As media gets harder, mental health is the superpower

As media gets harder, mental health is the superpower
Opinion: 100% Media 0% Nonsense

Every week should be mental-health awareness week. Or at least more like Below Deck Med.


Last week was a momentous one for Channel 4. Aside from revealing an alternative to privatisation as it battles for its future as a public-service broadcaster, viewers were also treated to the return of Below Deck Mediterranean on E4/All 4 (first aired in the US on Bravo).

Below Deck is literally the only terrestrial TV show I’m watching these days, other than live sport and my daily scroll though the programme guide before I shrug my shoulders and slope off to Disney+ or AppleTV+ (it’s not even about ads, I just prefer the content, sorry).

I know many of you in media land watch Below Deck, too because we’ve shared nervous chuckles over how we’ve fallen for this show during Covid lockdowns.

Of course, it’s trashy reality telly and we should be ashamed of ourselves for not reading Proust instead. But I suspect there’s a particular workplace fascination with Below Deck that makes this show attractive to people in creative industries.

It relates to mental health, and client service, how we work through challenges at work. Despite the protagonists flailing their way through seven private charters on a luxury superyacht, I can see how it would strike a chord with media professionals at broadcasters, tech companies, or agencies.

Those who want to add value need to be valued

Firstly, the client is often ‘wrong’ but must be “always right”, as the saying goes. It puts a strain on the service crew when Captain Sandy is seen to put them under undue pressure because a guest forgot what they really ordered.

This is undoubtedly sound sales advice for a low-margin, high volume game such as retail, but for high-level media and specialist strategic consultancy it’s a terrible position to take. What are brands paying agencies for, for example, if it’s not to be told they’re wrong when necessary?

Here’s an example of something I hear quite often: over lunch with an indie media agency boss last Summer, he remarked that a client was giving him hassle for not wasting enough of his money.

“We told him he needs to stop spending on a couple of particular digital channels because he was starting to bleed ROI,” the boss said at the time.

The response? “We were told that doesn’t matter. The board needed to see a graph that proved ‘we are now spending X% of our media budget on paid search and social’ to show how much progress was being made in digitally transforming the business.”

It’s their money and the agency gets paid anyway, you might think. But this disconnect can create serious problems at the heart of a client relationship when media strategy becomes analogous to business strategy. Regular subscribers of our Strategy Leaders newsletters will have ready many examples of new brands that are still using ‘old’ media, particularly TV, to supercharge their marketing efforts.

An inability to demonstrate ‘value’, when it’s your job to demonstrate value, is not conducive to good mental health.

Not just ‘good’ to talk, it’s essential

Nor is a stressful working environment with no room for improvement in sight. Since the pandemic recovery in advertising began in late 2020, agencies and media owners have struggled to hire people, with too many companies apparently chasing too little talent.

Jan Gooding provided essential reading on this nearly a year ago when she warned about “burn out” and “the squeezed middle managers”.

“They were already reeling from the impact of the pandemic and the challenges of running their teams virtually,” Gooding wrote. “Now they are being asked to find a way of allowing people to enjoy permanent flexibility whilst also creating a more inclusive culture.”

That warning came after last Summer’s UK industry All In Census report said 31% of all respondents feel stressed or anxious, but this goes up to 51% for disabled people, 45% of LGBTQ+ and 36% of women.

Then last October NABS, the employee support organisation for advertising and media, revealed a spike in referrals to therapy services for counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy over the prior two months. Since the start of the pandemic, NABS has experienced a 23% increase in users of its services with more than half of calls relating primarily to mental health.

Today I asked one of my contacts, who works for an international agency network, if he feels able to talk about stress at work in the hope of trying to make his working life better.

“Are you joking? Absolutely not,” he says. “I actually know what I’m doing and it is undermined by clients. That undermining is supported by agency leadership.

“I’m 100% certain that, if you asked every C-suite person how many people took stress leave in the past two or three years and what direction they’d travel in, they would either not know or refuse to acknowledge it under the veil of ‘privacy’.”

Forgive the use of another anonymous quote, but I’ve heard this a lot over the last couple of years from various people at different agencies of different sizes and they want me to report what’s happening behind closed doors without risking their jobs by ‘outing’ them. Believe it or not, not everybody wants to spend time talking to a journalist about how wonderful life is at their business.

But at least they’re talking to someone about their problems, much in the same way as the characters on Below Deck are continually talking to an off-screen producer about their contemporaneous thoughts and feelings after the latest incident at sea.

So, while there will be a lot of worthy and useful advice and discussion to tie in with UK Mental Health Awareness Week in the coming days, it’s the other 51 weeks of the year that I’m more concerned about.

Because working in media won’t get any easier any time soon. It’s a mistake to think “we had a tough pandemic, but things will get back to normal soon”.

The ecosystem is continuing to fragment and it’s becoming less obvious how we pay for media with advertising, subscriptions, or donations. Emerging tech, whether its deepfakes or NFTs, can disrupt existing notions of what media is and what value it has.

Working from home, while attractive to many employees who are in a strong position to negotiate time away from the office, may create even more stress in the longer-term because, overall, we all feel more disconnected and transactional with one another at work.

Maybe, if we’re honest with ourselves, “normal” wasn’t that great before, anyway.

And why should this industry, or any industry, be easy? It’s only when things are difficult or complex that the best among us can demonstrate value that reinforces our worth at work beyond the salary and the perks.

In a knowledge or information economy, better mental health awareness, support and training is surely the superpower that will make us stronger for the challenges ahead.



100% Media 0% Nonsense – Get the editor’s column in your inbox on Monday, with the latest news, analysis and opinion on The Media Leader. Sign up here.

Media Jobs