They say we’re hit with 10,000 ads a day, and I guess that’s true. But let’s just say I get hit with my own special ads. A bargain 24/7 media placement that lives inside my head. The agency behind these ads knows their stuff. ‘You Suck’ is their platform and they’ve been milking it for years.
Just to be clear, I have anxiety. Nervous, sweaty, irritable-bowel inducing anxiety with a side serve of imposter syndrome. Inconvenient at best – like having to know where the toilets are at all times. Crippling at worst. And it’s here to stay whether I like it or not. But I discovered something useful recently: talking about my anxy brain helps me feel less alone. And it might help others feel less alone too. So if it feels like you’re the only one losing your mind while everyone else in advertising appears completely normal, this article’s for you Anxious Junior Account Exec. Anxious Junior Creative. Generally Anxious Ad Person. I figured I’d put my skills in oversharing to good use and share some lessons I’ve learnt along the way.
Despite having the self esteem of a mouse, I got my first gig as an Account Exec at a big shot agency, and I was devastated. Not because I didn’t like the agency, but because I was intimidated by them. They picked me as part of the ‘Comms Council’ Grad Program. On selection day they had the audacity to play a video of a recent Christmas party instead of an agency reel. Cool people in cool outfits dancing to cool music. The opposite of how I felt on the inside. If I hadn't just moved from Perth for this job I would have backed out. I’m glad I didn’t because here’s the truth: no one in advertising is cool, not in the way you think. Don’t be fooled by the sneakers, the tattoos, the heavy framed glasses, the fancy words and ad speak. It’s easy to be intimidated, but we’re all big nerds with our own flavour of insecurities. And here’s the best part – we all care (perhaps a little too much). Being surrounded by creative, interesting, curious, (mostly) open-minded people who want to make great work is cool AF. Sure, the industry is full of egos overdue for therapy (myself included), but don’t worry about them. Worry about being you – your most important asset as a creative.
Getting ads made is hard work. The long hours, the crazy deadlines and the daily feedback and rejection to navigate. Then there’s the threat of setbacks – the brief changes, the deadline moves, the idea can’t be produced. All the while you have the anxious noise band playing in your head making you overthink the above and every interaction of the day. “Did I embarrass myself? Did I offend them? Was I too bossy? Too weak? Should I speak up? Speak less? Was that too much eye contact?-OMG what did they say? Shut up head, shut up!” Whatever the concern, advertising has them by the truckload, and I’m sure you’ve thought of them all, because anxiety = worrying all the damn time amirite?
Well, this is the part where I tell you something that feels 100% unnatural and makes me look like a fraud because I still struggle with this everyday – focus on the good stuff. I get it, to stop worrying feels like taking your eye off the ball, which is why I’m proposing you don’t, but instead, shift your focus by celebrating the good stuff. You need to, or all the nitty, gritty parts of advertising will suck the life out of you. And trust me, no amount of shower crying or cat videos will distract you from impending burn out. It doesn’t even have to be that big: celebrating the small stuff like the fun research phase of a brief where you get to feel stupid and smart in one day, or the joy of talking nonsense with your creative partner about movies and fart jokes. Or when you finally crack the brief and the ideas are flowing! A personal favourite is the fact we get paid to come up with creative ideas – I could think of worse things.
You’ve probably figured this one out already and the answer is no, the creative process doesn’t get easier. In ‘Hey Whipple Squeeze This’ Luke Sullivan likens the process to washing a pig. He’s right. There are no tricks or steps. Only you and this chaotic mess. Just know the emotional rollercoaster that comes with the mess is normal, like the initial high and excitement of a brief followed by rock bottom where you start considering your career options (it’s cat rescuer/book store assistant for me). A gentle reminder that you’re not a failure if you haven’t cracked the brief yet and you’re not going to get fired. Like the book says, keep washing that pig, maybe distract it with a bit of food and the ideas will come.
I’m not talking about the advertising greats, although we do need them for inspiration when starting out. I’m talking about the friends and mentors in your corner. I don’t think I’d be where I am today without them. They’ve been generous enough to help me along the way, whether it was a folio review, advice, feedback, reference or a pep talk. They all showed up and believed in me. When you’re starting out, you can’t discount this kind of support. I’ve been ghosted by recruiters, and had countless unsuccessful interviews. I’ve even been stood up for one. I’ve also had a creative partnership not work out and it was soul crushing. This industry is tough, but the people are good if you know where to look. Don’t be afraid to reach out.
Sure, a shiny piece of metal would be nice, but I guarantee you, thinking about awards equals creative constipation. Just focus on enjoying the work and having fun (controversial I know). That doesn’t make you less ambitious or talented, it just protects your sanity.
Sounds obvious, but it’s hard to remember when you’re knee deep in deadlines, stress and a casual meltdown. Keep chipping away on your creative thing. The thing you have full control of. Whether that’s writing a children’s picture book, making music, pottery, baking rude cakes – whatever it might be – hold onto that creative flame that probably led you to this industry. And don’t put pressure on yourself to make it great. We do that enough in our day jobs. Advertising is uncertain, but your creativity is forever. So nurture it, protect it. It might just save you. It did for me.
So far all of my lessons are about things you can do personally, but don’t be afraid to seek out company resources. Currently at my agency, we have two mental health aiders we can reach out to, plus a free mental health app with 24/7 counselling. Anxious or not, our juicy brains need time and space to decompress. And after years of COVID, it’s nice to see more companies making this a priority. If your workplace doesn't offer this, there are plenty of other wellbeing resources available online.
I’m scared of failure and my monkey brain usually tries to run from the danger of it. And if you’re anxious, chances are you might too. What I’ve learnt after all these years is you can’t protect yourself from failure. You either try something or you don’t, and if it doesn’t go well, you learn from it. It’s not the end of the world like you might imagine. I came to the creative department a little later than others because I kept waiting until I was ‘ready’ to be an art director: better at coming up with ideas, better at using the programs, better at understanding the craft – not letting myself fail. And when I was finally ready, a partnership fell through and then COVID happened. I’m finally up and running but my advice is don’t wait until you’re ‘perfect’. You shouldn’t have to be. The only way to get good is to start, put your ideas out there and embrace the incoming rejection. They say you need to be fearless if you want to be a good creative, but I’d argue that’s not true. I’m scared every day I walk into the office. Having to come up with new ideas everyday is terrifying. But I’ve learnt I’m more resilient than I realised. And chances are, you are too!
So there you have it. I don’t have all the answers, I'm certainly no role model and I have the shonkiest CV, but hopefully some of my experiences put your mind at ease. And at the very least, start a conversation on how we can create more space for all the wonderful minds to thrive in this pressure cooker of an industry. Now go be your awesome anxy self and try not to eat spicy food the night before a client presentation.