Why passion is the best litmus test

Why passion is the best litmus test
Opinion: 100% Media 0% Nonsense

How you think about being ‘passionate’ in media will reveal what kind of media leader you are or want to be. So that’s the question we’re going to keep asking, writes the editor.

Would you say you are “passionate” about working in media and advertising?

Having now covered this industry for the best part of a decade, I’m fully convinced this is the most important question any media salesperson, agency planner/buyer, researcher, creative, or comms person should ask themselves every day. Maybe more than once a day.

This isn’t because I’m preoccupied with making people happy in their jobs. According to the latest industry All-In Census from earlier this year, more than seven in 10 people report a “a sense of belonging” towards their work. Poor work-life balance is a significant complaint, as are working practices and attitudes towards inclusion, but the work itself appears to be what keeps people in their jobs (let’s face it, for most people it’s not the money).

That’s why this litmus test of “passion”, I’ve found, is the quickest route to answering whether people working in media are doing things for the right reasons, i.e. making money for themselves and their clients without resorting to unethical practices.

You can’t be passionate about media if you’re in it to screw people. That makes you a scumbag.

Look at the record

Try it yourself. Look through any article, podcast episode, or YouTube video on The Media Leader and ask yourself: is this person (or group of people) doing this because they’re “passionate” about media? Or is something else motivating them?

There’s no way, for example, that the leadership at TikTok were “passionate” about media if they made a conscious effort to give children aged 13 a public social-media account by default. There’s no way that a group of executives sat in a room and thought it was a good thing for media that someone who may not have even started puberty should be encouraged to broadcast themselves to the entire world without any guardrails.

On Friday, TikTok was fined €345m for breaking GDPR rules. That’s not a back-breaking amount of money for a company that made $9.4bn in revenue last year and will likely take in even more this year. As I mentioned in a previous column, TikTok is not a shiny fad that should be considered a loud but fringe part of the established media ecosystem; it’s nothing less than a potential wrecking ball to the foundations of the TV industry because its growing popularity challenges the whole idea of what people want from video entertainment. The decisions TikTok leaders make, and what motivates them, matters. Is passion a part of their internal algorithm?

You can push the passion test further to social media more generally. When you look at the people running TikTok in key UK leadership positions, there are a lot of ex-Facebook (Meta) executives. Could you ever look at the two-decade history of Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg and discern any company moves that betray a passion for media?

If you read Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants, you will know that making readers “the product” for advertisers is not novel and goes back to the first penny-newspapers in the 1830s that encouraged mass cheap consumption.

The “attention economy” that Wu and others warn about is well established and is not good or bad in itself per se.

But here’s where we can apply the passion test again — are we in the business of attracting mass attention in media because we’re passionate about the content we’re putting out? Or is it only about making lots of money?

The two are not mutually exclusive — we’ve proven time and again that we can get rich by entertaining and/or informing people. We can pay the bills and move culture forward at the same time.

There is so much to be passionate about

But if your aim is truly just to make money, you are all the more likely to make unethical decisions. Just look at the track record of Facebook and Google to see how many fines they have racked up over the years and ask if they breached laws and regulations because they were “too passionate” about media.

Many people have now departed or are having to consider new roles within these tech giants in recent months due to well-publicised cost-cutting measures — the latest being a raft of management changes in the UK at Google as revealed by The Media Leader. As these executives ponder what the remainder of their well-remunerated careers should stand for, I hope they will not forget about passion and what drew them to media in the first place.

And there is so much to be passionate about in media. There has never been more choice in terms of how people watch, listen and interact with programming and content; there has never been more technology available to so many people to encourage new forms of expression and more diverse voices; there has never been so much flexibility or sophistication in terms of how people can “choose their own adventure” or how advertisers can communicate with different groups of people.

And, for all the hot takes about how advertising is doomed and traditional media is in “decline,” there’s never been so much money in media. If you’re talented and, dare I say “passionate,” you can live a good life working in this industry.

I want to live up to this “passion” test by applying it to the conversations we have with the industry’s most important voices and dealmakers. Starting soon, The Media Leader Interview, our big set-piece profile for the week, will seek to address what makes people passionate to work in this industry.

You will soon see that the way people answer this question will reveal much more about what kind of media leader they are: how they work with colleagues, how they approach big decisions, and whether they view media as more than a commodity.

Coming soon: the ‘passion question’

Regular listeners of The Media Leader Podcast may have noticed that I asked a common question of interviewees last year when launching the show: “how did you get into this industry?”

More often than not, the reply was some variation of “I just fell into it”. This is not a vocational industry and very few little boys and girls are at school right now dreaming about selling airtime or applying econometric models to media plans.

But here’s the thing: storytelling is innate and an essential part of the human experience. Media is the way we tell our stories beyond the family and the “tribe.” We may “fall into” this industry, but the reason why we stay in it was with us the whole time.

So, our mission going forward doesn’t change. We are, as you’re now sick of me saying in this column and at our events, standing up for excellence, courage, and inclusion in media.

It’s taken a while for the penny to drop but I now realise that “passion” is the thing that ties this together. Let’s use it to hold each other accountable as we try to do better, but let’s also remember that it’s about having fun in this exciting business of ours.

Omar Oakes is editor-in-chief of The Media Leader and leads the publication’s TV coverage. ‘100% Media 0% Nonsense’ is a weekly column about the state of media and advertising. Make sure you sign up to our daily newsletter to get this column in your inbox every Monday. 

Media Jobs