by MarkLives (@marklives) How successful have local ad agencies been in creating positive employer reputations? What do they consider best practice, how do they measure their reputations among employees and what impact has positive employer reputation had on their ability to attract star talent? Next in our panel to tackle this Big Q is The Brave Group‘s Karabo Songo.

Karabo Songo

Karabo SongoKarabo Songo (@Mr_K_S) is group CEO of The Brave Group, which includes House of Brave, Rogue, Whippet, Motherboard and Bravado. He is a qualified brand specialist and a serial marketing entrepreneur with business interests that focus on the advertising and marketing industry. He sits on various industry boards, including the Association for Communication and Advertising (ACA) and IAB South Africa, and has also judged various awards shows.

The title of this piece implies two things: 1) we as an ad industry aren’t great at managing talent, and 2) that an unintended consequence of bad talent management is a major risk to the industry. If we had a magic wand to solve the problem, I doubt we’d be compelled to start a conversation about this, but we believe our experiences (warts and all) as a small independent agency may inform a way of thinking that allows us to approach talent differently.

Starts at home

We decided to run our employee survey this year concurrently with a mental wellbeing intervention that we’ve used in the past. The latter assessed the psychological health of our employees who participated in the survey and, knowing how crucial mental health is in our day and age, I was thoroughly disturbed by the results. I believe they’re not an isolated image of our agency but a stark reflection of our advertising industry — and we all need to do something more tangible than reminding employees of a helpline or person they can call. Mental wellbeing starts at home, and for many of our employees, especially millennials, work is an extension of that.

The industry has moved quite successfully from the days of old where constant partying and casualness were the norm to the running of solid, respectable businesses now. I would hate to believe that the industry narrative we still hold dates back two decades and yet, sadly, I think it does.

We bring people into our businesses with promises of magnificence on all fronts: creating beautiful ads, allowing them to chase their passion, following their purpose, contributing to many exciting brands and, most importantly, having fun while at it. This is where you can make your mark, we say. This is where you truly can see the results of your work through social impact, community conversations, awards, and excited clients.

The other reality

Although this is a fair view of what our industry offers externally, it doesn’t reflect the other reality of what we’re about: running successful businesses which, at their very core, have been formed to build outputs and profits. Everything that we do — our operating systems, our strategic approaches, our creative output, and our relationships with our clients — impact lives, and that’s very personal. We’ve somehow forgotten that.

In a recent article that I read, I received confirmation concerning the relationship that expectation has on disappointment. The research shows that people are incapable of predicting how they will realistically feel in varied situations and, when their expectations do not match the reality, disappointment sets in — the depth of which is dependent on the gap between the expectation and current reality.

I can’t help but think that many young people, who excitedly walk into our industry and soon realise that the ‘realities’ of what we’ve sold them, experience far less than they’d expect. A disappointment sets in that, unfortunately, many of our young staff can’t handle. Nor do we give them the tools to manage it. Perhaps we’re busy having too much fun, following our own passion, or perhaps the industry has focused far too much on individual achievement instead of the ability to manage people and talent as a working collective?

Revolving door

I then started thinking about the notorious revolving door which exists in every agency in our industry. Although we have accepted that people come, and people go, do we fully understand the reasons for these departures and whether there’s merit to the trends that encourage us to focus on psychological safety to keep employees fully engaged? A Gallup poll of more than 1m workers concluded that the no. 1 reason people quit their jobs is a bad boss or immediate manager.

The acceptance of this behaviour doesn’t call us out, as business leaders, to keep prioritising the creation of environments which are conducive to healthy mental wellness within an organisation. We keep adoring and applauding the work and it tends to happen at the expense of broader mental wellness — praising the lead singer and choosing to forget about the band.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental wellness as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”

Imbalanced mental health

When we talk of imbalanced mental health, I’m looking at conditions such as anger, depression, stress, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating, and substance-abuse disorders. Many of these are not foreign to us. Weve either experienced them ourselves; seen and/or heard about our peers who are struggling with them; or been part of a person’s recovery process and support systems. This list of conditions is growing, and society and business, too, are getting better at hiding it and sweeping it under the rug. “Is the work being done?” managers will say. “Then where is the worry because this is the nature of the job…” And therein lies the greatest risk: accepting that strenuous working environments, especially in our industry, are a justifiable means to an end. We talk about intuitive human capital for the creative industry yet expect people to commit to tough conditions like machines.

Risk factors

Mental-wellness risk factors that may be present in the working environment include, but are not limited to, behaviours such as:

  • Poor communication and poor management practices: These may lead to lack of team cohesion, unclear messaging, wasted time and resources, damaged relationships, low employee morale, higher turnover rates and lost revenue. It’s crucial that communication becomes a priority in the day-to-day running of the business.
  • Inflexible working hours and no work-life balance: Working excessive hours with no opportunities for recovery may lead to severe health issues. It puts employees at a significantly increased risk of experiencing depressive episodes. Too much work also reduces time available for healthy activities like physical exercise, resulting in physical conditions that could’ve been prevented. We need to remember that talent-retention strategies have a lot to do with reminding and supporting employees’ rights to have a life. Centred people with a broader sense of purpose and participation outside the working environment are great producers.
  • Unclear tasks or objectives: Clear objectives are meaningful, measurable and eliminate confusion and anxiety. When you have unclear tasks and objectives, employees may spend valuable time and energy on meaningless work which eventually doesn’t connect with the client’s expectations.
  • Little support for employees: Programmes that support employees in their workplaces help them to adopt and maintain healthy behaviours. Healthy behaviors lead to lower health risks, and lower health risks lead to less chronic disease. With less chronic disease, employees have fewer healthcare costs and absenteeism. Employees also need the right resources to deliver on their work; proper trust and decision-making ability over their area of work; and good relationships with their leaders and peers.
  • High and unrelenting workload: We generally expect our employees to work overtime as and when we require. Overworked employees often face higher degrees of stress, which may impact output and lead to physical and mental health problems. An employee tasked with a high workload may feel increasing pressure to perform huge tasks, resulting in emotional stressors including depression and physical symptoms like increased blood pressure. Burnout is also a reality in our world.

The above-mentioned leads to poor outputs and poor customer experience, with little value-add to the overall business. We need to do better.

Maybe managing our employees’ expectations before they enter the industry would help curb some of these mental conditions. Maybe changing some of our people and client practices supporting our employees would go a long way also. I know that teaching our leaders people-management skills is half the battle won. A proper wellness programme should also be a welcome addition.

The decision starts with us to build a better workforce across the industry. A better workforce equals a safe space for expression and creative decision-making; people will be comfortable taking the brave and smart risks that clients want to stand out; and a win is an achievement that will be owned by the entire pride — not just team leads and management.

See also


MarkLives logoLaunched in 2016, “The Big Q” is a regular column on MarkLives in which we ask key advertising and marketing industry execs for their thoughts on relevant issues facing the industry. If you’d like to be part of our pool of panellists, please contact editor Herman Manson via email (2mark at marklives dot com) or Twitter (@marklives). Suggestions for questions are also welcomed.

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