The advertising industry always had a magical ring to it: a glamourous world of fancy cocktails, extravagant parties, and excitement all day long. You think you want to work with something creative? Well, advertising is anything but fun. It may even kill you.
This is a warning to anyone who is thinking of studying advertising. Don’t! Unless you are okay with constant overnighters, 100-hour work weeks, no time off during weekends, holidays, or vacations, rude bosses with huge egos, hierarchies where the lower-downs are not allowed to speak to the directors and owners, and lots of backstabbing from your co-workers. This might be doable when you are in your twenties, just starting off. You think you can handle it. You’re still naïve and think your bosses will eventually notice you, appreciate you, and promote you. Unless you are a master bullshitter, this will never happen.
Do I sound bitter? Well, maybe I am. I gave ten years of my life to a career in advertising, and it almost killed me. In the end, I was fired for not being able to handle the work of an eight-person-team by myself. This is my story.
At my first New York City agency, I worked my ass off for five years, leaving work at 9 p.m. at the earliest, and subsisting on alcohol and fast food. But over time, I did get recognized for my skills, and I was promoted three times. It was bad, but I survived.
Hell descended when one of the directors became General Manager at a digital marketing shop in New Jersey and recruited me.
She had seen me flourish and wanted to upgrade the account management team at her new company. I was reluctant at first and met with the owners of the agency during several lunches and coffee dates before I accepted their offer. I was to work on a joint-venture pharmaceutical brand, an ex-client, with another woman for a few months before I would get promoted to director and run the account by myself. It sounded good, but the agency was in Princeton, New Jersey, and it would involve a 90-minute commute to work. And even worse, I would report to one of my best friends, a notoriously bad time-manager, who had been hired as the Head of Account Services.
The GM buttered me up with a decent salary (for advertising), a private office space with a view of a lush park, a future satellite office in NYC, and three weeks of vacation. In the end, I accepted.
It was all a hoax. Within a few months, I found myself buried in work.
Not only was I running that initial client account alone, creating all digital advertising for two of the Top 10 pharma companies in the world, but they also gave me two more accounts: one smaller pharmaceutical brand, plus a pharmaceutical advertising awards account. Within weeks, both my co-account manager and project manager were moved onto other accounts. Since I had very limited knowledge of digital advertising, I expected some initial training and support, but was told, "Just figure it out."
And those three weeks of vacation? Oh no, that was a one-time-only offer, honey. After the first six months, I was back to two weeks, and don’t you dare take them consecutively!
I did my best. By nature, I am a hard worker with a can-do attitude. I don’t give up.
I got up at six every morning to take the 7: 37 train to work, arriving in the office at 9 a.m., where I stayed until 9 p.m. I bought a foldable bike to ride the three miles from the Princeton Junction station to the office, because a daily taxi would have eaten up much of my salary. And that satellite office in NYC? It did eventually materialize, but since the internet connection was spotty at best and I would constantly lose hours of work when the internet crashed, it was easier to work from the New Jersey office where at least all the tech functioned well.
I was still doing okay at this point. Everything seemed under control. The clients were happy, and at that time that was more important to me than my own happiness. I was losing sleep, but I could still subsist on five-six hours of sleep.
After a few months, the agency moved to Hamilton, NJ. So much better, they said. The “commuters” (i.e., the people they had recruited from NYC agencies) no longer had to take taxis as the new office was right outside the station. I was enrolled in the “move team” that helped pack up everything in the common spaces. I should have argued, I guess, but I’ve always been such a good worker. I aim to please. So stupid. Instead of getting home at 11 p.m., now I got home at 1 a.m. every night.
The owners were so excited about the new place. They had renovated an old toilet factory and painted the walls a depressing eggplant and brown.
With only a handful of private offices and two conference rooms, I was lucky, I guess, to get a private office, even though it was windowless, dark, and freezing cold year-round. Due to a malfunctioning AC/heating system, I always had to wear a hat and gloves, even during the hot days of summer. But most of my coworkers had it worse. Their cubicles in the open office landscape were located directly underneath a skylight ceiling, which meant they couldn’t see anything on their computer screens due to the reflection.
Shortly after the move, the owners announced an upcoming merger. Their agency had been bought by a customer engagement marketing agency. As anyone who has been part of a merger knows, this means more work to show the potential new owners a healthy balance sheet. Given I was only working on three accounts (still by myself), I was handed another account.
My supervisor presented it as a golden opportunity to show my excellence by taking on the launch of a new sleep aid by one of the Top 10 pharma companies in the world.
There were only a few problems. This was yet another join-venture, which means twice as many clients to satisfy. It was both a healthcare professional and a consumer account, meaning I would have to create a sales pitch to doctors, something I had never done. And, of course, I was already working 18 hours a day.
In a normal agency, there would have been a team of 6-8 account managers servicing my accounts, but here I was expected to do the work of a whole team by myself.
I did have a Project Manager, shared with other teams, but she had no experience with healthcare professional advertising, either. I raised this rather big issue to my supervisor and was met with a shrug. Once again, "Figure it out."
I remember one night at 11 p.m. when the General Manager, the woman who had recruited me, walked past my office and said good night to me with a big smile. She was so proud she had recruited such a hard worker. Not even once did anyone ask me why I was there so late, or if there was anything they could do to help.
By now, I left home at 7 a.m. and took the midnight train back to NYC, arriving at home at 2 a.m. With only four hours of sleep every night, my memory started to slip.
I couldn’t remember what I had done only minutes before. I said I would send an email, and my coworkers said I had sent it a second ago. I was not in a good mood, barely surviving, and to add to everything that was going wrong, the copywriters, graphic designers, and information architects started bullying me. We would collectively decide on one approach, but when they delivered the work, it was completely different. They completely ignored the client-approved strategy and claimed none of my suggestions were doable. Yes, pharmaceutical marketing is more complex than commercial advertising due to the disclosures about side-effects. But when I provided them wrong by showing them a message can be done in 50 characters, they complained I had no right to write copy. When I got upset, they reported me to HR, and I had to apologize to the people who bullied me.
At this point, I was a zombie. Sleep deprived and angry, with no hope in sight.
For the first time in my life, I swallowed my pride and asked my supervisor for help. I needed someone to whom I could delegate the easier tasks so that I could focus on the strategy and appeasing the senior clients. Someone who could handle one conference call with fifteen joint-venture clients, while I handled another call with another set of fifteen joint-venture clients. I had never failed at anything before, EVER, but now I had no choice. My supervisor, who was the head of Account Services, told me to prove that the budget allowed for additional account managers on my team.
I inflated the budgets (something I’ve seen all advertising agencies do), added four more people to my team, and got the clients' approval to increase the budget by several million dollars in fees.
The owners were eager to invoice more money but had no interest in hiring more people.
They “resolved” my problem by adding my supervisor to my team. Instead of getting help, it increased my work volume because everything had to go through her. If I wrote a strategy document on Monday morning, due to the client on Tuesday, I spent five-six days reminding her to look at it. If I were lucky, she would provide comments the following week, two weeks after the deadline. When I asked her to bring in an expert on Healthcare Professional advertising, she brought along a woman with limited experience, and we spent an entire night looking at competitive websites, writing down the details of every single page. Instead of easing my workload, it got much, much worse.
The clients started complaining. Not surprisingly, I made a lot of mistakes.
I would send off emails and attach the wrong documents. At the weekly status meetings, I had nothing to show, because everything got stuck in the bottleneck of approvals at my supervisor’s desk. To the new clients, I looked stupid and incapable.
My project manager told me to take a day off. She could see I wasn’t really functioning any longer. I went to Chinatown for a massage. My phone rang incessantly, but I didn’t pick up, hoping my coworkers could handle my clients for 24 hours.
The next day, the owners screamed at me. How dare I take a day off?
The merger went through, and a few people from the new customer engagement marketing agency moved in. These new, more important people needed office spaces, and I was moved to a cubicle. How did they expect me to service some fifty pharmaceutical company employees single-handled, without help, and without a space to hold conference calls? I just don't know. There was nowhere to go for a quiet conversation. The two conference rooms were always booked. How can you be expected to manage four multi-million-dollar clients when there is always noise in the background?
My first three clients were still happy. I was doing a lot of good work for them.
They specifically mentioned, in their annual review, they were happy as long as my project manager and I stayed on the account. But they must have noticed something was wrong.
When the clients asked how many accounts I was working on, I lied. I was still loyal to my advertising agency.
I didn’t want my clients to know they were being cheated by paying for four full-time employees and only getting one person’s very divided attention. I was loyal to my supervisor, too, the woman who used to be one of my closest friends. I never raised a concern about her. I never told her boss that by mismanaging her own job, she sabotaged mine. I’m not a backstabber.
I fell into depression. Prolonged sleep deprivation will do that.
While driving to client meetings, I fantasized about crashing my rental car into the oncoming traffic. I thought about going to the airport and getting a flight anywhere. I imagined not telling anyone where I went. Not even my sisters or my boyfriend. I just wanted to disappear off the face of the earth. One night, I told my boyfriend I didn’t feel anything for him any longer because all my feelings were numb. Luckily, after a long night of talking and crying, he managed to convince me that my issues were with the job, not him. And he was right, we are still together eighteen years later.
The only way to survive was to cut down hours. And the only way to do that was to leave work at 7 p.m., not at midnight.
This, of course, meant that all the work the clients were paying for wouldn’t get done. My newest client, a sleep aid, wanted me off the account, and I can’t blame them. They were paying for an entire team of experts but only got one single person without any healthcare professional experience (me). Instead of asking me what had happened or trying to figure out what went wrong, the owners of the agency put on blinders, and just handed me another account. This one was the redesign of a popular Hepatitis C drug’s website, and the client was another one of the Top 10 pharma companies in the world.
It was doomed to fail. I was already burned out. One of my eyes was constantly twitching and I kept getting dizzy spells.
But I marched on, trying to figure out what I could do to fix the situation I was in. I felt like a donkey who is loaded with more and more cargo until it collapses under the weight. Surely, there had to be a meaning to all this. There had to be an answer, something I could do, to be successful. In my mind, as disoriented as I was, I thought there must be a way I could still do an eight-people job by myself.
One of the junior clients at the Hep C pharma company said she had heard bad things about my Agency. Her exact words were: “I wouldn’t touch a job at [Agency] with an eight-foot pole.”
I don’t remember what I answered, but it was the first time I realized perhaps this whole mess wasn’t just my fault.
But during one of the first meetings, as we were reviewing their current website, someone from my Agency said, “I haven’t even looked at your current website, so I don't know.” I was too shocked to say anything, but in the end this bit me in the ass. The client told my supervisor I was the one who had said it.
By the time I escalated my issues to my supervisor’s boss, it was too late.
They had already decided to fire me. I was given the option of two weeks’ salary or staying at the company for two months with full salary while looking for a job. I chose to stay, partly because I didn’t have a green card yet, and partly out of spite. I knew they hated having me around. After I had trained my successors [they had to split my job among three people] and given them all the info they needed, I spent my final six weeks playing solitaire on my laptop, and only “working” eight hours a day.
I should have gone to a doctor and asked for a medical leave, of course. But I was too burned out to think clearly.
And once I was fired, I should have sued the agency. I had all the emails, the inflated budgets, and all the proof I needed. But I didn’t know I had that option. And I was too ashamed to tell people I had been fired. Up until then, I hadn’t really failed at anything before in my life. I could have asked my happier clients for a job, but I was too embarrassed about my failure. I pretended it was my own decision to leave, unaware most people in advertising get fired at some point or other.
The great majority of my former coworkers have left the advertising industry. It’s a toxic environment and most people can’t survive very long.
So there it is. I’ve carried this burden of shame for too long, and now it is out in the open. Hopefully, this will help me forgive myself as well as the people who did let me down. Because I’m sure that, despite everything, they did their best at that time. To be honest, they were probably embarrassed about their incompetence, too.
And now I'm going to let it go.
If you're still thinking about entering the advertising world, I just want to make sure you know my situation was not unique. Not all advertising agencies are this bad, but most of them are tough. Find another career while you're still young.
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