(Anxiously) climbing the corporate ladder

Andrew is Managing Director of a creative headhunter agency, which finds people work in advertising and design agencies.


Hey Andrew, thanks for taking time out of your day to talk about mental health. Studies show that many people feel being open about their mental illness would mean they get passed over for promotion - how true do you think this is in the world of advertising and design?

I'm not sure I agree that this is the case in the creative world. In my experience, people who come up with goods consistently and work harder than others (whether dealing with anxiety or not) can still shine and rise through the ranks. Getting a promotion is more dependent on whether people will move up from a senior creative role where they can come up with ideas and still have a high role in the agency OR work towards a Creative Director role, which involves a lot more people management and sometimes even more pressure…not everyone actually wants this, and for some the Creative Director role can stifle their creativity. But, it is true that people who are of a confident disposition will lend themselves to a more client-facing role.

For me personally though, I have found that trying to be as true to myself as possible, has got me to a stage in my career in recruitment where I am happy to be. I try not to be anything I am not - I show my warts and all - and this has got me to the point of starting a growing company and leading a team of great people. That said, my anxious nature can make the job very tasking because of the daily pressures that I put on myself.

If you knew that a person has difficulties with their mental health, would this change the job roles, or agencies, that you would suggest for them?

No, this choice is for people to make on their own and it is not for me to say. I think people know their limits. What I do instead is run through the ins and outs of what a role will actually entail, and to the best of my knowledge explain the culture of our clients. Of course, there are clients that we will have worked with for years, so we will know how certain people will fit. The best we can do is get to know the candidate, and the client, and lay it out in very real terms: The client is X, they are a huge brand with great work and so the expectations are high, there will be late nights, and pitch times will sometimes be intense and so on.

You mentioned that you yourself have an anxious nature - how would you describe your mental health?

Right now, I am in a good place and to be completely honest with you it makes it all the harder to answer some of these questions because of this! It's so easy to forget how difficult things can be when you are in a level and happy state of mind. Of course, there have been times where this is not the case though. Its something I have to internally work on every day, this will never change. But thanks for making me realise, that yeah, I’m doing pretty darn ok right now. For the record, it might be worth mentioning that would consider myself more susceptible to anxiety rather than depression. Not that I haven’t been there, I have gone to the depths for a while and suffice to say it wasn’t very fun at all! But in general, I am more of a chronic worrier.

At the times when you were most struggling with your mental health is there a word that accurately described how you were feeling?


It sounds like you have learned, over time, to better look after your mental health - how did you do this?

Nobody can control the exterior motives that affect our mental interior. And I am sure we can all agree that our sub/unconscious can be unpredictable at the best of times. But in my experience, I have found the older / wiser / stupider I get, the quicker I can get to grips with things that trigger my anxieties.

I'm not saying that there is an immediate solution because there isn’t, but I think the more I get to know myself the easier it is to manage anxieties’ expectations. In my youth, for example, I think things were much more volatile and this lies very closely with my current Pavlovian relationship with creativity. For example, after school, things were pretty set up for me to go into fine art and I started studying at an internationally recognised school for the arts in London. But while there, some things happened in my life that unexpectedly hit me for six. Things that I think I would be able to brush off now, but at the time I was very lucky to have a pretty supportive mum and family!

Nonetheless, because of this, my association of where I went when I was in a full-time creative environment, and how destructive I was…it kind of still scares me a little. Despite this, I did need to try that route again and went to work with a large network agency as a designer / Art Director, but it got pretty darn frustrating trying to quantify your own ability when you are a junior making banners till midnight, so I decided it would be best to do creative things in my own time, and not as part of my job. I try not to waste the ability I might have, and so I still do try my best to “create” on the side of my job, but the fear of rejection and fear that I might actually not be any good is very real - to the stage where I will do pieces of work for friends but don’t really do it for pleasure anymore.

One of the things that genuinely helps me deal with my worries on a daily basis, is that fact that I can accept that I am not alone in this. Everyone has ups and downs, everyone has fears and worries. Worries about their decisions, worries about what other people think, even if they say they don’t etc.

There is nothing worse than feeling alone and isolated, especially when it's in your own head.

You manage a team - how open are you about mental health with them?

I run a very open office. We are fortunate to be quite a close-knit unit, where we encourage each other to be as open as possible. So with this environment, people are pretty supportive of each other not only with the big daily stresses of work but also if people want to share and want help in any way, there will be someone to support. Mental health comes into play, daily, sometimes people want to talk about it, other times not. That's absolutely fine; we are currently implementing mental health days into our contracts. You shouldn’t have to pretend you have the flu if you are struggling. I want to support our team, and if that means they need some time to sort a few things out to come back fresh and ready to go, then I fully endorse that.

It would be great if more agencies were as open - are you aware of ad and design agencies that have mental health policies in place? And if so how well do you think these work in practice?

Definitely not enough. We are lucky to be in a position where agencies will come to us and we can consult on what is the “agency norm” or what is the current trend in employee benefits etc. The progressive nature of acknowledging a mental health day for example is something we actively advise agencies towards.

The advertising industry is well-known for it's long hours - do you get a sense from the agencies that you work with that this is changing to provide a better 'work-life balance'?

I think in theory the policy of Wieden+Kennedy, where nobody is allowed to organise meetings before 10 am and after 4 pm, or even read work e-mails after 7 pm, and are encouraged to leave work at 4.30pm on Fridays is great, and I think a lot more agencies are now following suit or trying to at least. But for many people their creative disposition is to leave things right till the last minute then panic think. Such is the dilemma! As long as it is encouraged, things will move in a positive direction, but the way we work nowadays with that little tiny computer in our pocket all times it has to be down to self-discipline sometimes.

I imagine you get a lot of last-minute requests from agencies. Do you enjoy this pressure, or do you need to find methods to cope with it?

To be honest, in our part of the game, the crazy busy times are the best times, having too much on makes life stressful but it keeps things fresh and rewarding…Even if it is a call on Friday at 5pm saying “HELP!! I need 5 freelancers to start on Monday at 9am.” Pressure to fill clients needs can get a little overwhelming, but the times I find most trying are when things are quieter and there isn't that much to be working on, as that’s when you get too much time to think.

How do you switch off or destress?

I run. Run a lot. It's not so much a physical thing for me, it's therapeutic. No music, just me with my thoughts, trying to put them into their right folders. I've tried loads of other things that have worked for others, such as meditation or Headspace, but running is the one I go back to it again and again. In the workplace, it's so important to get outside and take some time to get some fresh air, but the fact is that more often than not I will end up having lunch at my desk or at a meeting, so running gives me that time if it’s missed.

Thanks Andrew, and hope you find time for a nice long run today :)