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An account strategist for Ogilvy & Mather in the Philippines died at his workplace, sick from pneumonia but apparently unwilling (or unable) to leave. I don’t want to comment on this particular man or his firm. It’s a tragedy and I’m sure everyone feels bad about it. Especially the man’s family. Yet, I’m pretty sure the root behavior won’t change. Not at that agency or all the sweatshops like it.

Here’s why: Fear. Be it of a losing a pitch or one’s job, fear of not getting what you want (raise, promotion, attention) or having it taken away, is insidious.

Fear is a powerful motivator but it comes at a tremendous price. (Look what it is doing to our country.) When fear creeps into an agency’s culture, it is always toxic and usually incurable. Fear makes people do bad things to other people and to themselves. Fear creates an environment of hostility and mistrust. I’ve seen it and felt it and have been hurt by it. Likely so have you.

The occasional all-nighter to win a pitch is NOT what I’m talking about. This is a good thing, bringing people together to win a glorious prize. However, when such activities become an expectation the bonding soon becomes bondage.

Mocking the so-called trend to “work from home,” people are afraid to leave at a reasonable hour, aware of the critical eyes upon them. The creative director who wants to see work at 10PM quickly turns from hero to heel. Yet, he or she is likely afraid of not calling the meeting as well. Probably because the agency’s managing director is expecting to see work first thing in the morning. If the presentation is not perfect then the MD will blame the CD for not working harder and longer. The cycle gets repeated. The virus of fear spreads.

While literally dying on the job is thankfully an ultra rare exception, there are far more commonplace consequences that are lethal. For example, each affected human is in turn hurting his or her family. Continuity at home becomes hopelessly disrupted. Marriages suffer. This makes everyone resentful and bitter: the employee to his boss for not giving a shit and to his spouse for not understanding. Resentments at home and office fester. The bitterness may lead to isolation, anxiety and depression. Alcoholism and “acting out” thrive in these conditions. Finger pointing. Blaming. Misconduct. People become the crappiest version of themselves. All because of fear.

But so what? Sweatshops work. For a period of time results are wrought. But it never ends well. For the individuals and eventually the agencies. Like an over-watered plant, the tips look good but everything below becomes rotten. I once worked with a guy who wanted a sweatshop more than life itself. He got his wish. I left that job. And he his home. Everyone loses when fear takes over.

For fearless creative hit me up: https://steffanwork.wordpress.com/

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I came home from work the other day and my daughter asked me how my day was. I said it was “harder” than some. She looked at me worried and said “But dad, I thought you liked work.”

I thought about that for a moment. My reply: “Just because something is hard doesn’t mean I don’t like it.”

I’m not sure she fully understood, let alone appreciated, my point. But I want her to. Many aspects in life (not just work) are hard. Hard as hell. But that doesn’t make them unlikeable. On the contrary a good challenge is often what makes life worthwhile.

Achievement and accomplishment are directly tied to mastering things that are difficult, be it work related, sporting or what have you. That is part and parcel to a purpose-driven life. Said another way easiness is not always your friend. Nor should it be. If my daughter grows up thinking ease of doing is all that matters then she might as well eat donuts all day long. Not a good plan.

I fear my daughter and many other people, including adults, take “easiness” as a euphemism for “likability.” A worrisome thought. I get that kids don’t enjoy doing hard things, like homework, chores or getting up in the morning.

But we move on, don’t we?

Maybe not. The phrase “famous for being famous” comes to mind. Without beating a dead horse our culture is inundated with halfwits and do-nothings that have achieved much without doing anything. Hard work has been replaced by being in the right place at the right time. Or some other form of pointless providence.

Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate a cakewalk, probably too much. Yet, I’m most happy when I’m focusing on a goal, be it in a run around the bay or tackling a tricky brief at work. I also know the feeling of accomplishment is as fleeting as it is fantastic. A new challenge is soon required. Hard work becomes its own reward and a spiritual one at that. The hunt, as they say, is more gratifying than the kill. This is what keeps me so engaged at work. Engaged period. Shortcuts, be they technological or psychological, have altered much. But not all. And for this I am thankful.

I’m convinced my daughter will figure out the path less trodden is often the more rewarding one and therefor more likable. If not my job, hard as it may be, is to teach her.


Mon dieu, work is sooooo boring.

You’ve got to love the French. The nation known for wine, women and song is going bonkers over the prospect of having to work for a living. Mass strikes. Angry picketing. Fuel blockades. The way they’re carrying on over President Sarkozy’s referendum (just passed) to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 years of age, you’d think the Nazis were again marching up the Champs Elysees. (One wonders, where were they the first time?) Sarkozy needs this referendum to save considerable money that would otherwise be paid out in France’s lucrative but archaic pension system. It seems like a reasonable idea, particularly given the global economic crisis. After all, isn’t everyone trying to get work as opposed to getting out of it?

In America, we roll our eyes at France’s seemingly spoiled citizenry, literally and philosophically. Here, most of us have to work until we’re 65 or older, some far longer than that. And unless we work for the government (for shame), it isn’t because we’re trying to qualify for a pension; those rarely exist for us. It’s because we need the income, obviously. But it’s also because we have a seemingly inborn need to be useful and relevant. For Americans, “retirement” means old age and old age means game over. The idea of golfing everyday or playing canasta strikes fear in the hearts of most Americans. At least, if they’re being honest. Even those who dislike their jobs are likely fearful of the alternative.

The French don’t have this “problem.” The idea is to enjoy life to its fullest -Joie de vivre!- And for them that is seldom defined by work. In America we’re always asking each other what we do for a living. The answer defines us. In France, the question is considered mildly off putting, gauche, and even offensive. In the USA a laissez-fair attitude about work is frowned on. Laissez = Lazy. Not so in France.

Do not assume I am on one side of this issue or the other. First of all, my mother was born in France and did not come to America until she was a teen-ager. Believe it or not, I spoke French before learning English. As fate would have it, I also work for a French advertising agency (Euro RSCG), which is owned by a French holding company (Havas). Even my previous employer, Leo Burnett became part of Publicis during my time there. Ergo, I’m pretty damn sympathetic to the cause.

Secondly, and more importantly, even though I define others and myself by their work I’ve lately wondered if that’s a good thing. I’ve discussed this tension over and over on Gods of Advertising. Often the debate centers on being a self-absorbed copywriter/writer versus being a good husband and father.

Had I been raised in France would this even be an issue for me? Were the criteria for being a successful man different would I have different views about working? Maybe I would be a bon vivant, looking forward to a life of leisure as opposed to mildly dreading it.