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persuasion notebook

Young employees are told they need to push themselves to get ahead. The 8-hour workday is a thoroughly elastic notion.Nastco/Getty Images/iStockphoto

It's no secret that people in advertising are overworked.

The industry vaporizes working to exhaustion. All-nighters are common when client work needs to get done. Young employees are told they need to push themselves to get ahead. The 8-hour workday is a thoroughly elastic notion.

The work culture is so ingrained that in 2014, ad agency Union made a spoof video, describing how they showed appreciation to their employees – by actually letting them see their families.

Young employees are told they need to push themselves to get ahead. The 8-hour workday is a thoroughly elastic notion.

But ad woman Heidi Hackemer argues this goes against everything the industry is supposed to stand for: to foster creativity requires that people get enough sleep each night and take naps, that they get out into nature occasionally, that they do not short out their brains by spending all day in front of a back-lit screen. It requires that they have lives outside of work.

And yet, many agencies do not allow for this, Ms. Hackemer said during a presentation at the FutureFlash ad industry conference on Thursday.

"I would argue that the majority of our industry if we really interrogate ourselves, don't give a s–– about creativity," she said.

After quitting her job at agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH), Ms. Hackemer founded her own agency, New York-based Wolf & Wilhelmine, to test whether it would be possible to work in the industry while allowing her employees work-life balance.

"Can we do the work without killing ourselves?" she asked. "So many companies go out there and say 'We are all for work-life balance.' ... it's an irresponsible way to act if you're not willing to change your processes."

At Wolf & Wilhelmine, that required actual rules: her employees are not allowed to send e-mails after 7 p.m. or on Saturdays. (Sundays are okay but nobody is required to respond to an internal e-mail on Sunday.) They will be disciplined for sending e-mails or being connected to the office while on vacation. Employees who do not take their vacation time are ineligible for bonuses. Each week, the agency conducts a meeting where everyone estimates their workload for the week; if anyone is in danger of exceeding 40 hours that week, work is shifted around or freelancers are brought in to help. All of this is disclosed to clients up front before they begin working together.

"A lot of clients are actually relieved that somebody is saying, 'Can we do this in a more human way?'" Ms. Hackemer said. "And if the work is good, the clients are fine."

Since its founding in January, 2014, the agency has been hired for projects with clients including Nike Inc. and the White House.

"[CEO of ad giant WPP PLC] Martin Sorrell would hate it if he went through my books," she said, because she could theoretically get twice as much work out of her employees. "Sorrell can suck it."

The way agencies approach relationships with their employees matters for the industry: it has been well documented that talent is being lured away by startups and tech giants such as Google and Facebook, where they view opportunities for great, creative careers.

"We have to figure out a way to keep them. Saying, 'Your purpose is to create an amazing ad,' just isn't enough any more," Ms. Hackemer said. "If [the industry] was really 'all about the work,' we wouldn't treat people like dogs ... The best people are leaving. we have to create spaces for them to come back in."