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Cultures lacking empathy & work-life imbalance leaving employees burnt out and broken in digital marketing

Bad practices plague the digital marketing industry, fuelling post-pandemic employee burnout and contributing to high attrition rates at firms. Here's what's broken and how to fix it.

By  Kashmeera SambamurthyAug 4, 2022 7:26 PM
Cultures lacking empathy & work-life imbalance leaving employees burnt out and broken in digital marketing
Unrealistic client expectations and demands contribute to the woes of people working in digital marketing agencies, which are facing high employee attrition rates. (Representational Image via Unsplash)

A young graphic designer switched to freelancing for a digital marketing agency in Mumbai. The designer, who requested anonymity, had previously worked as a full-time employee in the same company. She recalls how, as the workload increased, she would stay up for days till 3 AM and in ‘urgent’ scenarios till 6 AM, working on projects. It took a serious toll on her mental and physical well-being. When she raised a complaint at the agency, the general response was “Arey! Client hai. Paise de rahe hain.”

On June 17, a digital marketer who goes by the handle @mysticmoon_ tweeted screenshots of responses of a digital marketing agency on Glassdoor, a platform where current and former employees anonymously review companies. The agency had responded to complaints raised by the agency’s ex-employees about grueling work schedules, office culture and compensation. The company’s response raised a storm for its lack of empathy.

Sample these lines from the response.

‘No time for your personal life. 24x7 work - This is how the Digital industry works. Please go through our careers section. We have already disclosed the life you will be leading when you get into Digital Marketing. No one said it would be easy.’

‘Working on weekends - If you deny, your salary will be deducted.’

‘If you as an executive cannot handle the brand, then ideally you were never meant to be in Digital and you are incapable of taking the responsibilities.’

‘No fixed leaving time - Yes, indeed. This is not a 9 to 5 government job…We seek creative candidates who love working on brands. When one is building brands, time is secondary…’

‘…Another alternate scenario when you would be working late is when you are correcting your own mistakes. If you cannot understand the client and the brief you are bound to get frustrated. But this is your own fault.’

These responses on Glassdoor were later deleted. But not before users like @mysticmoon took screenshots and shared it on social media.

She shared, “I'm just numb reading such response. Is there any humanity left? Especially in ad agencies?! Are your employees not humans? Is it just about the money at the cost of someone's mental health & life? Wonder what measures are being taken to prevent this!”

She goes on to share that she too has had such an experience and had to leave the firm within a month of joining. The trauma she experienced in that short time had stayed with her for a while. But she, like many others, has bills to pay, she said, ruing the fact that there’s no other choice for many but to “tolerate and live a toxic work-life.”

A digital world never sleeps

WPP-owned media investment company GroupM’s ‘This Year, Next Year’ report for 2022 highlighted that Digital would grow by 33 percent, and would have an estimated share of 45 percent in total expenditure of advertising. Brands are allocating more marketing money in digital, sending the volume of work skyrocketing as the media pie gets bigger.

The relentless pace of work and hectic and high-pressure environment have been a subject of debates and discussions on social media and offline. Unrealistic client expectations and demands contribute to the woes of people working in digital marketing agencies which are facing high employee attrition rates, as high as 30 percent as per industry estimates.

Afraid to lose business or upset a client in a tough economic climate, agencies typically accept even the most unreasonable demands from clients. A creative director working with a Bengaluru-based digital advertising agency tells us that work culture in many agencies actually became worse with the onset of the pandemic.

“I rate toxicity by two things. First, by the people, and second by the leaders who fuel it wherever they go,” she tells us.

A group creative partner at the same agency spoke about calls that would come at any time, stressing that such unhealthy work cultures also stem from the behaviour of the clients.

@mysticmoon_ agrees with him and states that the fast paced nature of the digital world has increased brands’ requirement to go viral, upscale their sales, make profits, be more creative, relate to their audience, and stay relevant in the market. “To achieve all that - they want everybody associated with them to work 24x7,” often at the cost of their health and wellbeing, the digital marketer highlights.

She shares the agency’s expectation from employees is to be accommodating of a marketing brief that could come even at midnight.

These bad practices are not restricted to digital marketing shops alone. Full-service mainline agencies have been hauled up in the past for the same issues including toxic work cultures, overworking employees, keeping inadequate compensation and reward systems, and creating a high-pressure environment that puts people’s wellbeing last.

Adding to a toxic culture

An ad agency’s former employees highlights that working late into the night at the office has become a regular practice in most agencies. “You would usually get something at 6 PM from the client, and would be asked to show the result by the next morning. Despite all the complaints, no action was taken by HR or seniors. If anything is required after office hours, it should be an exception and not a norm,” he tells Storyboard18.

Another employee of a mainline agency shares how senior executives would boast about working at all hours, competing with each other and showing “the juniors” what is required of them in advertising.

It gets particularly worse for female employees at agencies. These bad practices exacerbate the challenges for women in the industry who have also been fighting years of institutionalised sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace.

Agency employees Storyboard18 spoke to are quick to highlight that in advertising and media industries, there is also an obvious lack of empathy. Nobody says ‘Oh! You have worked for over 8 hours straight. Take a break.’

Another young creative says that there is no credit or additional compensation given for extra hours of work, adding that most small and mid-level companies do not have budgets to hire more hands which leads to more work being managed by fewer people and intense pressure on these people to still deliver despite the time, bandwidth and resource crunch. Eventually leading to issues like employee burnout.

For instance, when seemingly countless revisions are required on a campaign, some companies charge extra for revisions. At least five to six revisions are allowed. Then one begins to charge. But sometimes agencies are apprehensive and don’t want to charge the client, giving employees the short end of the stick in the bargain.

Hustle culture transcends

In the startup world, hustle culture has been celebrated widely by entrepreneurs, self-made gurus and influencers from the ecosystem. But the past three years we have witnessed a certain degree of backlash against the glorification of hustle culture which requires an extremely disproportionate amount of attention, time and energy directed into work, even at the cost of one’s physical and mental health. Hustle culture is also known as burnout or grind culture and is defined by workaholism and toxic productivity.

Despite the shift to a more balanced view on work and productivity, most organizations in the digital marketing space work with many startup brands, and several digital marketing agencies are startups themselves, and it seems there is a clear rub-off of cultures as the employees Storyboard18 spoke to suggest.

There’s also the matter of playing one against the other. A disturbing trend is brands engaging two agencies at the same time to pit them against each other, putting additional pressure on agencies which are already fearful of losing business in difficult market conditions and when there are many others who will do the work at competitive rates and quicker timelines.

Covid-impact on work and the industry

The homegrown, independent marketing solutions network Schbang’s head of culture and communication, Pranav Krishnan admits that the digital space has more to do with keeping up with trends that require execution on drastically shortened timelines and in high-pressure environments. This in turn translates to clients expecting agencies to remain on stand-by after hours and even on weekends.

For Krishnan, “It is of extreme importance to manage client expectations and only agree to reasonable timelines.”

He also shares that the agency was one of the early ones to adopt employee-friendly policies, adding that the company has also restructured HR policies to suit the needs of employees including the introduction of flexible work hours.

One of the first digital marketing companies in the country, BC Web Wise’s founder and MD Chaaya Baradhwaaj thinks that the isolation and disruption of a regular life, the economic pressures on clients, agencies and the ecosystems have probably led to things getting out of hand.

Baradhwaaj says, “To combat some of these issues, we have an ecosystem of vendors we work with to handle unplanned volume, negotiate and buy time when needed, and say no to what is not viable. There have been employees who are mandated to not clock more than 80 percent of their total time, and taking the time off becomes a must.”

Shradha Agarwal, CEO and co-founder of Grapes, also shares another view of the issues facing the industry today and a possible fix. As the jobs are many and there’s fewer good people to do them, there’s less ownership of the work. Agarwal adds some work-arounds to keep employees happy, promote collaborative cultures and give people opportunities to grow, while keeping the organization’s growth a priority.

“Now organizations are coming up with a comprehensive distribution of brands. This is dependent on the type of work-life balance a person is seeking. Those aspiring for aggressive growth are given agile brands. Those looking for a gradual growth are given passive brands,” she says.

How to fix a broken system and other solutions

We have seen instances of agencies turning away business or putting their foot down in the face of unreasonable client demands, placing their employees’ well-being first. But those are few and far between.

But some agencies are and have been taking the lead to make workplaces and work cultures healthier and productive.

In BC Web Wise’s recent survey with employees, at least 30 percent want to continue work from home (WFH), 40 percent prefer hybrid, and another 30 percent want to be at the workplace every day. Today, they have a hybrid model in place. Late schedules and working weekends are worked out in advance with clients and cleared with employees. They also have a system to ensure rotation of team members and employees are given days off.

Krishnan highlights simple measures that can help. For instance, shifting from WhatsApp to Slack to ensure that people logged off and paused notifications after working hours, and during the weekends.

He adds, “We have a strict no-weekend work policy wherein client briefs are not picked up past 5 PM on the last working day of the week. Even if team members have to work on the weekend, compensatory leaves are given which can be availed anytime over the month. Mental health leaves

Over the last two years, employees have also been given access to an in-house therapist. To create an atmosphere of ease and less stress for employees, Schbang also hosts in-office activities like open mic nights, games night, and numerous workshops.

Agarwal highlights that there is a three-pronged approach in place at Grapes to reduce the attrition rate. First is the hybrid or WFH model. Second is conducting internal training to help employees learn new skills. Third is making space for fun activities, and sessions to enable team bonding.

Digital marketing agency Sociowash’s co-founder Pranav Agarwal encourages collaboration among different teams in the organization to ensure that work between all teams is evenly distributed to meet tight deadlines.

He says, “Something all agencies should learn from traditional organizations is their process of streamlining, and clearly defining the roles and responsibilities of each team member.”

Sociowash came up with a measure called SuperBeings Survey, which was put in place to understand the perspective of teams on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. The feedback from people is taken anonymously so employees can freely share their views and woes.

Schbang’s Krishnan highlights that the need for work-life balance was never a focus for companies till a few years ago. But that has changed now. The pandemic has reset employees’ needs, priorities and expectations, with people who are seeking healthy growth and more balance in work and life quitting in droves for better prospects in freelance work, at other firms or on the client's side; in some cases willing even to compromise on salaries in the process.

Krishnan says that the bottom line is “If the people in the industry are not cared for, we won’t see growth, creativity and innovation."

First Published on Jul 14, 2022 11:51 AM