working outside the box

The Advertising Agency.

The birthplace of the commonly overused phrase “think outside the box” and made famous most recently by the show MadMen. It also happens to be one of the most challenging, frustrating and toxic working cultures to be successful in. I should know, as a recovering Ad Professional, I successfully completed my tour of duty – making my rounds from Madison Ave down to the Lower West Side and back again.

Twenty years later, I thought it was time to revisit my old stomping grounds and interview the top senior talent from within the industry and get their thoughts on how to stay relevant and be successful in an industry that is still looking to find it’s identity in a societal landscape that shifts daily.

Working in an agency comes with it – high stress, long hours and endless competition to both pitch and win accounts. The toll on your health and happiness working in this type of environment can be substantial. Top that off of course with the never-ending feeling that your job is on the line if you don’t produce a “win” your job maybe in jeopardy…ah – sounds fun right?.

Suffice it to say, the “creative type” who thrives in this type of environment is unlike your average 9-5’er but that doesn’t mean they are immune to the toxicity that comes when working in close quarters with likeminded people. According to distinguished psychology and management professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Creativity: The Work and Lives of 91 Eminent People – he concluded the following about creative people:

  • “If I had to express in one word what makes their personalities different from others, it’s complexity. They show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes; instead of being an individual, each of them is a multitude.”

Wow, talk about complex. Now add that to an unstable industry that’s constantly evolving and it’s a recipe for toxicity. Here are the 5 battle tested tips the top creative minds (I interviewed) all agreed upon when it comes to surviving the churn and burn of the ad world:

    Negativity is a deceptive creature. At first it just observes you from a distance. But when it gets to know you better, it slowly slithers in and sinks its claws into you. From there it feeds on you and begins to dramatically alter your outlook. Before you know it, you have likely become a negative person yourself. Stay away from that, it’s not healthy.
    People fight over land. People fight over religion. Creative people fight over credit.  It’s important to be secure enough with your talents and abilities
    that you don’t fall prey to ego.  Work hard and be generous with your time and your insights that you provide to others.  Insecure people in the business world cause a lot of issues. Learn to be secure with who you are, it will go a long way to having a healthier career.
    If you find that you’re working with people who complain or are often negative, make sure you set aside some time to yourself. Occasionally eat lunch by yourself in your office and listen to or read stuff that you enjoy.  Take a walk around the block and take in some nature or fresh air.  Make a personal call to a friend. Just a 15 minute break from the office can be a really beneficial escape.
    We all get it, the ad agency life is challenging. We work long hours.
    But you need to learn that when you’re done for the day.  You need to leave. Get out.  Go home. You can start to feel like you have to stay and hang out with your coworkers after hours. But that’s not a good habit. You can easily look back and find you’re staying an extra hour or more a night than you have to.  Over a month, that’s twenty more hours you’ve stayed at the office when you could be spending that time with your family or friends. You’ll notice that some people make it known that they leave when they’re done with their work. Once that reputation is established it sticks. And it’s never too late to redefine your own reputation.
    If you find yourself working in a culture that isn’t emotionally healthy, it’s important to have another way to fulfill yourself creatively. That way you can achieve your own sense of fulfillment and not have any of your creativity squashed or affected in a less than ideal workplace.  If you find that personal creative outlet, it can be really exciting and buoy your spirits during the week.  Working on your own passion projects on nights or weekends can help keep you going during the workweek.

Final thought:
If you still think that agency life and creative people don’t have it tough, take a look at Buzzfeed’s 21 Daily Struggles Of People Who Work In Advertising.

The floor is yours: How do you thrive in a toxic workplace?

Please leave your comment below as your insights are greatly appreciated and a learning opportunity for everyone reading this article.

With leadership,

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