The Perk that Got Away
Advertising agencies love to brag about their benefits packages. At least they used to. I’ve been steadily freelancing for the last four years so it’s been a while since I’ve had any. I assume they’re still offered though.
Things like health insurance. Which shouldn’t be a benefit at all. It should be a right, but for some reason it isn’t. In America, your healthcare is held hostage unless you have a job that supplies it. For some reason they call that a benefit and we’re supposed to be grateful for it.
Then, there’s the 401k savings plan that companies proudly tell you includes matching contributions from the corporate coffers. Again, we’re supposed to be thankful, but being the beneficiary of a corporate tax break is a long way from receiving the pensions that companies used to offer where you received a portion of your salary and all of your healthcare benefits for life.
Health insurance and 401k's were always at the top of the list but the perks also included things like employee discounts for the brands you worked on, a free meal if you worked past 7 and all the coffee you can drink from the Nespresso machine. Plus, there were:
Ping Pong Tables.
Mental health days.
Giving back days.
A complimentary travel mug with agency logo.
A 100% cotton short sleeve company t-shirt.
A free copy of the founder’s book.
Aeron chairs for everyone.
But the biggest perk of all—at least the one that always sold me—was that when you went to work in the creative department of an advertising agency you got to be yourself. They actually encouraged it. They even hammered it home. They wanted you to be yourself because by doing so you could bring a more authentic and unique perspective to the work and the brands you were working on.
And while you can still pretty much dress however you want, show-off your tattoos all day long and dye your hair whatever color you like, I can’t help but feel that being yourself isn’t necessarily a big priority anymore.
When an agency, or any company for that matter, talks about its unique corporate culture being their secret sauce—they’re firing a shot across the bow of the SS Individualism. They’re basically saying, “We’re all the same, we all believe in the same things, and we all think the same way.”
It’s a good strategy. When they layoff the client's favorite person, there will be another just like them waiting in the wings- at a lower salary.
You could almost say that corporate culture is the complete antithesis of individuality. It’s designed to make people feel like they’re a part of something bigger than just a paycheck. But it ends up turning people into a distorted version of themselves. It has a way of making everyone talk the same way. Think the same way. Work the same way.
Open seating is another blow to individualism. When I was a kid, my mom was kind of fussy about the décor of her house. She wanted things to look a certain way. Which is certainly understandable. My room, however, was all mine. I could decorate the walls any way I wanted and by the time I was 18 and leaving for college there was really no wall visible anymore in my room. You’d have to peel back several layers of Pete Townshend, Joe Strummer and Sid Vicious before you got anywhere close to the actual wall.
In an agency, before open seating, your office or even your cube was your bedroom. It was just like being a kid again and having one little room inside a big house that was all yours and you could decorate any way you wanted. It was a peek into who you were and what mattered to you most. It was yours. It was where you let your freak flag fly. It was where you made yourself comfortable.
Now, we all sit in the open because it “encourages collaboration”. People try to make their little space feel like theirs. But there’s only so much personalization you can bring to a workstation.
And then there’s all the talk about teamwork and team building. I played a ton of sports growing up. I was literally on 100 different teams. We never did any team building exercises. We won together and we lost together. That’s how we became a team. There were no trust falls. Just a lot of time spent running laps together.
In the corporate world that kind of team building is inefficient and difficult to manage. So, they created team building exercises that create life-long bonds in just a few hours and a couple of break-out sessions. It’s phony. It’s fake. And the results are surface level at best. Which is probably a good thing since around the time you actually bond with your cohorts in any natural sense, a round of layoffs will come up and your teammates will be taken away from you.
Team building discourages individuality. Again, there’s an inherent sense of falling in line, everyone working the same way and little patience for any black sheep that tend to wander too far from the herd.
I’m all for teamwork. For anything to get done everyone needs to do their job. But team building isn’t teamwork. It’s box checking.
“Best practices” is another phrase that flies under the radar as a discourager of individuality. When you hear someone say we’re doing it this way because it’s “best practices” that literally means: we want to do it just like someone else did it so we don’t get in trouble. Kindly keep your creativity to yourself.
Then there’s the lingo. The unnecessary abbreviations. The weird phrases that no one says in real life. “Who has the con on this?” “What are the actionable items?” “Let’s discuss this offline.” And my personal favorite: “Ping me.”
I really don’t want to be pinged. It sounds like something better handled by a physician.
I want to talk like a human. “Who’s in charge of this?” “What can we get done now?” “Let’s you and I talk about this privately.” “I will get in touch with you.”
Why can’t we just talk like normal people? Why do we have to get all verbally dressed up and be so fancy about stuff? Why do I need to sound like I know what I’m doing in order to convince people that I know what I’m doing?
It just seems to all fly in the face of being yourself. Being an individual. Behaving like a creative person and not allowing yourself to become an easily replaceable corporate drone.
Maybe it’s all intentional. Maybe it increases efficiency. Maybe it protects people from acting “unprofessional”. I think it discourages free thinking and unexpected solutions. I think it’s lazy. And I think it’s a bit like selling your soul.
And when they've given you their all Some stagger and fall.
After all, it's not easy. Banging your heart against some mad bugger's wall.
Thanks for reading. I'll see you again real soon.