Two sides of the coins

Let me tell you about a situation that happened to me in my relative youth:

I was due to begin a morning radio recording session at 9:30, so the day before I asked the producer to order a cab to pick me up at 9.

She was a little taken aback and asked why I couldn’t just make my own way to the session, in effect altering the destination of my morning commute so that I ended up at the studio instead of the agency. I explained that I walked to the agency in the morning, making my morning commute free of charge. Getting to the studio would involve me paying money for a bus, tube or cab and I didn’t see why I should do that. As a reasonably-paid middleweight copywriter I had an OK salary, but compared to the agency’s my financial resources were paltry. If the session had been at 2pm we’d have taken a cab from the agency, so why should this be any different?

The producer did order the cab (I think the option of me expensing a bus ticket would have been a bit weird. Besides, at that time of day my chances of getting a bus with enough space to let me on was unpredictable. A cab was a guarantee that I wouldn’t be wasting the expensive studio time by waiting at a bus stop) but the reluctance was obvious. I’m not sure if there was a difficulty with the budget, but this was a massive client with plenty of cash. Maybe they had asked the agency to reduce its expenses, including unnecessary cabs, but one little tenner would surely not have made much difference. I could have ordered a £10 pricier lunch and the effect would have been the same.

Looking back, I can see both sides of the argument. My art director took the tube because that’s how he normally came to work, so he had a travel card, possibly making my request seem like an unfair luxury by comparison. In addition ‘cabs’ seem to fit into that deep-seated part of the brain reserved for lah-di-dah indulgences. A cab, you say? Would sir also like a butler to shine his shoes?

But fuck all that.

To me this was an interesting example of instances where we almost pay to do a job for millionaires, and that’s a slippery slope.

Here’s another one:

Around the same time my AD and I got wind that there was an open brief doing the rounds on one of the agency’s juicier accounts. It was one of those clients where awards seemed roughly eighteen times more likely to materialise than in the usual day-to-day stuff. So we found a bit of spare time and squeezed in some work. In addition we thought about it while watching TV, in the shower, walking home etc.

The next day the head of traffic came up to me and asked if we were working on the juicy account. When I told him we were he told me he needed extra help on a different, duller account, and if we had any spare capacity we should use it to work on that. I explained that this wasn’t so much ‘spare capacity’ as us kindly devoting our free time to agency business at no extra cost. He didn’t see it that way, instead insisting that if we had time to work on something that he saw as an unnecessary indulgence then we had time to work on some boring shite.

Again, I can see where he was coming from, but then I can also see where I was coming from. If he’d never been told that we were working on the juicy account he’d never have brought the issue up. We’d have worked on the fun stuff and nobody would have been any the wiser. But he seemed to think that any hours we might apply to the job were his to direct, which is a road to insanity. When did the agency’s hours stop and mine start? If I chose to give my spare time to agency business, wasn’t that a good thing? If I did the work I’d been given quickly enough to take on something else, could I use those hours, or did they belong to the company?

So when are you, as a human being, part of your place of work, and when are you not? In an amorphous job like creative advertising the definition of ‘working hours’ becomes one big grey area: you’re often asked to work outside your contractually stipulated 9-5:30, but many creatives often choose to do that because another hour or two might be the difference between a good ad and a great one, and therefore no award/an award, no raise/a raise, no promotion/promotion etc. But when does choice become obligation or expectation? What is it about certain jobs that mean their hours stretch like tedious elastic? How is it OK that a company gets 1.5 x You by making you work another four hours each day at no extra cost? Did we simply start working longer to advance out careers until it became the norm?

Ironically it’s many of the lowest paid creatives who are the ones flogging themselves to death for the benefit of a multi-million pound/dollar corporation. In an effort to seem amenable, hardworking, a team player and all that jazz, creatives immediately head down the path marked ‘your life is not your own’ and remain on it under the guise of the devoted artist, struggling to shape David or apply brush strokes to the Mona Lisa (or price ads for Curry’s and radio ads for 10% off green beans at Tesco). And when most people do this, the ones that don’t stand out, and not in a good way.

But if you look at it from 30,000 feet, it can be another instance of the subjugation of the worker to the corporation. Does Mercedes know or care if you missed your mum’s 50th birthday? Does Axa Insurance give a toss if you cancel a holiday to re-pitch for its business (obviously some clients would, by the way. I’m just talking about very large, faceless corporations)? If we go down to 15,000 feet, does WPP or Omnicom know or care about your increasing blood pressure or incipient drinking habit? At 5,000 feet, how much does your agency truly pay attention to your work-life balance? And by that I mean really care in a way that might cost them money, as opposed to paying lip service to the notion, or finally doing something when you work late yet again, drive tired and hit a lamppost.

As salaries fall, working hours increase, margins shrink and timelines shorten this is only heading in one direction.

Is that a problem? Well, when you compare it to the death of coal mining communities or the mass replacement of humans with robots in manufacturing, it’s small beer. But I don’t write a coal-mining or manufacturing blog, so I’m just pointing out the degree to which people in advertising willingly subsume themselves to wealthy, indifferent corporations. And it might feel fine on a day-to-day basis, but long-term, it might be taking the kind of toll that has deep, lasting consequences.

Do you want to know what the really funny thing is? It doesn’t have to be this way. There’s no law that says you shouldn’t earn overtime pay. There’s no law that says you should work past 5:30 or miss a holiday or wedding. There’s no law that says your out-of-work hours are not your own. And there’s no law that says your agency should bend its knee to its clients, providing ever more work at an ever cheaper price.

Many current agencies have got themselves into this death spiral, making it harder to escape it. But if you’re starting an agency, why not see if you can prioritise the humans who work for you over the money they generate? Why not ring fence working hours? Why not create partnerships with your clients instead of supplicant ‘them and us’ relationships of submissive dysfunction? Why not give employees the choice of working late, then pay them more for doing it?

There’s no law that forbids any of that.

And there’s definitely no law against giving it a try.