Is There A Work/Life Balance In Advertising?

Over at Talent Zoo, Whitney Friedrich, a young AE at DraftFCB, stirred things up by suggesting that new talent in the business, many times, lacks dedication:

Wear your passion on your sleeve because it’s one of the only things that differentiates you. It’s not expected that you will have all the answers—or even that you’ll know what questions to ask. It is, however, expected that you will be so grateful for the opportunity that you are first to arrive in the morning and last to leave at night. In a former agency, we had two interns who were so excited to be there that most nights they slept on a couch in our agency common area so as not to miss a moment of the internship experience. Needless to say, they were both offered jobs at the end of the summer.

Which prompted this comment:

I have a major issue with this article. Ms. Friedrich is acting as if the idea of a “work/life balance” is totally outlandish. I am in the advertising industry and have been for probably longer than Ms. Friedrich. As a manager, I do not expect my ACs, AAEs and AEs to run themselves into the ground. Come on! Yes, I expect stellar work out of them, but they’re only human. Overachievement is frankly slightly annoying sometimes. I don’t need anyone banging down my door to bring me my morning coffee. When their work is done at 5:00, I EXPECT them to leave at 5:00 and not mill around doing needless work just so they can appear dedicated.

It’s an interesting debate. While the work habits of Generation X and Y are under scrutiny, advertising is still a fast-paced business that demands dedication. Are we seeing a shift in the ad business to a more 9-to-5 office life? Will today’s 20-somethings put in the hours that traditionally were expected of ad pros? Does working 18 hour days and weekends make the work any better?

About Dan Goldgeier

Blogging on AdPulp since 2005, Dan Goldgeier is a Seattle-based freelance copywriter with experience at advertising agencies across the U.S. He is a graduate of the Creative Circus ad school, and currently teaches at Seattle's School of Visual Concepts. In addition, he is a regular columnist for Dan published the best of his columns in a book entitled View From The Cheap Seats: A Broader Look at Advertising, Marketing, Branding, Global Politics, Office Politics, Sexual Politics, and Getting Drunk During a Job Interview. Look for it on Amazon in paperback and e-book editions.


  1. 18 hour days and weekends do not make the work any better – it just makes the staff bitter.

  2. You have to be willing to do what it takes to get the results you want, and do everything you can to help your team out.
    Whether or not that work happens at the agency, or during what hours, depends on your agency’s culture.
    As far as how many hours you have to work, again that depends on what it takes to get the results you want.
    Personally, I think an average of around 55 hours a week is the minimum someone should expect to work in this business. And I include in that the amount of time you spend on advertising-related research, reading, training, seminars, etc.
    With that said I can speak from experience that it really sucks when a few high-performers are expected to do the heavy lifting in an agency, while the majority of people are allowed to more or less slack.
    Ultimately, you have to decide what you want out of your career, find an agency that fits your aspirations, and be willing to do what it takes to get it.

  3. This is actually a critical element in prospective employers and employees looking for a chemistry fit. Each shop has it’s own philosophy on work/life balance, generally organically driven by management. For example, Crispin is a sweatshop, and they make no apologies for it. Richards Group, on the other hand, is a ghost town after 6:00. One isn’t better than the other, it’s just different. Matching the environment with one’s own personality is critical.
    I think there are plenty of GenY folks who have fantastic work habits and inordinate passion. What they also have that many of us older folks didn’t is access to information and the ability due to technology to contribute at an earlier age. If they know they can make a direct contribution now, they are less likely to be patient and work through the ranks like many of us did.

  4. The agency world is selling the young and impressionable on their culture. It’s a well established culture that, by the way, makes them very rich and the employees relatively poor. A couple of gold-colored statuettes, a box of reels, and a pretty decent studio in the Mission or Soho. Then it’s over and you’re like, “Wait, that was it? You can’t be serious.” The stress levels were through the roof, most of my ideas got distorted, watered down or killed, I forwent weekends with friends and family, and skipped precious hang-time with romantic partners. All for that constant drumbeat, “the work. the work. the work.”
    It’s advertising. it’s shiny shit. It’s funny garbage. It’s clever annoyances. Let’s all get a grip and get a life, shall we?

  5. Two things, Danny
    1. I was pretty gung-ho as a junior, but I think 2 AM was probably the latest I ever stayed at the office. Sleeping there is pretty insane, especially for interns. That would raise a flag for me for sure.
    2. As I’ve noted in my blog, ad salaries have dropped considerably over the past 5 years, particularly for upper level creative jobs at big NYC, SF and Chicago agencies. Not to poverty level, mind you, but enough to give juniors pause about putting in all sorts of crazy hours and giving up their outside lives. I mean if there’s no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, who’s going to bother?
    On a more micro level, it was worth busting your hump over a TV assignment when your reward was two weeks at the Four Seasons in L.A. and countless dinners at Nobu. Busting your hump to do a really cool interstitial is going to prove to be a lot less appealing.

  6. Carl LaFong says:

    It all depends on whether you live to work — or work to live.
    For better or worse, i am firmly in the latter camp. I think Ted pretty much nailed it: Even the best ad is, after all, only an ad. Personally, I can’t see losing sleep or sacrificing personal relationships just to sell artery-clogging hamburgers or overpriced athletic shoes or win a shiny trinket or two to gather dust on a shelf somewhere.
    But again, that’s just me. Everyone has their own priorities and passions. And it’s not for me — or Ms. Friedrich — to judge them because they choose to live life on their terms and not mine.

  7. copywhore says:

    Amen, Todd.
    I spent years in NYC working until 3 am. I was so stressed out that I had a stomach ache every day of the week for 7 years and went to a million doctors only to be told nothing was wrong with me.
    Now I live in Florida and work part time at an agency, freelancing on the side. A few months after getting settled here, the stomach aches just went away. Go figure.
    15 minutes ago, I overheard a creative director from Chicago and an account SVP from NYC arguing over why no one was here until 10pm last night working on something. The takeaway? Some people live to work. Some people work to live. The debate will never end.
    People who save lives for a living don’t seem to be as stressed out as people in the ad biz. Maybe it’s time for our egos to stop inflating the importance of our industry. Sure, we have a lot of opportunity to shape popular culture. Sure, we help shape the fate of multi-million dollar accounts. But let’s be honest with ourselves. Writing a clever spot has nothing on pulling a person out of a burning building.

  8. Carl LaFong says:

    Darn it, I meant to say Todd in my previous post, not Ted.
    Although, come to think of it, I agree with what Ted had to say, too. He makes a good point: Even the brightest talents can burn out from overwork. Advertising is such an insular, incestuous culture as it is. If you spend all of your time at the office, where will the inspiration for your ideas come from? Old CAs and award annuals? Shouldn’t it come from observing and experiencing life outside the cubicle?

  9. namegoeshere says:

    You work however long it takes to get a great idea and make it work. Whether that’s 9-5 or 9-? depends on how much, how great and how efficiently the work gets done. The only pickle is deciding which ideas/client/CDs are worth the extra effort. I don’t think it’s wrong to work all night on something you really believe in. But hell if I’m staying to write crap copy for some banner ad that was a stupid media buy to begin with.
    What I AM sick of is people bitching about working late because it’s only advertising, it’s just a job. Fine. Go work on used car ads if it’s just a job. Leave the good assignments to someone who actually believes in their ideas and likes advertising (blasphemy!).
    Figuring out how to make someone laugh and buy deodorant in 30 seconds is actually a pretty sweet gig. Even if sometimes, that takes all night. Stressful, yes. The end of the world, no. I’d much rather be in advertising than be slicing open someone’s aorta or tossing burning babies down to the trampoline. Just work smarter and realize you’re going to have to work late sometimes. That’s the job, and you signed up for it. But also realize you are responsible for your own sanity. Set some guidelines for yourself and then have the guts to stick to them.

  10. There is a secret solution to this conundrum: refuse to do the work. It is the invisible, lowest ranking people work in the engine room trying to keep everything running in a quality fashion. If you refuse to be one of those people — by avoiding the work, shuttling the load to others, insisting on leaving at 5, etc.— people will strangely have more respect for you. Your social rank will rise and the burden of expectation will become lighter. You will be come a decision maker, a supervisor, a manager. Once you insist that you have a life and that you’re not so easy to push around, you will finally be putting the Peter Principle to work for you.

  11. You want to go home at 5? Work at Grey.
    But then you won’t get a book that gives you any security and you’ll be laid off after working on Cinnamon Toast Crunch for 12 years as soon as a junior team writes a campaign that sells instead of yours.
    But in those 12 years, you’ll spend a few more hours with your kids. Who’ll then be forced to pay for their own college.

  12. Sadly, I’ve heard Grey is a total sweatshop where creatives stay super-late.
    Doing what? I have no idea.
    But, I do know this: sometimes you’ve gotta work late, but rarely do those working late ideas wind up better than the regular hours ones.
    That’s been my experience.
    And working late on crap is so unrewarding, but working late on stuff you like can sure be fun.

  13. FriesWithThat says:

    I think that’s why people only last ten years in this business.
    You come into your career with twenty-five years experience in the art of gleaning insights from life.
    Then you spend ten years working late because everybody else does. Then what happens? After a decade, that pool of insights is empty because you’ve spent those years at the office instead of out in the world.
    Your work starts to feel stale. And before you know it, you’re writing FSI’s in the in house advertising department of your local department store.
    It’s a model that may be good for agencies with youth-driven clients. But it’s not much good for anybody else.

  14. I think part of the long hours required in this business by many good shops is caused by our need for creative stimulation and time to let ideas germinate. You come up with ideas, get outside creative stimulation, edit your ideas, come up with more, get more creative stimulation, edit those ideas, come up with more. It’s not about coming up with one good idea, its about coming up with 30 good ideas with the possibility of three great ones.
    It’s alot quicker to bang out the first five ideas that pop into your mind. And i also understand there are some shops that have you working 70 hours a week banging out crap. that must suck.
    But I think its totally natural that many creative shops require long hours in order to create the smartest and most in-depth communications.

  15. It gets less time-consuming as you get older.
    When I was a junior it took me forever just to focus on an idea that made sense. Now I can start from that place. So now it definitely takes a lot less time to get to the place where you start coming up with acceptable ideas.
    It’s never easy though- great work rarely is.
    There are too many people in the business who equate time in the office with effort and quality. I always push my teams out the door, tell them to go take a walk, go shopping, go to a museum– something– and then go back to thinking about the campaign. Staring at each other in the office generally leads to frustration.
    Finally, FriesWithThat and Yikes touch on a very scary part of our business: ageism. The fact that we rely on the 25 year olds who’ll work 90 hour weeks and toss out the 55 year olds who can do the same work in 30 hours.
    And to really drag this response out, my solution, for those of you who care, has been to try and get home at a reasonable hour (somewhere b/w 6 and 8) spend some time with the Tadpoles, and then put in another hour or two (or four) after they’ve gone to sleep.

  16. young folks. listen to me. i’m old. and still in advertising.
    staying late at the agency does nothing but bore you. it’s a creative industry. by all means work late. just not at the agency. bad pizza and fluorescent lighting don’t help the creative process. have a life. it’s a marathon. not a sprint.
    if you work in advertising you’re essentially self-employed. look out for yourself. nobody else will.

  17. great topic & responses. I’m writing this as an academic studying the working lives of media workers, including those in advertising, so bear with me…
    one thing I found in my interviews with “you” (in four countries: US, Holland, South Africa, New Zealand) is that the “work-life” balance really does not exist. this not in terms of actual working hours – which are, at best, highly variable and unpredictable. But rather in terms of how professional and private life are completely mixed.
    To get jobs, accounts, project assignments or (tempoary) team positions in advertising, “know whom” seems to work better than “know how”. Strong personal networks (based on friendships, going out together, and other distinctly “private” markers) are better predictors for successful careers than just doing your job from 9 to 5.
    So there really is no balance. I’m not saying that is a bad thing – it just seems that is the way work is generally organized.
    in other words: focusing on working hours obscures a deeper issue in the organization of work in advertising.
    (ps: more info on issues like this: Media Work). cheers.

  18. MacGuy2000 says:

    I hope some of you took the time to read the rest of the column. I did. I think it’s funny that everyone has jumped so heavily on the three sentences pertaining to the hours experienced in our business. FYI there are a whole lot of other sentences that offer great thoughts – regardless of her position and/or age. Well, for those who are too lazy – here are the cliff notes:
    1. A Degree has become cost-of-entry these days – so what else (as a grad) can you bring to the table. {Um, TRUE}
    2. Wear your passion on your sleeve b/c that’s the only thing that sets you apart from your peers (while she references the long hours two interns spent as an example, from the rest of the article I highly doubt this was the only thing she intended as ‘passion’ (ALSO TRUE)
    3. Respect everyone around you – regardless of rank, age, etc. (I wish more people followed this one!)
    4. When in doubt, be professional – Thank god we have professional (OCD) account-types or else I doubt we’d ever get any work sold through to our professional (OCD) clients!
    I think overall this article offers an insightful observation of our business – whether we like it or not – and offers advice that could apply across the board of business these days and that might be worthwhile taking to heart – regardless of what time you clock out at the end of the day.

  19. Here’s how I do it, and how I ask my folks to do it. This will strike you all as amazingly obvious. It did me, too – maybe that’s why it works:
    Work late when you have to. But don’t kill family life or social time. Clock out for dinner, hit the gym, then pick it up at home. Clear your head, and let it fill up with new ideas. Most of us can’t stop thinking, even when we “let go” — some of my best ideas have come in traffic, while jogging, while mowing the lawn. When they hit, I get back to it, stay up late, and write it out.
    Work late when you have to. Go home when you don’t. I also send folks away to play at 3:00 if there’s nothing to do. If your stuff is all wrapped up, hell, go to the movies. Go grab a beer. Go pick up your kids from school. It beats the hell out of pouring yourself into sitting around looking busy.

  20. After 26 years in advertising, both as a kind of wonderkid doing Super Bowl spots and running a small agency that had the worst atmosphere, I can tell you nothing changes.
    Agencies don’t change and people don’t change. If you are enjoying your work, you will gladly stay late or work the weekend. If you don’t enjoy it, as David Ogilvy suggested, I beg you to find another line of work.
    Advertising requires a certain commitment from you. Like sports or the music business. If you don’t want to commit, someone else will.
    I have worked countless hours and missed more family functions than I care to admit. Why because I like to work. Does that make me a workaholic? Maybe. But what if I’m having fun doing what I’m doing? Then it’s not really work is it?
    Find a way to enjoy your work. That way you won’t be consumed with trying to balance things. If you don’t enjoy being at the office, find something else to do with your life. Agencies aren’t going to change and the people who run them aren’t going to change.
    We used to joke that anybody can have a life. Only special people get to work in advertisng. If don’t believe me, go work in bank for a week. No pressure. Nine to five everyday. Home for dinner every night. Coaching little league. $10 bucks an hour. Balanced.
    But slowly the life force is sucked out of you and wake up one day and you’re 50 and wondering what happened to you’re life? What did you accomplish in your 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, for 30 years. Nothing.
    Lastly don’t confuse activity with productivity.
    Don’t spend your morning gossiping, talking sports and waiting in line at Starbucks. Get to work! That way you can go home at night. Don’t let people in the office waste your time. Don’t be late to meetings. Most meetings waste time. Get to the point and move on.
    Work through lunch. It’s not that great anyway. Eat it and be done. Budget your time. Don’t spend time working on projects that suck. Get it done and move on.
    Develop the ability to see the difference between a project that has a chance of being good and one that’s dead on arrival.

    •  @ troy.  Just finished reading your post and I’ve gotta say: “Bravo, Sir”  Your ability to justify your inability to dedicate time more efficiently toward things and people that truly matter in life is flawless !!  I can understand enjoying your work, and I actually applaud you for finding a job that you love, but to put your career above family is pretty selfish in the grand scheme of things.  I hate to say it because I don’t think anyone has the right to judge anyone else, but I can assure you that your lack of care towards those that love you didn’t go unnoticed.  Additionally, what’s the deal with your comment toward bankers?  I’m not a banker nor do I plan on becoming one but who are you to say that what they do is nothing?  And what are you doing in advertising, God’s work?  Your ego and arrogance are extremely offending, my suggestion would be to lose it and possibly become a little more humble, you’re not as big as you might think !

    • OMG Superbowl ads!!! how life altering!!!

      I feel bad for you. I’ve worked in advertising for 2 years and cute little parties and perks mean nothing. Shoving some ad NO ONE would miss means nothing. The talent art directors/designers waste in the name of advertising is sad. 95% of advertising is meaningless and so is you life apparently. Your cockiness is also one of the reasons I can’t stand most people in advertising.

  21. MacGuy2000 says:


  22. sweet lord have mercy says:

    Nobody knows the trouble i have seen. Nobody knows my story. Nobody knows the trouble i’ve seen.
    Glory hallehlujah
    Swing low sweet chariot, someone gonna carry you home–
    even if you are living out of a fuckin car.

  23. These are all great responses, reminders, and ideas.
    For me (being a good ol’ Nebraska boy), I get up with the chickens.
    My kids used to get teary-eyed when I’d head for the door in the a.m., only fifteen minutes after they wake up.
    It hit me. Why not discipline myself to go in early and get a shot at coming home at a regular hour. 3 out of 5 times a week (mixed with get your hands dirty, roll up your sleeves work ethic), I get my wish.
    Sometimes, I burn the midnight oil. But after the kids and my wife are asleep, who cares? I just flip on on-demand, kick back with the laptop and away we go.
    Sleep is overrated anyway. Beds and couches are practice coffins.
    (Of course, spending time on blogs midday isn’t exactly productive…so I

  24. My cousin would appreciate this website. hehe

  25. hell ya adveritising says:

    Yes Advertising requires a lot of work. Its hard work, but its also rewarding work. If you don’t like being at the office and doing the work then find another job. its that simple. Everyone I work with who is obsessed with leaving the office at 5pm really sucks at their job. It shows in everything they do because they’re doing the work just to get it done, not because they care enough to get it done right. If you think work is just a means to make it through life so that you can enjoy the few precious moments you have away from the office then you’re in the wrong line of work. GET ANOTHER JOB. Because truth be told, I can get an intern who would scrub the toilets 10 times over and sleep in the office for a chance at an unpaid internship. So if you are worried about a work life balance, please look into banking or paper pushing. Because in this industry, most everyone I know who has been doing this a long time loves what they do, and takes however long it may to get it done right and do a good job.
    Some people may see this as a lame excuse of a workaholic. I see it as a 10 year boot camp education on how to best sell products and service clients. You can’t get this type of real world education and exposure in school, but you sure as hell can come out of this industry a corporate stud.

  26. Pissed off says:

    Ha ha!  I’m a little late in responding, but you know, I work in an agency so I’m lucky I have time to do anything.

    Here’s my take…I have worked my ass off over the years.  Staying until 3AM, consistently working 12 and 15 hour days and I didn’t mind so much in the beginning.  I’ve received many promotions and am know as an extremely hard worker. My clients love me too…and I am the farthest thing from an empty suit.  I am a handful of months away from an Account Supervisor promotion as well (finally!)

    I am however quitting in the next month.  I have destroyed friendships, had to rehome my dog, dealt with depression and anxiety and have gained 30 pounds over the past handful of years. 

    Sure I make a lot of money, but I am in debt up to my eyeballs as I shop as a relief.  Yeah….stupid, but I’m working on it. I love my job (I’m in pharma advertising), but I find myself filled with rage over the fact that I am somehow not allowed to have a personal life.  I have seen complete idiotic VPs hired that don’t know crap, go home at normal hours and make 3 times my salary. So is that the dream?  Work yourself to death so you can get burn out and be an empty suit and finally exhale? 

    I am having fantasies at night over the day I give my notice.  It’s so close now that I am giddy.

    FU advertising.  You’d rather have a B team that will work 80 hours than a A team.

  27. A Note from the Author says:

    I wrote the article above four years ago, as an AE. Sadly, AdPulp siphoned a soundbite, presented it out-of-context, and result, it upset a lot of people – most of whom, I can assume by nature of their comments, lacked the gumption to follow the link and read the entire piece. 

    The point of the broader piece was to suggest that passion  – PASSION – was far more important than cost-of-entry credentials, the latter of which, everyone now seems to have. The above was only an example (one of many cited) of this passion, and by no means intended to suggest that overtime spent in frivolity was the key to success. In the piece I also talked about respecting everyone, regardless of rank or role, being nice to people, wearing your passion on your sleeve, and being professional when-in-doubt. My God… the horror of it all. I must have been off my rocker as so many people suggested in harshly worded personal emails to me and posts both on the Talentzoo site and here. 

    Thank you to those who saw beyond the soundbite. 

    Three years after writing this, I had worked my way up from AE to Sup to Director, and more than doubled my salary. I’d also spend holidays with my family (albeit, answering emails and client calls as needed  – with a jolly cocktail in hand), stood up in weddings, joined a writers group, attempted hot yoga, fallen in love, and gotten engaged myself – to a guy who wasn’t in advertising. 🙂

    As a creative and entrepreneurial bunch, we all have our own ways of navigating this business and our own needs and expectations for what work/life balance should be – whether it takes the form of early mornings or lunch meetings – working from a cubicle, or on a park bench; those of us who achieve what we want, care enough to do what it takes to yield successful outcomes for our clients, our agencies, our brands, our Creative – and ultimately, ourselves. No easy task!

    The “hardships” of the ad biz certainly aren’t for everyone – but if you love consumer insights, creative ideas, cracking difficult clients, and summer Fridays, and you can find a way to find the “balance” that is right for you and job you’ve been hired to do – it’s well worth it in the end.

    If you don’t love this business, if the good days don’t outweigh the bad ones – then all the promotions and money in the world will never make up for being miserable – but that can be said about any endeavor, can’t it.

    I don’t know if this will ever be read, but after all the fuss – and a few years to grow up myself, I felt compelled to the responses that continue to flow. 

    • Dan Goldgeier says:

      Hi Whitney,

      Thanks for taking the time to write back with the update. And congratulations on all the success you’ve had. 

      Since TalentZoo updated their CMS a year or two ago, the link above doesn’t work, so I can’t locate your original column or the comments they had on their site (some of which I do recall were nasty.) But let me just say a couple of things:

      First, having written over 150 columns for Talent Zoo and blogging on this site for 7 years, people will often misinterpret a column or blog post or pick and choose what they want to read. And they’ll get nasty about it. Believe me, I’ve gotten those emails and comments plenty of times. You hit a nerve on TalentZoo — and good for you for doing it. 

      But this post on AdPulp, and the subsequent discussion thread, wasn’t focused on the totality of what you said, nor does any of the discussion above reflect on you personally or your column. I took a bit of your column, that’s true, and put it together with one of the comments on Talent Zoo, and then began a tangential discussion–one focused on work/life balance in particular. 

      As you can see, we had quite a lively response. But most of it was addressing the questions I posed on the post, not the merits of what you wrote. Lots of people weighed in with many different perspectives. 

      We do that a lot on AdPulp–at least I do. We won’t take articles verbatim and repost them. Rather, we’ll use them as a jumping off point for a broader discussion. 

      You should keep writing and honing your perspective. I’m sure you’ve got plenty more to say now that you’re further along in your career. Thanks again for writing us.

    • Jorge Mori says:

      My wife is in advertising and spends most of her work days in the office rather than home, I am supporting her as much as i can possibly can but when sometimes she has to stay in the office until extremely late nights and i dont think its good for her, my father used to work crazy hours most of his life and now he is sick and suffers from stress and anxiety. I dont want the same for her.

      Am i being selfish? i dont even know anymore, im afraid that with time i wont even know her anymore