The exhausted peddlers of joy

Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash

Recently, a digital marketing agency posted a job opening that didn’t raise any eyebrows to those within the industry, myself included, although I’m willing to bet that many, like myself, experienced a range of emotions that ranged from bemusement to fury to resignation.

Then something happened that no one expected – it went viral and caused a collective outcry from both industry insiders and a shocked public.

The ad in question?

Frankly, this is actually a typical job description that’s widely used in various iterations across all agencies, whether in the UAE or internationally. Agencies that don’t follow this formula are the exception, not the norm, unfortunately.

I’m basing this statement on a mix of first-hand experience, the experience of friends and former colleagues, and discussions by other social media experts within the industry that I’ve seen on social media platforms, such as Instagram and Twitter.

Here’s one I came across today that turned into a long thread that was both comforting and depressing.

Now, when I first saw the original job posting, I shrugged and went on with my day. It’s what happened next that sparked my ire and compelled me to write this post.

The first was the typcial, toothless response / apology we’re all used to seeing from public figures and organisations when they caught out. It’s a diplomatic way of acknowledging people’s sentiments without having to bother with making any changes. Now, I don’t know what’s happening internally there, hopefully, they are taking this seriously and are going to revamp their process. But my instinct says they won’t – based on previous experience in agencies where I was promised that changes would come after raising concerns over and over again about overwork/underpay and the toxic lifestyle that everyone’s told they should absorb and treat each other as “soldiers” and “warriors”.

We’re not in a physical war; rather we’re in a mental and emotional one that doesn’t have an end in sight. Not unless major changes are made that rock the industry’s foundations. But like anyone whose ever worked in any large industry or organisation, I don’t believe it will happen. Maybe I’ve become jaded.

Think about it – we were all collectively outraged by the 2008 crashed caused by the banking industry and yet, from what I’ve seen and read, nothing’s really changed. Ditto for Facebook with the Cambridge Analyitica scandal and any of the many scandals of 2020. The list goes on into the darkness.

The second thing was this video by a UAE-based organisation called New Media Academy, which bills itself as an academic institution that is designed, delivered, and validated by top global digital practitioners.

Their heart was in the right place, I don’t doubt that, but again – at least in my perspective – generic words meant to comfort or inspire without any action to back it up. And no, a hashtag isn’t enough.

I’d love to see them put out a report on just how toxic the industry is, the toll it’s had on people’s mental and physical wellbeing and how this affects the agencies, their people, and clients. It would be great if it also included information on how to make meaningful shifts in a concrete, long-lasting way. The problem though, is even if they did that, there would be an initial reaction burst but then this would fade and it’s back to business as usual.

I tried to find some scholarly articles about the digital marketing industry and mental health but almost everything Google pulled up was related to social media platforms and mental health, mental health campaigns, etc.

The most relevant articles I could find provided advice on how to protect your mental health if you’re working in this industry.

So, why is this industry one of the fastest growing ones in the world right now?

A simple, obvious answer is: because of the popularity of social media platforms. People who enjoy using social media, whether as active creators or as passive viewers of entertaining content, are usually attracted by the prospect of working in an industry that publicly shows itself to be a fun, creative place.

According to a report by IBIS WORLD, an internationally-trusted industry research organisation, in the U.S. alone, the industry’s market size, measured by revenue, is $61.4bn in 2021. Moreover, its U.S. market size is expected to increase 16.5% in 2021 while experiencing a 21.6% growth per year on average between 2016 and 2021.

Now, this is obviously a very small slice in the market but it gives some indication of the industry in general.

I also came across this on Vault, which describes itself as “provider in-depth intelligence on what it’s really like to work in an industry, company or profession—and how to position yourself to land that job.”

It’s a good, balanced overview of the digital marketing industy for anyone interested in joining or who are curious for a peek behind the curtain.

So, where do we go from here?

Here are some things that I’m implementing in my own agency, SPARK FRH that I hope will be adopted as a global industry practice:

  • Enforced break times and strict working hours. Any overtime to be compensated either by money or time off.
  • Social media in its nature requires everyone to be “on” but there will be dedicated people for the “night shift”, “weekend shift” etc. whose responsibilities will include keeping others in the loop.
  • Proper time off for holidays, annual leaves etc. Everything to be handed over so those going on leave can switch off and recharge.
  • No more that two clients per team and those two clients have dedicated resourses just for them.
  • Encourage my people to take courses and workshops – and when they’re learning, they won’t be bothered by office work. If it’s a paid workshop, it’ll be covered by the agency. If free, the employees will still be paid for the days they take away from the office to complete it.
  • Foster a genuine environment of support, respect, and collaboration. I know it’s easier said than done but office politics, egos, and any negativity (that’s not constructive) will not be tolerated.
  • No micro-managing. I need to be able to trust that work is being done to my standards of quality and within deadlines set.

I might be naive but I’m willing to try in my tiny corner of the industry.

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