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Jay Chiat once famously said, “If you can’t be bothered to work on Saturday, don’t bother to come in on Sunday.” Which pretty much sums up the over-the-top work ethic that has permeated the advertising industry for decades. And might possibly be killing it.

We’ve all been sucked into it at some point, if not every point, in our careers. As if there‘s some kind of correlation between creativity and time. As if we’re manufacturing machine parts instead of ideas. As if burning the midnight oil could result in anything but a burned-out imagination.

Until recently, the same could be said about Silicon Valley. You would have been hard-pressed to find a high-tech executive who didn’t believe that the path to success was built on insanely long hours with scarcely a crumb left over for life outside the office. But that’s changing as more and more companies are realizing the stifling impact this kind of hyperwork ethic has on creativity.

The creative self only has so many bullets in a given day.”

“You have this culture of posturing, and this culture that glorifies the most absurd things and ignores things like self-care, and ignores things like therapy, and ignores things like actually taking care of yourself as a physical being for the sake of work at all costs. It’s a toxic problem.”

That’s Alexis Ohanian, cofounder of Reddit. Not long ago, a guy like Ohanian would have been seen as a kook at best and a heretic at worst.

To be fair, there are some in advertising who, like their counterparts in Silicon Valley, are beginning to see the corrosive effect that interminably long hours are having on the human mind’s ability to innovate. But that kind of vision remains in short supply. Unfortunate when you realize that clients have never been more desperate for creative thinking, or so we’re told.

Neurologically speaking, creativity punches out way ahead of you. The creative self only has so many bullets in a given day. And it doesn’t care that you’re the last one out at night or the first one in on Sunday or the one who cancels your long weekend in the mountains with your family because, you know, that’s how we do things.

Not giving ideas a chance to find you instead of the other way around is antithetical to everything advertising is supposed to be about.”

Jerry Seinfeld once said you can’t ruin your appetite because there’s always another one coming along right behind it. Appetites, maybe. Brilliant thinking, not really.

You can shame someone into working ungodly hours. You can threaten them. You can make them come in on weekends even when there’s no good reason to. What you cannot do is change their brain chemistry. It is what it is. And what it is, is an engine that needs to refuel. That needs to daydream. That needs to be able to wander around the streets aimlessly. Not giving ideas a chance to find you instead of the other way around is antithetical to everything advertising is supposed to be about.

I’ve been on both sides of this.

I know the psychology of pool tables and video game lounges and free snacks 24/7. The way they’re designed to create an impression of fun. The illusion of whimsy. When you’re in the early stages of your career, the message is pretty compelling. Hey, why go home to your cat and your roommate who never takes out the garbage when you can be here, coming up with cool ideas. It’s magnetic. Until you realize you’re burning out faster than a candle in a hurricane.

Maybe you work for one of those enlightened agencies I mentioned earlier. In which case, count your blessings. Sure, there might be other obstacles to realizing your best creative self, but at least needlessly long hours won’t be one of them. The rest of you, well, aside from quitting your job in search of greener pastures, a few survival techniques might make the situation a little more bearable.

What would Captain Obvious do? Eat well. I know that burgers, pizza and onion rings are called comfort food. They’re not. They’re a total creativity suck. So is not getting serious sleep. Most agencies that want you to work late don’t mind if you come in late. Take advantage of it. Get some sleep.

Just say no. There’s only one thing worse than having long hours cripple your creative energy, and that’s trying to juggle more than one project at a time. So speak up. Unless they’re complete ogres, most CDs will value your willingness to recognize your limits.

Quit trying to swing for the fences every time. We all want to do amazing, killer work. Just understand that if you’re putting in twelve hours a day, there’s only so much you can do to get those creativity neurons to cooperate. Hey, Palme d’Ors are cool, but bronze Lions are nothing to be ashamed of. ca

Ernie Schenck (ernieschenckcreative.prosite.com) is a freelance writer, a creative director and a regular contributor to CA’s Advertising column. An Emmy finalist, three-time Kelley nominee and a perennial award winner—the One Show, Clios, D&AD, Emmys and Cannes—Schenck worked on campaigns for some of the most prestigious brands in the world in his roles at Hill Holliday/Boston, Leonard Monahan Saabye and Pagano Schenck & Kay. He lives with his wife and daughter in Jamestown, Rhode Island.
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