Is the chase for numbers stifling creativity and leading to burnout?

Acing the number game in advertising is keeping creatives swamped, leading to burnout in advertising. Creative experts ponder whether the cause behind the declining creativity in the A&M industry is this relentless race of achieving quantity over quality and meeting deadlines, further underscoring the need for systemic changes to support mental health and foster genuine creative work.

Shamita Islur
New Update
Mental health

Austin Kleon famously said, “Creative people need time to sit around and do nothing.” But for advertising and marketing professionals, that seems like a pipe dream. In an industry famed for its ‘hustle’ culture, downtime is a luxury few can afford.

While creativity goes beyond a definite 9-5 schedule, the relentless pace and constant pressure can often lead to brain drain. A Stanford University study found that productivity drops sharply once people work more than 50 hours a week. As the work hours increase, efficiency nosedives, and working 60 hours a week is especially damaging.

Adding to the pressure, digitalisation has ramped up the demand for creative content in recent years, making the grind even more intense.

Sumanto Chattopadhyay, Former Chairman & Chief Creative Officer, 82.5 Communications, Ogilvy Group notes that there was a time when an advertising professional could create a TV commercial that ran for a year or more, generating substantial revenue for the agency. However, burnout plagues creative people in advertising today because the nature of the business has changed. 

“Today, you make video ads which run for a few months at best. At times, an ad is created to run for just a day. Back in the day, that would only be true for a print ad. Now you create video assets to run for a day. So you have to put in a lot more effort for a lot less money. Result? The creative person is squeezed,” expounds Chattopadhyay.

In the age of digital communication, social media and moment marketing, it’s about the instant turnaround. Creatives don’t have the luxury of time to ideate or to lovingly craft the final product, as Chattopadhyay points out. 

Hamsini Shivakumar, Director, Leapfrog Strategy Consulting comments on the broader transformation. “The communications industry has been foundationally transformed and disrupted by digitisation in many ways. The lines between ads/advertising and branded content/content have got blurred and almost erased.”

She notes that young people today aren’t growing up sitting in front of the TV, learning and remembering ads and jingles. Instead, their viewing is split between Instagram content and TV ads, further complicating the landscape for creatives.

“These factors mean that a comms agency is not laser-focused on making TVCs that cut through the ad clutter to make their way into consumers’ mind space. And creatives have to produce many many more units of ads than in previous decades.”

Now creatives need to make five reels and 10 posts on Instagram and then make new ads-branded content every quarter or every six months. The quantum of creative output required has increased and has led to burnout according to Shivakumar. 

Not just the mental health of an ad professional, digitalisation is leading to a decline in the quality of creativity. A study revealed that nearly 70% of marketers believe that digital growth in advertising has come at the expense of the quality of creative. And 91% of marketers say the need to make digital ads more engaging to meet brand goals is a priority in the data-driven advertising. 

Quantity > Quality

Jay Morzaria, Former Creative Head, points out that the focus has shifted to assigning media before the creative is churned out. With media assigned first, the creative adapts to fit the chosen channels.

Moreover, Morzaria notes a fixation on quantity over quality. For instance, he explains that if a brand is promised a certain amount of posts or ads, then the creatives keep producing posts, even if they are not needed, just to meet the quota.

“Unfortunately, social media doesn't function that way. It's not about the quantity of posts; it's about the quality. It's about how you tap into relevance for your brand and create a community. The main goal is to engage people with your brand,” Morzaria emphasises. 

Sumanto Chattopadhyay points out another fault in the system. He adds that the budgets are low because the ad will have a brief shelf life. Working with a cheap production setup adds more stress on the creative person to pull off something of decent quality. 

“From brief to final film, one used to get at least a month if not a few months. Now you might get as little as a week from brief to finished film,” Chattopadhyay continues. 

Strict deadlines & lack of downtime

With an increase in demand for creative content, the pressure falls on the creative team to execute it in a timely fashion. However, brands want to be viral through the content and fit in with the internet culture.

Anusha GS Shetty, Head of Creative Strategy and Communications, Yuvaa, a platform dedicated to youth mental health, shares insights from her experience in the advertising industry. She notes that when something breaks on the internet or goes viral, every brand feels compelled to join the conversation, even if it doesn't align with their brand values.

“People are often willing to force-fit something rather than pass on the opportunity. The onus to jump on the trend and deliver something praiseworthy falls on the creative team. We need to understand the creative process—good things take time.”

Shetty further adds that the creative process requires time for research, to come up with insights, and to crack the idea. It’s a collaborative effort and cannot be done in isolation.

“Unrealistic deadlines, lack of downtime, and constant revisions and approvals also contribute to a stressful atmosphere, ultimately undermining the creative process,” says Shetty. 

This pressure further leads to creative professionals feeling uninspired. Jay Morzaria states that personal reasons, among other things, can contribute to this, but the workspace needs to be an environment where you feel inspired to create something when you go there.

He notes that burnout is not a result of working hard. Burnout doesn't occur because people refuse to work hard. It happens because they are doing things in a way that is not satisfactory to themselves or anyone else—just doing things for the sake of doing them.

Sharing his experience, he notes that there are workspaces where, no matter what is happening in your personal life, you feel a sense of joy when brainstorming, coming up with ideas, and working passionately. However, today, the industry has shifted away from such environments where creativity was a source of joy.

“Now, it's all about going from one brief to another and simply meeting deadlines. Unfortunately, this drastic change in the advertising workplace has led to increased burnout. The focus is now on just getting things approved and moving on, with no further creative thinking,” says Morzaria.

The environment in an A&M workspace is also dependent on the client relationships. Keeping up with client demands without boundaries could add more pressure on the professionals.

Sumanto Chattopadhyay observes that many agencies struggle to negotiate rates that would allow creative professionals to have a more balanced workload. Additionally, they lack the influence to request a more reasonable timeline from clients to complete a project.

What do advertisers need?

As Anusha GS Shetty of Yuvaa pointed out, creative work is a collaborative effort. One professional’s increasing workload and the subsequent declining mental health could affect the overall morale of the individual and the team. 

Shetty comments, “Leaders in ad agencies need to realise that a creative individual performs best when they are well-rested. The culture of urgency in agencies has been discussed time and time again, but we have not seen enough measures being taken to improve the system.”

The first step, Shetty suggests, is to help individuals understand that there is no shame in asking for help when they feel overwhelmed at work. 

The previous generations have suffered enough due to the fear of repercussions and the stigma of shame in asking for leave. Shetty states that collective creativity can flourish only if we have the chance to rest.

How can the industry change?

Hamsini Shivakumar mentions, “To prevent burnout and retain the value of creative, agencies will need to make a hierarchy of ads-content-marketing material. And decide what should be done by machines, what by young creatives and what by experienced creatives.”

Shivakumar further continues that the leadership needs to become more assertive vis-a-vis clients and protect teams from burnout. This sentiment is also echoed by Morzaria who states that if agencies really want to make a difference, the first step is to have a conversation with the clients. They need to ask clients to be more rational in their expectations of the agency.

Sumanto Chattopadhyay notes that rotation of brands can help rejuvenate a creative person. When feeling stuck or frustrated by constant work on a particular brand, shifting focus to a different one can infuse freshness into the work. Additionally, a change of location can strengthen the team and eliminate any staleness that may have set in.

“Agencies have become more mindful of mental health issues. If you reach out to your leaders or HR today, they will help you get counselling. Or give you time off—which can be very helpful when things get too much to bear,” suggests Chattopadhyay.

Anusha GS Shetty adds that providing mental health leaves is crucial. This applies to all employees. Some agencies have implemented Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) that provide confidential counselling services and resources for managing stress and mental health concerns, along with access to mental health apps and platforms that offer meditation, therapy sessions, and mindfulness techniques. 

“However, it's important to remember that these initiatives, while being well-thought-out gestures will not be able to fix the larger issue at hand if they are not accompanied by a genuine shift in organisational culture and leadership commitment.”

Shetty emphasises the importance of involving individuals in the process of identifying their needs and developing solutions accordingly.

A creative professional in the advertising and marketing industry might put in overtime, constantly churning out ideas and executing them. However, the industry's decline in creativity needs addressing. Ultimately, if the advertising industry wants creative individuals to produce high-quality content, it might be beneficial to allow them the time to sit and do nothing, as the saying goes.

Mental Health burnout in advertising work culture in advertising toxic advertising culture brain drain stifling creativity