Get a life! That’s the prescription we give friends and colleagues who need to expand their horizons. But it’s also what advertising executive Neil McOstrich believes bosses in creative enterprises have to tell their subordinates who work around the clock.
Not: “Great attitude! I love your commitment to the firm! Keep it up!”
But: “Get a life! Work fewer hours and get out of the office more.”
Mr. McOstrich, co-founder of Clean Sheet Communications, says there are probably firms in fields like law where people who work long hours are more valuable because revenue flows from how much time they can bill. But in marketing – and other creative endeavours – you are paid for your good ideas, not how many hours you work. And great ideas come from odd combinations and insights, which are more likely to flow from an eclectic life rather than from sitting at your desk 18 hours a day.
“When you go to hockey games, ski, read books, or go to art galleries you are amassing experiences and interests that will help you come up with idea down the road,” he says. “The innovative idea comes from a spark – and often that comes from outside the firm. The apple fell on Newton. Archimedes was in the bathtub. They weren’t in the office.”
He remembers early in his career being in an office where the junior people would talk of pulling all nighters. They talked about it as hardship, but were really bragging. It was proof of their value. But he noticed that the top people in the firm – the ones driving the Porches, the true sign of value – came into the office at 9 a.m. and left at 6 p.m. They viewed it as important to have a life.
He has adopted that approach. “I try to work hard but between make time for other things in my life,” he says. He skis, plays hockey, and gets involved in activities that seem to have no connection to the office. “It’s like sorbet. It wipes the palette between courses,” he says.
And it’s not just the big boss who can take such time outs at his firm. Yes, when the heat is on, everyone is expected to work 18- and 20-hour days. But he feels he has made it clear that they are then to take time off, so they get exposure to other stimuli and don’t burn out. He considers it particularly wasteful to just put in hours for the sake of putting in hours, hiding inactivity by watching YouTube videos. Sure, there are ideas and odd stimuli in such videos. But it’s one step removed from actually doing. “I prefer people saying, ‘I did this. I experienced this,’ ” he says.
He hires accordingly, looking for people with curiosity and a boatload of experiences. “If someone was a cab driver, cook, or joined the army, they are a more attractive candidate than a straight MBA,” he says. One of his best radio ad writers has an ear for words that comes from years as a cab driver.
Brett Channer, former chairman and executive creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi Canada and now president and chief creative officer of a new marketing and strategy firm, Red Lion, shares a similar outlook. He and his wife like to travel. He joined a ski club so he would be forced in the winter to get his money’s worth by going away every weekend. Skiing, he notes, takes two minutes to go down the hill but then 10 minutes to go back up, often chatting randomly and sharing stories with friends, who are mostly from outside the advertising world. Down the road, that breeds creative ideas.
So does talking to his daughter. He’s proud of the fact that Sydney, who is 16, recently said that she appreciates her Dad asking her for advice on things and listening to the answers. He wants to be a good father, and have a good relationship with his daughter. But it’s also a sign that he is curious, and willing to learn, from everyone. Curiosity and learning, to his mind, keeps you young and fresh.
Sydney is part of an important demographic for marketers, but he’s not asking her about advertising. He’s just talking. “When you learn about general stuff and life, you are learning about advertising. Advertising is a reflection of the culture you are in,” he notes.
His 20-person office is still coming together, but he wants to make sure it has a culture that recognizes long hours are not the goal. Creativity is. He’s thinking of Friday afternoon gatherings to watch movies, perhaps avant-garde films, over beer and wine. People might wander in and out, depending on their immediate work load. “With films comes life and with life comes experiences, and with experiences comes creativity,” he says. He watched a TED Talk recently, and was taken by the notion that for every 40 hours of output at work you need five hours of input. That might mean telling people they need to take five hours a week to do whatever they want.
Of course, he also notes that the interview is coming at 8 p.m., after a long day of work. He just got out of a meeting that ran late. He isn’t the best example, today, of what he is preaching. But he insists the future – and future success – comes by getting out of the office. So he’s going home, and will try to do better tomorrow.