“Things I used to love doing, such as pitching and presenting in general had become a living nightmare.” This week (14-20 May) is Mental Health Awareness Week and Marc Caulfield, formerly of MediaCom, Ogilvy&Mather and m/SIX discusses mental health and his experience in the industry which led him to create the mental health consultancy, Demolish the Wall.
Two and a half years ago I left the advertising industry after 27 years in the media agency world. I now run Demolish the Wall, a mental health consultancy, with Jon Waters another ex-media man. I still love the advertising world, have many friends in the business and my work now keeps me very much still involved.
Mental health has always been something very close to my heart and mind. I have suffered myself for many years, some of those years in silence and some with the help of doctors and psychotherapists. I started in the business in 1989 as a TV buyer at Ogilvy & Mather. I recall my first day included a 3-hour pub session – at 19 years old I thought I had found heaven! My career bumped along for a while but really took off in 1992 when I joined MediaCom. I had a brilliant boss, learnt loads, was getting promoted regularly and earning more money. All was good in my world.
Around the year 2000 I was at the peak of my confidence, creating a joint venture with the brilliant and formidable Christine Walker and Phil Georgiadis. What I didn’t realise was this confidence, or arrogance as some people would have said, was an act. It was created out of very fragile self-belief and ironically very little real confidence in my abilities. I didn’t then realise that certain behaviours I was exhibiting were me ‘self-medicating’ myself into a mess. Things I used to love doing, such as pitching and presenting in general had become a living nightmare as undiagnosed anxiety and depression took a hold on me. This could result in an inability to speak or get my words out during meetings and pitching would be avoided at any cost. It felt like I was being throttled sometimes; I was having panic attacks without knowing.
More self-medication didn’t help and when bouts of uncontrollable crying on my commute became a regular occurrence, I decided I needed to do something and fast before it all fell apart. I was having suicidal thoughts and had suddenly gone from thinking ‘I can do anything I want’ to ‘I can’t do this anymore or I can’t get out of bed in the morning and I hate myself’. I went through a series of unsuccessful meetings with counsellors and psychotherapists until finally I found the one. She was brilliant, and I told her things about me that no one else knows. Over the next four years I saw her once a week and she changed my life; she taught me why I do certain things, not to beat myself up as we are all human, to remove myself from certain situations and that it is OK if you never ‘rediscover’ the old you, as it wasn’t me in the first place. The advertising business is full of brilliant people doing amazing work, however extreme pressure, stress, drinking culture and substance use (it is still rife whatever people say, just more discreet), margin erosion, procurement, long hours and relentless pitching makes a dangerously heady brew without doubt leading many problems for the talented individuals whom earn their living for it.
The advertising business is categorically a people business. The people are what makes it great. Nevertheless, most agencies, media owners and indeed clients talk about a ‘people first’ philosophy… in truth though it is always clients or shareholders first, which I believe is wrong. As Richard Branson has said, ‘Look after your people, they will look after your clients and they will look after your business’. This is surely what every organisation wants?
Mental Health Awareness Week is important to start driving this message home. The word stigma is massively overused in mental health, but the simple fact is that you can’t talk about your mental health as openly as you can your physical health. Many people who I know in the business, including myself, effectively put a concrete ceiling over their heads when they raised their mental health as an issue. It is quite simple; unrelenting pressure leads to stress. Pressure and stress are normal human reactions and the key here is their constant presence. Where this goes unabated, as let’s be honest does happen in the business, stress often moves to anxiety and/or depression.
As an old (literally) media man I feel the need to include some statistics and facts:
These simply can’t be ignored. What is particularly worrying is a significant number of people entering the advertising business will already be in mental difficulties, as the above statistics demonstrate.
So how should leaders and organisations embrace this and make Mental Health Awareness Week only the start of a happier, more productive and engaged workforce? Firstly, mental health should be treated the same as physical health. An employee who bravely states they are off work due to a mental health issue should be treated the same as the employee with a cold. Indeed, the Equity Act 2010 states this very clearly. We all know that when recruiting the next generation, their demands are often different to what they were when many of the interviewers started in the business. Work/life balance, gym membership, mental health policies and procedures etc. have become very important factors when choosing somewhere to work. Ensuring your organisation is ‘match fit’ in this area is now more important than ever, as is education in dealing with mental health issues and general awareness of the mental health spectrum and how these can manifest themselves.
Briefly returning to my personal story, I would ask you to look for similarities and not differences in my story. Don’t be ashamed if you are suffering. I would urge you all to read Depressive Illness, The Curse of the Strong by Dr Tim Cantopher; it clearly shows how it takes a strong individual to suffer from mental ill-health, as weak people simply don’t care enough to get depressed. It certainly made me feel better about myself!
Let’s work together to protect the future of this brilliant business and look after its people, who in turn will look after your clients and shareholders. Mental Health Awareness Week is great place to start but this must become the ‘norm’ and ongoing, nothing will change in a week.
Marc Caulfield is CEO of Demolish the Wall Ltd.
Demolish the Wall offer a full consultancy and training service to ensure your organisation is compliant in the eyes of the law and your people are fully aware of their own and their teams mental health, how to spot signs of difficulties, how to handle difficult conversations and signposting of where to go for help.