At a manager level, the average Canadian working in advertising takes home a respectable $64,000 a year. Punch in most major agencies into Glassdoor and you’ll find the satisfaction rating generally hovers somewhere around the 3.5 stars mark.
Doesn’t sound too shabby. Especially when college or university beat the idea into your head that you’ll never make any money with your skills as a writer, illustrator or video editor.
But talk to anyone working for an ad agency and they’ll probably be more than willing to burst your bubble.
Most likely, you’ll stare into their sunken, bloodshot eyes as they describe working long hours and having their creativity crushed by difficult clients. And if they’re a woman, they’ll most likely have at least one horror story involving some very old-school, boy’s-club, chauvinistic bullshit straight out of an episode of Mad Men.
Which is not to say there aren’t good people doing good work, leading happy lives, and making comfortable money at advertising agencies. But if it’s an industry you’re considering joining, you should understand what you’re getting into and read some of these real-life stories first:
Danielle, 27, Art Director
“My partner and I were the only female team at the agency I worked at a couple of years ago. We would often push back on the account team whenever a deadline was too tight or if there was feedback from the client that didn't support selling creative. Our Creative Director would often call us into his office and tell us we were being too aggressive without acknowledging any of the problems that were being brought up. He would often tell us not to "get so emotional" and we became known as the ‘bitchy team’ around the agency. Suffice to say, I tried to get out of the agency as quickly as I could.”
Joanna, 47, Account Director
“The irony of working in advertising and marketing roles is that the field is highly dominated by women, however still layered on top by men. It was soul crushing as a woman to see all the C-level roles filled by men, and the token senior women working ‘flex hours’ which meant jamming five days of work into four, or leaving at 4 PM to pick up kids and still sending emails at 11 PM. Companies say they accommodate different schedules, but often when it came time to be flexible, old-school conservative values came back into play. There was one time when I specifically asked to work from home (for my kid) and my boss said ‘no’ because ‘it wouldn’t look good,’ and I remember asking, ‘To who?’”
Aref, 28, Video Producer
"I was shooting a fashion ad a few years ago for this clothing company I won't name. When I entered post-production, I got an email from their head of marketing asking if I could send over the raw files because they wanted to edit the video themselves. I was really annoyed because I always want to have some control over how my work is edited, but after going back and forth for days over this frustrating request I sent it over on a hard drive. I guess they didn't know you can't edit RAW files on iMovie, so they emailed me back asking If I could edit the footage. I accepted it for three times the amount I originally quoted them."
Stephanie, 28, Account Manager
“The hardest part about life at an ad agency is accepting that you’ll put in all the work, with little to none of the glory. I remember a specific time when we were working on a huge presentation, so I worked late, came in every weekend for a month, and gave up two holidays to get it done. What kept me motivated was the potential reward at the end: landing a huge client, which my boss assured me would ultimately be my path to promotion. After weeks of hard work we went in for the pitch, nailed it, and landed the client. Great news all around. Except in the end, they gave someone else the role on the account that they had promised to me. Needless to say, I was not with that agency for very long after.”
Allison, 30, Account Executive
“When I joined the team at my last agency, it was majority women. We had autonomy to take risks and my path to move-up in the organization was clear and attainable. Then there was a shift, a new senior male hire resulted in all vacant roles being filled by men and one of two remaining females on the team being told she needs to ‘rebrand herself’ if she was going to succeed. I initially thought it was just a phase but as weeks rolled on, the promotion that was within grasp was now two years out of reach due to a change in the job description. I never saw myself working for a chauvinist, someone who has no respect for me and who doesn’t value my contributions to the team. The only question I would like to ask him is, ‘As a father, how would you feel if your daughter worked for someone like you?’”
Katherine, 36, Project Director
“There’s a lot of lip-service paid to female leadership and having women make decisions on female-focused campaigns. In my experience, being a female in a ‘decision-making’ role meant having my input ignored by the same men who promoted me (on the better days), and having my well-researched decisions reversed because a group of nearly 40-year-old men had a ‘better idea’ for what would resonate with teenage girls over drinks I wasn’t invited to (not that I’d be able to get a word in if I was).”
Jenn, 28, Strategist
"The language is ridiculous. There's like a whole language where each word means a thousand different things depending on who you're talking to. The whole jargon of it all is frustrating and leads to so much miscommunication. Recently, I was trying to explain my idea to an account manager. It took about four attempts at phrasing for me figure out that swapping ‘personalized’ with ‘contextually relevant’ was the golden ticket. At first I felt like an idiot, but I’m starting to think that I’m not the problem.”
Ben, 23, Social Media Strategist
“When the client has a toxic company culture, it seeps into your life. You’ll start waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, wondering if the client is going to blow up at you in the morning because of something their boss said in a meeting. Worse is when those clients are marketing managers who are trying to score brownie points with the CEO or some other higher up. Recently, I had a project manager pull me aside to tell me, ‘Our only job is to make their head of marketing look good to the CEO.’ I immediately understood where shitty advertising comes from.”
Chloe, 27, Strategist
“I think that there’s such an irony to the industry. It’s founded on creativity, but creativity is often stifled or limited. I’ve seen a lot of really incredible ideas get dwindled down to mere shells of their original form. This year, I saw a coworker put together a really impressive concept for an LGBT campaign that was near and dear to their heart. But it was steadily eroded by the client to become simpler, safer and entirely less meaningful. It gets discouraging to constantly watch imaginative thinking get cut apart.”
Jared, 27, Graphic Designer
“There’s no worse feeling than courting a client or a creative director for months on a project only to realize it was going to be canned or changed beyond recognition. Sometimes your fresh ideas and candor are not what they wanted. Sometimes the client wants to be tricked into doing the same idea again. The trouble I’m having now is that it’s hard to get passionate about any project when I’m already bracing for rejection. This might be more of a personal flaw, but I feel I’m not alone on this one.”
Michelle, 22, Copywriter
“The most soul-crushing thing is the constant feeling that I'm powering the cycle of consumerism that's making people miserable and destroying the environment. My job is literally to convince people to buy stuff they don't need. Most of the time, it’s stuff from companies that definitely are not fair trade or made from resources that are definitely not renewable (please read the fine print warnings on stuff before you buy it). It's my job to convince you that you need this garbage.”
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