There's no better way to describe what we do in this business, this thing of ours: "it's all in your head."
We do everything we can to conjure up a story, a meaning in the heads of our audience. It's the heads of our agency partners and clients that we need to see nodding. It's in our heads where strategies and ideas are sparked and nurtured.
So it's almost inevitable that it's our heads that are also our worst enemies.
I don't have any proof that our business is more likely than any other industry (like say ER nurse or soldier) to trigger mental health issues. But my humble half-baked insight would be that advertising is probably up there as not being great for mental health.
On a daily basis it forces you to expose something of yourself. As a creative, you have to be passionate about the ideas you're working on and then presenting; you have to believe in them, you have to put everything you have into them, otherwise they just won't be very good. I can confirm that the same thing is true in strategy, and I've come to understand that it's also true in different ways for account and media people. You're going to do a lot of work and spend a lot of time with your clients; you simply can't be on autopilot and be successful.
And in opening yourself up, your work – and by extension, you – becomes vulnerable. Most of it will be rejected; that's inevitable when we present three concepts for every project. You will likely feel rejected in an extremely personal way when two of those three concepts get killed. It'll be worse when they all get rejected and you have to go back to do three more. You will spend a lot of time sucking it up, pretending that it doesn't affect you, and doing exposing yourself all over again. Day in. Day out.
Perhaps it's the cumulative impact of all that emotional exposure, but many of us begin to doubt our ability, clouding our judgement, which leads to second guessing. The work suffers. And gets rejected. And we double down on insecurity.
Of course, even brilliantly successful ad weasels like Don Draper and Darrin Stevens gleefully self medicate. In my early days as a somewhat less successful ad weasel, the self medication meant four nights a week at the Pilot. It was a way of temporarily forgetting the rejection, and the need to do it all over again the next day.
So your sense of self worth, any kind of healthy mental equilibrium, is weak at best. Add in a relatively normal life event like relationship or money problems, or illness, and not even Stella Artois can help. Your brain betrays you, tells you you're worthless, tells you not to bother.
Of course I'm not saying that's the progression for everyone – it's been mine, roughly, a couple of times. But it's a common story in our business. And depression and anxiety are common in our business. If 1 in 4 Canadians generally will suffer from a mental health issue, the number in advertising is somewhere north of that.
And I'm not sure what to do about that. As I said at the start of this post, it's all in our heads – and we more or less know it. We tell ourselves some version of, "fake it until you make it." We tell ourselves to act normal and we will be normal, eventually. And we're terrified of revealing any weakness in what after all is a giant headgame.
The hardest thing to remember is that the doubt, the anxiety, the terror and the feelings of lack of worth are not reality – they're quite literally just in our heads.
But that's a tough sell to folks who believe that's where reality is.