When fear permeates Adland, it’s hard to do the things you should.

May 3, 2010

“I don’t know why sometimes I get frightened.”
-Split Enz

“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
-Franklin D. Roosevelt

It’s spring. Time to turn on the fear.

I’ve been writing a lot about fear. Fear of being left behind –in work, in memory, in death. Like it or not, fear is the ultimate bogeyman. None of us our immune to it. Certainly not me.

Healthy fear is a good thing. We cross the street when we see trouble. We brace ourselves for bad weather. Fear protects us from harm, as it has since the beginning of time.

What I worry about is unhealthy fear, the feeling in your gut that something bad is going to happen (usually to you) even though there is only circumstantial evidence to support it, sometimes not even that. This, my friends, is dread.

Let’s look at how dread manifests itself in the workplace. Specifically, our workplace. The economy blows; we all know that. Advertising is dying, or so we have been told…a thousand times. Maybe we’ve had a few bad meetings. Maybe the agency lost an account. And there it is: dread. Suddenly, our feet feel not so firmly planted on the ground. The air gets thinner. We begin to worry about our position within the company. Our future. So instead of doing the things we should do (focus and work harder), we become quarrelsome and defensive, pointing fingers, looking for scapegoats. Some of us hide, choosing to isolate. Because we feel things are falling apart we no longer feel a part of things. Sound familiar? Sadly, this is as natural as it is unhealthy. In the midst of fear, we react instead of act. We do what the primitive DNA commands. Fight or flight.

The effect on the creative department is obvious. Our minds close precisely when they should be opening. We cannot collaborate as well. We cannot create. We shut down. Like it or not, most creatives are sensitive, even the tough looking ones with tattoos and ripped jeans. No match for a culprit like dread.

Yet, I see fear boggling all of us to some extent. Even in good times, the specter of it looms. After all, what is given can be taken away. What goes up must come down. I used to think free floating anxiety was my curse alone. But now I know better. Still, there it is: unhealthy fear.

I know it’s spring, the days getting longer and warmer. No place for topics like fear and dread. Yet, now is a time of great upheaval. Lakes turn over. The ground heaves. Dead wood is exposed. New life replaces old. Change comes to advertising agencies, too.

What to do? For starters, try doing the very opposite of what your instincts compel you to do. (I know this sounds like an episode from Seinfeld but, if you recall, it worked.) Instead of fleeing, be present. Instead of fighting, offer to help. If you have an assignment tackle it. If you don’t, ask for one. Let go of the past (bad meeting, lost account). Stop sweating the future (getting fired). An old proverb states if one straddles the past and future, he invariably pisses on the present!

Find a way to do what you do best. And do it. Start writing. Open up that file and rework your layout. Again. Success in areas we can control mitigates fear of the unknown. This is the great lesson of the Serenity Prayer. It works like a charm.

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7 Responses to “When fear permeates Adland, it’s hard to do the things you should.”

  1. Nice thoughts and I agree, but couldn’t it be said that the fear is a trickle-down effect from fearful and reactive clients/holding companies to fearful and reactive upper management?

    Obviously, not all management is retreating into their shells! But footsoldiers in the creative and account departments will only rise as high as they’re allowed to by the status quo.

    “Fear is the mind-killer.” -Frank Herbert

  2. Madison said

    Sometimes fear is not necessary a ‘fight or flight’ type of emotion, but actually a manifestation of a perceived lack of control. YOU can feel secure in your abilities, but after reading/listening to the news it might appear that no matter how good you are and what you do, in the end you can’t control e.g. economy.
    The question is WHEN have we ever been able to fully control the externalities?

    In case of agencies, with the dawn of crowd sourcing and ‘conversations with consumers’, creative folks GAVE AWAY some of their control of the message deepening the feeling of losing a grasp of the marketing process. At the same time there was a rise in research and focus on the art to listening to consumers’ needs, trends etc. that once again lead to the feeling that no matter what you do as a creative if customers are interested in X you can’t do anything to change their mind (e.g studies showing that the youth is all on YouTube thus TV advertising is dead)

    No wonder that people who are truly successful appear fearless in their endeavors BECAUSE they don’t listen to what others say.

  3. Man does this hit home. Owning our fear only gives us a title on nothing. Owning our work only gives us another day to do so. Moving our cheese, putting the $4.00 chair in the snow cleared parking spot. Immobilizing, staying under the radar, tow the line, say what they want to hear, don’t make waves…

    What I think is important here is that we can’t replace our fear with activity – activity is expected, outcome is required. What quells my ever growing anxiety more than anything are the moments in time when I feel my actions have purpose – conviction – craft. Busy is easy. Cheese can move. Chairs get placed. Jobs are lost.

    Our humanness hungers for us to be purposeful, committed and most importantly present to our lives. What plagues my mind in the middle of the night I don’t think is fear of the unknown. It’s fear of the undone – fear not from what I have done – but what I’ve been unable to do for fear it’s “not right” “not good enough” “not what ‘THEY’ want. I fear inability to fulfill my purpose. I fear – literally “nothing”
    I have to share what happened tonight in the blog because it is directly related to “real fear”
    Right after I read the subject for tonight’s blog through Facebook I scrolled past it making mental note of “new post from Steffan” and hit the next post from a good high school chum of mine. “Thank God Dad is Alive” the post read. I immediately picked up my phone and hit his number on “my favorites”.

    “What Happened?” I said without the pretense of greeting.

    “Someone came in the station tonight and put a shotgun to my dad’s chest and demanded the cash in the drawer.” (family gas station)

    Luckily the assailant decided against the Murder Charge and retreated with all parties intact.

    Did I feel dread today? Absolutely. Without a doubt I doubted myself at many corners, fighting to focus on the tasks at hand trying to quell the echos of “you’re done” which ring through my head since my job was terminated with my previous company last May.

    But no one’s life was threatened. No one racked a shell at my loved one. I’m relieved that I could be there for my friend. And I wasn’t reading email while he let it go. I stayed present to someone else’s fear and for the moment I didn’t think about anything but my purpose: Be here, now. At that moment, I was fearless. Go figure.

  4. SRP said

    Excellent comments…
    Thank you for weighing in. It’s a difficult topic.
    Sometimes I think all neurosis is really just fear in disguise.

  5. jim schmidt said

    i can understand a marine in afghanistan having to overcome his fears. but someone working on clorax? or budweiser? please. what we do every day is beyond easy compared to what many people have to cope in their lives. And most of our so-called fears are merely paranoia rearing its ugly head (i will be revealed as a fraud or a one-trick pony) or the realization that our destiny is in the hands of fools. or worse, holding companies.

    • SRP said


      Big picture you’re right, of course.
      But I am only exploring fear for us, the common adman, and how it impacts the creative process. That is all…but at times that is everything.

    • Yes, obviously “fear” should be taken with a grain of salt as only addressing the issues Steffan was spotlighting.

      I just told a friend over the phone last night that despite the challenges, the frustrations, and the nonsensical roadblocks I’m just about the luckiest guy in the world all things considered.

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