Picture a scene where it’s dark out, earlier you skipped lunch out with the team, your ears hurt from your headphones being glued to your skull and your jamming trying to finish a project. Hours have gone by and you’re starving, you finally look up to the top right corner of your monitor and the clock reads 8:15. Eff. You were supposed to meet friends for dinner an hour ago. It’s advertising right? What we signed up for? None of that is hard to imagine.
This scene is just one in a multiverse. Meaning, there are different universes running concurrently that are seemingly the same but are actually very different. In Universe One, you’re there because you have to be. Insane amount of work with impending deadlines. Your enthusiasm and the project are at a mismatch. In Universe Two, you’re there because you want to be. You actually finished the project a few hours ago, got up, ate a burrito, came back, looked at it and knew you could do better.
Universe One is a problem. For your own good, you need to know that it absolutely should not be the norm. Don’t fool yourself or be fooled by those that tell you it’s “the biz.” There has to be a balance. A Work/Work balance.
There are two types of work that keep you busy, and both are equally important. One is the kind of work from stupid old Universe One. You’re punching a clock somewhere that preaches a lot of rhetoric about how they think different and challenge the status quo. It’s in all the pitch decks and force-fed via short-lived initiatives from senior management that elicit more eye-rolling than action from those that have to carry out the plan. Turns out this is more a recruitment tactic than practice. Behind the curtain, that same management is perfectly content converting hours into dollars. An opportunity comes in and it means money — or “keeping the lights on” as some may sell you. The projects come in and in and in and your inbox gets longer and longer and longer. The hours become later and later and later. And then it’s 8:15, and you’ve missed dinner with your friends. Resentment builds.
The other type of work — from Universe Two — is actually why we’re all here in the first place. Remember your portfolio track in school? The hours were late, the stress was high, and the expectation for you to evolve and grow was ever-present, and that’s what made it worth it. You evolved. And you loved it.
Let me explain further via anecdote. To set the scene, our office works in the currently popular open work space. Everyone can see everyone. No offices. I sit at a normal desk just like the writer across from me and the Jr. AD to my left. Not too long ago, the Jr. AD was tasked with creating a vector illustration for a social post. Nothing special per se, but it needed doing. As I came back from the kitchen with a handful of Goldfish,™ I caught a glimpse of it on her screen.
“What’s that for?” I said.
“This social post thing…” she said sheepishly.
“Oh.” a bit underwhelmed, “Is that all you’re doing?” I ask.
“Uh…well…yeah, I guess.” she replies.
“Can it be animated and do …more?” I ask.
I sit down and she mentally goes somewhere else for about 3 seconds and then says “Let me try something.”
She puts on some 1D because that’s her jam, and for the next two hours I’m able to sneak glances of her moving bits and pieces around. She’s watching After Effects tutorials. Trying new things. Breaking things. Cursing, golf-clapping at herself until at last, she says, “Hey, check this out.” I offer some critique about the animation, and she cranks for another solid hour and a half.
“What about this?” she asks.
It was great. And the best part was hearing her say later that night “today was the best day ever.” That’s when the imbalance became most apparent. The amount of hard work and effort she put in made both her and the work better. She evolved. Juxtaposed against others that worked just as hard and long on other pieces and projects and their sense of reward is maybe non-existent. They were working on things to get them done in order to keep up, not to make them better than their last version.
When you feel part of Universe One, you can point to all sorts of reasons as to why that is. A spineless creative director, weak account service, bad project managers, greedy owners. One of them. All of them. For every shop in that universe, it’s shades of each — sometimes all.
Now, the easiest thing for a junior to do is to push themselves. That behavior is still engrained from the last four to six years of doing that for school. It seems to be a lot harder for some of the more seasoned. Our early experimentation of how to combine high volume and short deadlines exposed easily reproducible paths that lead to relative success. For some, those narrow foot trails are wide and paved. It’s hard to get off a road so nice.
Here’s why it’s important for balance to exist — to walk both paths. Spending all your time just trying to catch up is unhealthy. It’s unhealthy for you, your mental state, your longevity in this business, your portfolio and the agency as a whole. However, spending all your time learning and perfecting doesn’t work either — for a wide assortment of agency business growth reasons.
To dive a bit deeper — when you are always trying to catch up, the work suffers. You know the work is not where you want it but “it’ll have to do” — as will every one after because of the hamster wheel you’ve stumbled into. Similarly, saying “I wouldn’t put it in my portfolio” for so long furthers the degradation of your mental state and your portfolio. Thinking like this is now affecting how long you do this job as it is partially governed by that portfolio. If your book’s no good, when you want to leave, people can now physically, with their own eyes, see the lack of caring. Save face in the interview, too. Don’t say, “Yeah, that place couldn’t get their act together.” Yikes. If you’re interviewing on the sly, then you’re still a part of that place that “couldn’t get their act together.” If I’m the hiring manager, part of the problem seems to be sitting across from me.
Having said that, spending the bulk of your time working on yourself and your personal development is bad for business. Your client’s needs are what sustain the agency. Without them, there’s no agency. That’s one of those “true across the industry” statements. There are deadlines to meet and promises to fulfill that keep the relationship between you two fruitful and profitable. So, spending hour upon hour constantly tweaking or learning is like deploying a drag chute to your project.
The balance between work you have to do and work you want to do is crucial. That is Work/Work balance. It equals growth. You want to get better, the agency then gets better and all parties grow together.
As everyone’s situation is different, getting there (if you’re not already) will take effort and patience. You might have to get more buddy-buddy with other departments that you haven’t been inclined to cozy up to before. I personally can look back on my career, and every great project I’m proud to talk about happened because my Account Service counterpart and I worked as a team.
No matter who it is in your agency, kill those people with kindness. Put as many credits in the bank as you can so when you crave that balance, you can make a withdrawal, pushing for another day or different, sexier deliverable, etc. When you do, you’ll improve, the work will improve and your agency’s reputation will improve.
Ultimately, respect yourself. You love(d) what you do, so figure out how to keep the fire lit. Also, respect your team — the whole team. Nurturing those relationships will benefit both you and them. Lastly, respect the balance. Your selfish desire to get better or do better can actually be achieved by acting more selflessly. Weird right? Look! It’s balance!
About Archer Malmo
Archer Malmo, with offices in Memphis, Tennessee, and Austin, Texas, combines brand thinking, data and technology to help growing brands adapt to the digital and creative complexities of today. Since 1952, we’ve continually evolved to changes in the industry, helping level the competitive playing field for midsize companies. The agency’s combination of discipline specialists, strategic orientation, creativity and culture yields strong client relationships and business results. With more than 150 people, Archer Malmo is one of the oldest independent agencies in the U.S. and has been recognized by Advertising Age and others as a “Best Place to Work” and has been named to the “Inc. 5000” list of fastest-growing private companies in America for five consecutive years.