Why the advertising industry needs a mental health revolution

May is marked as the International Mental Health month globally. While agencies are quick to come up with thought-provoking campaigns, little change has taken place in the inner workings of the advertising industry. The agency culture has long been infamous for being mentally taxing on employees. Experts dissect the reasons associated with the proliferation of this toxic culture and share concrete steps to address them.

Harshal Thakur
New Update

Picture this: a bustling office, the air thick with the hum of creativity and the relentless ticking of the clock. Here, ideas are born, nurtured, and catapulted into the public eye, all within a whirlwind of deadlines and high expectations. This is the reality of the advertising industry—where brilliance is demanded on a daily basis, and the stakes are as high as the skyscrapers adorned with the latest campaigns.

The world of advertising conjures up images of sleek offices, creative brainstorms, and the thrill of crafting the next iconic catchphrase. It's a world immortalised in shows like ‘Mad Men,’ where sharp suits, witty banter, and late-night brainstorming sessions fueled the creation of groundbreaking campaigns. But beneath the glamorous facade lies a different reality – a pressure cooker environment that can take a significant toll on employee mental health. 

While the advertising industry thrives on innovation and a fast-paced environment, the relentless pursuit of success often comes at a cost. As with any other industry where survival is dependent on clients, stress is bound to take its course. 

The same creativity that fuels groundbreaking ads can also become a relentless taskmaster, driving individuals to the brink of burnout. Imagine the pressure of consistently conjuring up original ideas, often under the critical gaze of demanding clients and against the backdrop of fierce competition. It’s a pressure cooker environment, where the cost of a single misstep could be the next big account or the reputation meticulously built over the years. 

The IPA's survey on mental health support awareness and availability revealed that 78% of advertising employees believe their workplaces should do more for mental health, compared to 49% of the general UK workforce. Only 34% of adland employees reported having a mental health policy, with 30% receiving mental health training and 22% having access to mental health first aiders. Additionally, 83% of those in advertising, marketing, and PR were concerned about taking time off during high workloads, compared to 56% of the broader workforce.

While burnout, exhaustion, and fatigue easily come to mind when thinking about work-related issues, the day-to-day demands of agency life quite often lead to deeper, more somber mental health-related issues that people aren’t much aware of–let alone have discussions about. These issues can include a range of anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, and sleep disorders. 

While for years the advertising industry has been notorious for its stressful environment, significant steps haven’t been taken to mitigate or address these stressors materially. So, before one can hope to bring in a substantial change or at the very least, start conversations about it, it’s essential to first understand the causes of these stressors. 

Deciphering the notoriety 

Industry leaders seem to have a consensus on the cause of this stress–the nature of the industry itself. 

Asif Upadhye, Director, Never Grow Up, says, “Like most B2B2C industries, Advertising revenue comes from providing core client services that require a certain 'dynamism' and 'agility'. This is not unique to advertising but to any industry that is driven by consumption. Considering brands are forever in the 'market share' corundum, the service industry that supports 'the business of brands' also has to deal with the 'never-ending urgency loop' as well.” 

Holding a similar view and illuminating further, Roopa Badrinath, Founder & Principal Consultant, Turmeric Consulting, explains, “The advertising industry has always been stressful due to its almost impossible deadlines, coupled with constant pressure to produce impactful work. In any competitive landscape, the stakes are always high with constant threat of business moving. Further, with deliverables almost treated as a commodity where you are trying to prove your value to the procurement team every time a contract is re-negotiated, it leads to fragility. These are challenges of almost all industries.”

Badrinath further adds, “Glorification of overwork has not served the industry and its people well. Add to this equation, the quarterly revenue pressures leading to headcount restrictions, you have a deadly cocktail waiting to knock you out! Most importantly, like other industries, the worst offender is workplace toxicity created by toxic managers which when left unchecked can have serious repercussions on the mental health and overall wellbeing of the employees.”

Upadhye attributes this broadly to the way the industry has functioned over the years. He remarks, “As long as there are brands selling products, and consumers willing to buy them, the agency model will see its share of stress. There are of course things like changing business priorities, lack of clarity and understanding of how the industry operates, inability to push back to clients because of the fear of losing business to advertising peers and shift in 'workplace dynamics and approach to work' in a hyper-connected environment is why this probably continues to persist.”

Badrinath emphasises client-centricity and lack of resources as potential causes behind the long-term persistence of the stressful nature of the industry. She expounds, “The industry started talking about work-life balance. Then it moved to work-life integration. And I guess it has now reconciled to the fact that it can neither profess balance nor integration. It just decided to make the best out of what it has. The industry has been and will always be client-centric. While this is not unique to only this industry, when client satisfaction score is the critical measure of success, it is bound to lead to gruelling work schedules to achieve client delight leading to stress and eventual burnout. Lack of resources due to pressures on margins can be another reason for high levels of stress. Increased dependence on projects as against retainers can also lead to a sudden increase in the quantum of work leading to stress.”

“The Indian advertising industry struggles with mental health due to high-pressure deadlines, a culture of overwork, and stigma around mental health discussions,” says Damini Patel, Founder, MishFix. “I've seen how this relentless pace, combined with client pressures and the drive for perfection, strains employees,” she adds, citing the conventional setup of the advertising industry and its effects. 

On the other hand, Shrenik Gandhi, CEO and Co-founder, White Rivers Media, has a rather optimistic take. He says, "While the industry is often associated with tight deadlines and client demands, many professionals find it deeply rewarding. For the passionate, it's a playground of possibilities, a chance to make a real impact. Mental health awareness has always been a fact of focus, but the modern agency is revolutionising this landscape even further, recognising that a healthy workforce is a high-performing workforce. Flexible hours, mental health resources, and comprehensive health insurance are paving the way for a sustainable work environment." 

Upadhye lists two key reasons why the industry has not been able to effectively address mental health challenges. He observes, “1. A general lack of understanding about mental health. Although there is a degree of being 'woke' about mental health, and internal campaigns do emerge from time to time, the understanding around mental health continues to be surface level. for e.g. most people may not even understand the difference between a counsellor and a therapist. 2. There is also the fear of being judged at work (across industries - not just advertising) that only adds to people holding back from approaching a safe space to seek help. Add the nature of work, changing business priorities and being a service business, we have a complex concoction waiting to explode.” 

Structure, Stigma, and Saturdays 

It is often said that the culture of the advertising industry has taken shape in such a way over the years that it has embedded in itself the stressful aspects of working. The structure of an agency and the subsequent impact it has on the way the work culture is built is responsible for this phenomenon. 

“Culture plays a very important role in providing a safety net for employees, which stems from the organisational structure. These two elements are interconnected. If the leadership team is strong enough to absorb pressure rather than passing it down to employees, the overall stress level can be significantly reduced. However, when leadership fails to manage client demands and tight timelines effectively, employees remain under constant stress,” says Mukesh Vij, Founder, Hashtag Orange. 

Emphasising the crucial role of managers and citing the lack of appropriate leadership training as a potential drawback, Badrinath shares, “If the line managers have not been equipped with the skills to address mental health issues, they may not know what kind of support they need to provide. The intentionality at the topmost rung of the ladder to provide a stress-free workplace has a huge ripple effect downstream. If they are unable to prioritise people over the revenue and productivity pressures, it becomes challenging for them to focus on an ‘invisible’ issue which does not seem as pressing.”

Shedding light on the rather basic structural and functional issues that have substantial implications, Pallavi Chakravarti, Founder & CCO, Fundamental, says “We want or rather expect our employees to give us inordinate amounts of their time, their passion and their vital organs. But we don’t want to pay for any of this. That’s reason number one for the stress, I feel. Secondly, very few employees truly know what is expected of them in their roles - they join a system thinking they’ll be doing X kind of work on Y brand with Z set of responsibilities, but end up working on A, B, C brands doing L, M and N for those brands, and a few pitches over Saturday and Sunday too.” 

However, Chakravarti also makes a point about leaders being under pressure given the client-centric nature of industry. She mentions, “It’s true that ad agencies thrive on organised chaos, but chaos is often all that remains. No method to the madness for prolonged periods of time is another stressor. Now let’s be clear, there’s no villain here - agencies are creaking under the weight of targets - everyone up and down the food chain is under pressure. And the funny part is, it’s not like clients are delighted with the work or the relationships they share with these large systems where everyone is constantly under the pump. Disgruntled teams make for strained relations and indifferent output.”

What seems to exacerbate the non-treatment of mental health issues is the stigma associated with mental illnesses–leading employees to feel uncomfortable sharing it with fellow workers or managers. 

A report by Deloitte underlines that 22% of workers with mental health issues prefer not to discuss them at work. 25% would rather disclose these issues to peers than others in the organisation. Furthermore, Only 9% of respondents were willing to use Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) due to doubts about their effectiveness and confidentiality. Those living alone are less likely to disclose mental health issues than those living with others.

“Historically, as humanity, we have always taken cognizance of physical suffering. But when it comes to the suffering of the mind we either stigmatise it or do not know what to do or how to react. As a result, even the employees who are suffering with mental health issues, hesitate to speak about their struggles as they are not sure how it may impact their career. This gets further exacerbated when there is no psychological safety at the workplace with toxic managers,” remarks Badrinath. 

Upadhye breaks down the core structure of an agency that leads to this crisis, explaining, “We've always seen that Culture in any organisation, flows top down. Much like stress and happiness and considering this takes time to build and evolve, one really needs to invest in people. Not just the frills and perks but true development, empathy and effective listening. Over many years with changing consumer dynamics, the need to deliver profits YOY and wafer thin margins, the agency model has undergone a dramatic change over the last decade. With clients 'open to pick and let go' at any time, a general lack of respect for IPs / ideas coming from agencies to clients, agencies cutting each other on pricing and the fear of losing a client to someone else, at anytime has led to agencies finding themselves unable to 'say no' at any point. This means, the people servicing that very inability are the ones bearing the brunt everyday.” 

Citing the lack of acknowledgement and insufficient steps taken to course-correct, Arantxa Aquino, Lead, HR & Talent Experience at Talented says, “First, there's a lack of acknowledgement. Then there's a prevailing attitude that mental health struggles can simply be brushed off with a ‘don't worry, you'll get over it’ sentiment, perpetuating a harmful and toxic culture of silence and stigma.” 

She further adds, “Token gestures like a single-day holiday dubbed as ‘mental health day’ amidst a long weekend fail to acknowledge the complexity of mental health. It's like putting a band-aid on a deep wound and expecting it to heal overnight. Mental health is a marathon, not a sprint, and it demands ongoing support, understanding, and resources. Until the industry recognises this reality and takes substantive action to prioritise the well-being of its employees, the struggle will persist, leaving many creatives battling their demons in silence.” 

Aquino says that the agency business worldwide is facing a crisis, and beneath the surface lies a stark reality. She reveals that day in and day out, advertising professionals are expected to summon creativity from thin air, expected to bring their A-game every single day to a culture that glorifies endless work hours, with little to no down-time. 

“If I call a spade a spade, despite all the lip service paid to innovation and workplace culture by leadership, they conveniently turn a blind eye to the burnout and mental health struggles faced by their own employees. It's a classic case of priorities gone astray, with companies doing so at the cost of the well-being of those who actually make the industry tick. Here this industry, drowning in a pit of toxic work culture, leaving us depressed, anxious, and drained. Employees are left feeling hollow, churning out mediocre work to meet impossible deadlines and demanding clients. It's a recipe for disaster—a perfect storm brewing within the ranks,” the lead HR at Talented remarks. 

Making an interesting observation about work-life balance, Upadhye remarks, “Work-life balance is dead. If the first thing most of us do every morning is to check our emails or IG, one can safely assume that WLB is no more. But there is 'Work-Life Blend'. Instead of separating work and life, most of us now blend life and work to manage things around.”

“Having fewer women at the top also contributes to the creation of workplaces that do not honour empathy, collaboration, and advocacy for work-life balance,” observes Roopa Badrinath. 

The India factor

While the advertising industry worldwide faces the challenge of overwork and employee burnout, there are specific cultural factors in India that add fuel to this fire.   

One key common assessment of experts is the glorification of overwork. 

“Glorifying overwork is not limited to advertising alone. The India growth story has also meant fueling the hustle culture to a point that it has become a way of life,” mentions Upadhye. 

“The stigma associated with mental health is very real in India despite celebrities speaking about their struggles. While social media has led to a lot of awareness around mental health issues, it still needs to translate into impactful practices. Our culture has been relentless with its expectations to achieve and succeed which adds additional stress. We have always taken pride in a ‘work is worship’ culture which has willy-nilly normalised over-work leading to burnout,” shares Roopa Badrinath. 

Mukesh Vij remarks, “Several cultural and societal factors in India can exacerbate mental health challenges in workplaces. This holds true for the advertising industry as well. Firstly, the high-pressure and competitive nature of the industry can contribute to stress and burnout among professionals. Additionally, societal expectations of success and perfectionism may further intensify work-related stress.” 

Moreover, Vij says that cultural norms that prioritise long working hours and prioritise work over personal well-being can hinder the adoption of healthy work-life balance practices, exacerbating mental health issues. Further, the stigma surrounding mental health in India may discourage individuals from seeking help or openly discussing their struggles within the industry, thus perpetuating the problem.

Sharing the reasons as to why this glorification of overwork takes place, Vij lists four reasons: Perception of dedication, productivity culture, competitive environment, insecurity and lack of confidence. 

Damini Patel observes, “In India, traditional norms emphasise enduring stress without complaint, making it harder for advertising professionals to voice mental health concerns. Additionally, the societal focus on success and competition intensifies pressure, leading to increased stress and burnout within the industry. Instead of following the passion, I have observed that people are more worried about societal pressure and status, which is why they end up in the jobs they hate.” 

Hope is the biggest currency

Lack of awareness is one of the biggest drivers of this mental health crisis. Deloitte's survey points out that only 46 percent of the employees were aware of workplace mental health resources.

Despite the inadequacies of the industry, experts remain hopeful about the future sharing practical solutions that can be implemented if change is to be brought in. 

“Firstly, normalise conversations around mental health at work at every level. This is critical to see even a small blip of change. Second, sensitise leadership and managers to be empathetic towards people going through something on the mental health front without any reprimand. i.e. no impact on appraisals or opportunities at work. But the most important change required would be a universal move by agencies to move to offering flexible working, better benefits and support and have structured policies that offer counselling support and set the ground rules for working in a hybrid environment,” shares Upadhye. 

Pallavi Chakravarti says, “There’s a couple of steps that can be taken to start correcting this situation. In my opinion - either agency leaders need to recalibrate targets in accordance with their team strength and capabilities or agencies need to start offering real value to clients and charging adequately for that value.”

Emphasising the role of leadership and employee-sensitisation, Roopa Badrinath shares, “Leadership commitment to creating a workplace that prioritises employee well-being is the critical first step. Senior leaders have to walk the talk to reduce stress levels. Companies have to start investing in resources that employees can use to alleviate their struggles. Flexible and remote work options will have to become table stakes. All employees need to be sensitised to mental health issues so that they can be allies of mental well-being. Employee pulse surveys need to capture the mental health quotient of the company. Co-creating policies with suggestions drawn from the workforce can go a long way in addressing the issues pertaining to stress. And finally toxicity should not be tolerated across levels of the organisation.”

Shrenik Gandhi outlines the initiatives White Rivers Media takes to ensure mental well-being, "We prioritise employee well-being through our mental health partnership, comprehensive health insurance, flexible leave policies, and a culture of empathy, challenging the high-stress agency stereotype. Our belief is that a fulfilling work culture isn't just possible—it's essential."

Sharing his method of the three R’s, Mukesh Vij, remarks, “The industry must prioritise implementing practices that ensure timely recognition and rewards, cultivate a culture of mutual respect, and manage project pressures with empathy and understanding. By addressing these systemic challenges, the industry can foster a healthier and more sustainable work environment for its employees.”

“Agencies must implement mental health programs, promote work-life balance, and encourage open conversations about mental health. Training managers to support their teams and creating a positive work environment can make a big difference,” shares Damini Patel.  

Discussions about employee mental health often come to light when an extreme case surfaces. As to why milder triggers aren’t given importance, experts have their takes. 

Patel says, “Milder triggers are overlooked because they build up slowly and are seen as normal. To address this, agencies should implement regular mental health check-ins, provide anonymous feedback options, and promote a culture where discussing everyday stress is encouraged and supported. This helps catch issues early.”

Similarly, Vij observes, “Even with milder triggers, everyone attempts to settle issues through discussions to ensure timely delivery. I believe regular discussions at all levels are crucial to ensuring that milder triggers receive appropriate attention. Additionally, when someone comes forward with any issue, they should be listened to attentively, and efforts should be made to address the problem immediately by offering support. Regular assessments and discussions are also necessary to maintain awareness and address emerging issues effectively.”

Arantxa Aquino shares a comprehensive list of points organisations should keep in mind to address mental health challenges of employees: 

  • Reasonable working hours stand as a foundational pillar in this transformation. Often, employees find themselves ensnared in a cycle of endless workdays, sacrificing their well-being for the sake of productivity. It's time agencies prioritised work-life balance by establishing sensible working hours. Working weekends should be an exception, not an expectation. 

  • Candidates in the industry have valid grievances with agencies. A single Copy or Art test often contains more questions than required to test aptitude, provides insufficient time to complete it, and offers no compensation for their efforts. It's time for agencies to acknowledge that brainpower isn't free for the taking. Compensating candidates for the tests they undertake as part of the interview process is essential. 

  • Compensation with compensatory time off is another crucial aspect. Teams or individuals may occasionally need to work outside standard hours for pitches, live campaigns, urgent projects, or case studies. It's important to recognize that such instances shouldn't be considered as additional hours on top of the regular work schedule. 

  • Managerial training is a key component in reshaping the industry landscape. Too frequently, individuals are promoted to managerial positions without the necessary skills to lead effectively. Investing in managerial training programs equips leaders with the tools they need to support and empower their teams, fostering a positive and productive work environment. In an industry where attribution is rarely seen and credit systems are broken across various platforms, including magazines, press, or even social, giving credit where it's due is imperative. It's about time agencies credited the most junior creatives on the account and all of their external partners. 

  • Lastly, diversity in the form of various personalities, genders, backgrounds, and types of education and experience represented at the table can expand the surface area of possible solutions for every problem we face. Every hire, in every team should be designed to ensure a breadth of thinking, not only in formal skill sets but also in a mix of life experiences, to guarantee the best output. Additionally, we develop feminist creative output that breaks new ground in discourse on gender and love on the spectrum, leaving no room for 'tone-deaf' creativity. 

The expectation to constantly deliver innovative ideas under tight deadlines fosters an environment where stress and burnout are rampant. Despite awareness of these issues, there remains a substantial gap in effective mental health support within the industry. Leaders and organisations must prioritise structural changes, foster empathetic management, and promote open conversations about mental health. As we recognise the critical need for a mental health revolution, it becomes evident that addressing these challenges is not just a necessity but a moral imperative to ensure the well-being and sustainability of the industry's most valuable asset—its people. 

Advertising industry advertising professionals Awareness Mental Health workplaces mental health support work life balance burnout systemic challenges EAP