ladder, who are expected to make up for what they lack in experience with enthusiasm and resilience.

“Life is work, in my book,” wrote one agency CEO in a recent all-staff memo commending two employees at TBWA\Chiat\Day New York who opted to skip a friend’s bachelor party in order to work over the weekend.

This is a nearly universal sentiment—and it’s hardly new.

“I believe in paying your dues,” said Kasia Wyser-Pratte, who worked as an art director for nearly 20 years before landing a gig at Google’s Brand Studio. “As a junior creative, I always worked my ears off and late. That’s how you hone your skills and learn to be efficient.” Tim Young, a longtime agency veteran who is now a freelance creative recruiter, added, “I went into [advertising] knowing, because of the classwork, that it would be intense. Why wouldn’t it be that way when I get into a real job?”

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. “If you do what you love, it doesn’t feel like work,” said Karine Shahar, who spent more than eight years in human resources at Apple’s dedicated agency, Media Arts Lab, before joining sneaker marketplace startup GOAT earlier this year.

So how can newbies avoid falling into the burnout rut? For one, they can be careful about where they choose to apply.

Young doesn’t think seniors and new grads should base their “wish lists” on which agencies get the best press. “Don’t focus on the agency’s reputation,” he said. “You don’t go for the company; you go for the location, the people and the mentors who will give you a shot to do your best work.”

On that note, he suggested that grads consider smaller agencies or design firms—not that working at such boutique shops won’t sometimes include 70-hour weeks. “When coming straight out of school, you are expected to … have heavier workloads than seniors,” Young said. “That’s the way it should be.”

Shahar warned against turning to Glassdoor, which hosts overwhelmingly negative company reviews, when researching potential jobs. “Reach out to people who worked in similar roles privately on LinkedIn and ask for their opinions,” she said, suggesting that applicants read as much as possible about the agencies they’re applying to, including company history and past/present client rosters. Frequent turnover and troubled relationships can be red flags.

Once grads have secured an interview, Shahar said they should find ways to inquire about work-life balance without using the phrase itself.

“Ask as many questions as possible around retention rates and day-to-day operations; the more vague people are about it, the messier things will be inside,” she added. Examples include which executives lead the creative process, how teams design work schedules and how often one will travel for remote commercial shoots.

Few enter the industry thinking it will be easy. “We all understand this business is cyclical; there are great days and not-so-great days,” said Candice Hahn, vp and managing director of R/GA Austin. “Nobody stops in the middle of an interview and says, ‘I’m gonna be the next Snapchat star. Agency life is not for me.’”

That said, some recent graduates either forego advertising altogether or test the waters and get out. “I went from [answering] 500 emails a day to maybe 40,” said a former agency executive who left the business, but that’s more the exception than the rule. A recent ad school graduate who went to work for an ecommerce giant called 12- to 14-hour days “standard,” adding, “This is the world today.”

Some agencies have taken steps to ensure their employees don’t overwork themselves. Last year, Wieden+Kennedy London introduced a policy that forbids staff from scheduling meetings before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m. and from sending work emails after 7 p.m. Most holding company-owned shops don’t have that luxury, however, and Hahn said she encourages younger employees to communicate “so they aren’t at the office ’til 10 p.m. every night or working 10 weekends in a row.”

Veteran recruiter Christie Cordes agreed that communication is key once you’ve landed a gig, suggesting that new employees “plan and communicate” so they can better arrange their personal schedules around their work. “Make it a habit of recording start and stop times, including weekends,” she added. “Then you can begin to see patterns emerging that you may be able to address with your boss.”

“We all charge our batteries in different ways. The key is creating more of a ‘work-life equation,’ because your life at work and outside of work is always changing and evolving,” said 72andSunny partner and chief talent officer Sedef Onar. “It’s about learning what you need to get out of those personal and professional moments to be your best, versus striving to balance both perfectly, all the time.”

Natasha Cirisano, a designer at 72andSunny who graduated from the University of Southern California in 2015, suggested that young creatives carve out time for personal projects, adding, “My tip for balancing a client-work-life with passion-project-life is to not try to do everything at once. If your job takes up a ton of time at the start and you’re too tired to do anything but veg out, that’s OK. There’s also a steep learning curve in the beginning of your career, so it will take more energy to do the same tasks that will be less strenuous in the future. It took me two years in the industry to get a decent client work/personal work balance going, but it is possible.”

Cordes said new employees shouldn’t be afraid to ask the most important question: Why did they choose to enter this business in the first place? “The minute you and the team can’t answer the ‘why’ is the minute burnout begins,” she said. “Keep the ‘why’ front and center at all times.”

It might just come down to accepting the path you’ve chosen. “If you are ambitious,” Shahar said, “you also have to be prepared to not always have that work-life balance.”