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Tales of the Univited #6 Euston, we have a problem

Creative people. Give us an inch and we’ll take a metric tonne, your collection of antique nail clippers and the contents of your kitchen drawers.

I was working in an advertising agency on Euston Road. It was my second proper full-time job. The promise of doing great work hung heavily in the air, like the stench of a student flat on a Saturday morning.

We had some impressive clients – a huge, highly respected national newspaper; a DIY warehouse chain; a humongous insurance company; a very famous lager and several household name FMCG brands.

On paper, it looked like a great move. But the cracks soon started to show.

The Creative Director was really funny and jovial. Then again he was stand-offish and grumpy. Then again, he was maudlin and distant.

Some days he’d flounce along the corridors of the creative department, cracking jokes and being one of the lads. Other days, he’d arrive late, march straight to his office, slam the door and not come out again until everyone had left for the day.

Manic depression meets a 6-figure salary, meets a deeply ingrained cocaine habit. A dangerous cocktail.

It became apparent that his personal demons were running the show. If we wanted a grown-up conversation, we’d have to get to the back of the queue behind Fear of Being Found Out, Blind Panic and Keeping up Appearances.

Well, at least we could find solace in working on all of those tasty accounts. Or so we thought.

There were three very senior creative teams who got all the best briefs. Fair enough, but being at the bottom of the food chain with no boss to champion your cause, meant having to go around with a begging bowl. And no one wanted to share.

When we did get the chance to pitch in, our work was mostly dismissed, so it never made it as far as the client. But we stuck at it, hoovering up crumbs from under other creative teams’ tables.

Then one day we were asked to present our ideas to the agency’s biggest client. When I say biggest, I mean BIG BIGGEST – they were running TV commercials every week, 52 weeks a year, and spending £millions.

The meeting was at 2pm. The client turned up over an hour late. He was fighting drunk and wasn’t interested in seeing any work. Over the next half hour or so, we were submitted to a slurred tirade of filth and sweaty laughter.

The Account Director fidgeted nervously, while we got angry. The client wanted to go back to the pub, and we did too (but not the same one). It was frustrating and humiliating. We left the meeting feeling betrayed. From that day on, the rot really started to set in.

Three months, four, five, six… we didn’t get a single piece of work through; not even a classified ad.

Burn baby, burn

So we started taking the p*ss.

I’d roll in at 10.30. We’d push a few pointless ideas around for an hour or so, then head off towards Soho or Bloomsbury for long lunches and walks in the park. We’d stroll back at 3.00 or 4.00 (to show willing and catch up on the gossip) and hit the road at 5.30 on the dot.

No one seemed to notice or care.

We were young, the agency was rich and they were paying us to muck about. So we pushed it further – to the point I was starting to get scared that we’d end up in court or in hospital. Or worse.

Arson, graffiti, drunken stupidness… didn’t matter how badly we behaved, no one batted an eyelid.

It was hilarious for a while. But like a spoiled brat, who’s temper tantrums were no longer getting results, I got bored.

We weren’t getting any work out and it felt like our careers were going backwards. So I started to plot my escape, but before I’d even lined up a single job interview, fortune stepped in.

As things were getting more and more wonky at work, things started getting even wonkier at home. After one argument too many, I split up with the girl I was sharing a flat with in Camden. She moved out and I could get out of my rent agreement within the month. All of a sudden nothing was holding me back.

I handed my resignation letter into the Creative Director, who looked at me with confusion and sadness in his eyes. I couldn’t work out if he was thinking, “why are you deserting me” or just trying to remember who I was.

Deed done, within a few weeks I did a runner to Thailand for three months, to sort my head out. Now there’s another story. Anyway…

What lesson can we take from this?

If you want creative people to work hard and stay loyal, they need much more than their own office and a nice salary:

– The opportunity to work on decent briefs
– Support from the rest of the team
– Encouragement and recognition
– To feel like they’re part of something
– Enough space to breathe, but not enough rope to hang themselves.

And if they don’t get these basics, they may go off the rails and burn your agency to the ground. Or worse.

Love and patience. x

And on a vaguely related note:

Tales of the uninvited #4: Junior Bake Off and the meaning of life

Tales of the uninvited #3: The day they killed advertising

Tales of the uninvited #2: A brush with death in Kashmir

Jonathan Wilcock (that’s me) is a Senior Freelance Copywriter.
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drop me a line here, or email