Behind closed doors
Do we have a drug problem in the industry? Not according to those in the business willing to go on the record, but has the use of illicit substances simply moved behind closed doors? In a feature that first appeared in Encore, Robin Hicks finds out.
The idea that young creative types sit around smoking pot all day and snort lines of cocaine from their desks is the stuff of bad novels and media hyperbole, a hangover from the decadent days of the 1980s, industry professionals say. It’s a stereotype perpetuated by outsiders who’ve watched too much Mad Men, and insiders who make out that this business is more rock ‘n’ roll than it really is.
The reputation the creative industries have for being drug-addled is overblown and well out of date, say the industry folk interviewed for this article. Almost everyone has got a yarn to share about drug use at work, but it’s typically a romanticised tale from “back in the day”. A top Melbourne media agency that used to buy an ounce of cocaine for the office Christmas party, openly doing Scarface-esque lines from the bonnet of the boss’s car, sent the agency courier to pick up the coke one year in the ’90s. He was met at the door by notorious drug lord Carl Williams. Or so the story goes. Then there’s the heroin addict who managed to hold down a job at an ad agency. He was skilled at hiding his habit, borrowing money from almost everyone in the agency, but paying just about everyone back. He was a brilliant presenter, but rarely after lunch when he’d often fall asleep, drooling at his desk. He was only caught when he dropped his needle and it rolled into another toilet cubicle. He struggled to find work after losing his job, then lost his home, and lived on the street.
According to a former colleague, this man is now dead.
Now things are different, industry types say, and the business has sobered up. People don’t even indulge in that most ubiquitous of drugs – booze – as much as they used to, Encore is told. Even though in many companies staff can get as much alcohol as they want for free, if they are working late.
Daniel Monheit, the 31-year-old co-founder of Hard Hat Digital, a Melbourne digital agency, says that the squeeze on margins and time has pushed drugs and excess out too. Particularly in an industry like digital, where the hedonistic dotcom days are not quite forgotten.
“Everything now needs to be measured, explained and justified,” he says. “There’s less room for failure. Maybe back in the day, when there was less focus on the hard numbers, drugs were an issue. But budgets are too small to blow on boozy lunches and cocaine anymore. Frankly, who’s got the time and money to spend on getting high?”
Beady-eyed clients, once known to turn a blind eye to the occasional indiscretion from their agencies, no longer stand for it. “Ad execs aren’t rock stars anymore,” says the chief marketing officer of a top retailer. “There is no way anyone who works with me could sustain a real drug problem. I’d be all over them. Drugs can cause inconsistency in performance and I’m all over that.”
Drugs, it appears, have gone out of fashion. Or at least, the open use of them. And even those partial to the occasional sniff of Bolivian marching powder – seemingly the drug of choice for adland (see results from our survey below) – say they’ve either found better things to do, or have been priced out of the market.
A Brit working at a Sydney ad agency says drugs in Australia are too expensive and poor quality to bother with. “My drug-taking career ended when I arrived in Australia,” says the man who used to buy a gram of cocaine for four times less in London than here.
A client-side Melbourne-based PR manager says she’d rather spend $350 on “an amazing new dress” than a gram of coke, and would be astonished if any of her health-freak colleagues ever touched drugs, even on the weekends.
And anyway, says Chris Howatson, the 20-something MD of Melbourne direct marketing agency CHE Proximity, the industry’s reputation is quickly moving on from “flamboyance to hard graft” because of the public woes of the big media companies.
The refinancing of Nine, Ten’s troubles and the restructuring of the newspaper groups are killing the idea that working in the creative industries is a ride on the party bus, he says. Besides, other better-paying sectors such as finance, law and medicine are far more debauched than ours.
But for anyone who has heard snorting sounds while waiting to use the toilet at an awards function, or, like this reporter, walked into a creative department that whiffs of marijuana, the idea that drugs have left the business altogether is just as inaccurate as the image of decadence and high jinks.
At an ad agency Christmas party last year, there was a curtained off cubicle near the toilets, which an agency staffer informed the queue for the loo was to save people who actually needed to go from waiting while others powdered their noses. Then there’s the agency rumoured to have a coke dealer on staff…
While the days when the Melbourne Advertising & Design Club got banned from Crown Casino because creatives were openly racking up lines on the dinner table are probably over, drugs are still being used in work situations – and in surprisingly large numbers.
A snapshot survey of readers from Encore’s sister title Mumbrella taken a fortnight ago found that one in five people in the creative industries take drugs at work. Of the 254 people who completed the online survey, 22 per cent answered ‘yes’ to the question, ‘have you taken drugs at work?’ while 46 per cent said they knew of people who had, 36 per cent said they were aware of a colleague with a drug or alcohol related problem, and 37 per cent have taken drugs at work events.
Roughly the same number of people said they think the creative industries’ reputation for drug use is justified as those who don’t.
Advertising is where people suspect drugs are most prevalent, and by a big margin. One survey respondent suggested that advertising people, particularly junior staff members, are “trying to live out a Bret Easton Ellis novel” by snorting coke in bathroom stalls. Media is deemed the next most party-hard sector followed by public relations then TV and film production. Admittedly, this survey provided a mere snapshot of Mumbrella readers who are largely media and agency professionals but nevertheless, the one-in-five figure is “in the right ballpark” and reflects the incidence of drug use in the workplace, says John Ryan, CEO of Anex, a non-government organisation that tackles drug and alcohol-related problems.
Anex describes substance misuse as “a silent epidemic happening behind closed doors”. Ryan says the problem has not gone away, but is now better hidden as flagrant drug use has become less socially acceptable. “From what we see, the problem of drug taking at work has got worse over the last 10 years. Cocaine and amphetamine use in particular are on the increase in advertising as in other sectors,” he says.
This tallies with our survey, which found that the devil’s dandruff is by far the drug of choice for the creative industries (alcohol was not part of the survey). When asked which drugs they had taken, or knew of colleagues taking, 82 per cent of respondents said cocaine. The second most popular was marijuana (55 per cent), followed by party drug ecstasy (45 per cent). The survey also left out prescription drugs, such as the painkiller oxycontin, which are increasingly abused by workers, says Ryan. Since there has been no cross-industry research on drug taking at work, it’s hard to tell whether the creative industries are more drug addled than other sectors. There is no drug testing, as in the mining industry, and taking coke in an ad agency is considered less dangerous than, say, doing speed while driving a long-distance delivery truck. So it’s harder to red light the issue.
Drugs are more likely to be abundant in high-pressure industries like advertising and media where staff are relatively well paid. People with jobs are more likely to do drugs than those without. But why do people take them at work?
The biggest reason is the blurring of work and play. According to our survey, 67 per cent of people give this as the reason for using drugs at work. “There is a thin line between work and pleasure,” says one respondent to the survey. “Drug use helps bridge the gap.” Coping with long hours and stress are also factors.
Another respondent said: “At times I think if I’d taken drugs at work I’d be able to satisfy my boss’s stupidly unrealistic expectations about what is a normal amount of work for one person to complete. Hell, she should shout me a gram.”
There were plenty of reasons for doing drugs our survey-respondents offered unprompted. “Peer pressure”. “Wanting to look cool”. “Because we’re overpaid and don’t like our jobs much”. “It’s culturally acceptable”. “To get a confidence boost”. “Because they can get away with it”. “Addiction”.
As Ryan cautions, people in a work-hard, play-hard industry take drugs to cope with the rigours of the job – and it becomes a trap. But are there circumstances where, dare it be said, drugs are seen as useful?
Some construction workers are known to abuse painkillers to get them back to work faster. But what about creatives? Richard Overall is the creative director at Melbourne ad agency Freeform. It was after a couple of joints of marijuana, stood at the sink doing the washing up, that Overall came up with a script to an award-winning radio ad for Adelaide Casino in the 1980s.
“You are at your most creative when you’re most relaxed,” he says. “Of course there are healthier ways to achieve this, like yoga classes. But anything that gets your brain in the space where it can play and wander, removed from the fear and politics of office culture, can help crack an idea.”
Richie Meldrum is the creative director at Melbourne design firm Yoke. The ‘write high, edit sober’ principle has long been used in the creative industries, he says.
“There’s never a eureka moment when you’re high or drunk. But by removing the structures and borders of reality, it’s not unlikely that ideas will come easier.”
In media, sharing illegal drugs is sometimes used as a way to build relationships – a dirty little secret between media seller and buyer. An ad sales director suggested that in Sydney selling media is “all about your job title and how much coke you can give your client”.
Then there’s the agency boss who, known to do lines of coke in his office before pitches, went on a new business run. He sold his agency for millions a short while later.
But as Darren Woolley, a pitch doctor at TrinityP3, points out, the idea that cocaine is a reliable pitch aid is daft. “Anyone who takes coke and walks into pitch will wander and ramble, and will think they’ve done a much better job than they actually have,” he says.
But even John Ryan from Anex can see why drugs could be perceived as useful, despite being dangerous. “The irony with a drug like amphetamine is that it can increase productivity and concentration,” he says. “But the reverse is true when you come down.”
Drugs impair judgement. What might seem like a brilliant idea when high, you realise is a red herring when sober, says Ryan.
So it’s not surprising that the smallest proportion of those we surveyed said people take drugs because they provide some sort of inspiration.
Mind-altering substances change the perception of risk, and tend to lead to more risk taking, says Ryan. Creative people are risk takers by nature, and drug use is also about risk taking, he says.
That could be seen as a good thing in a sector that relies on daring to produce its best work. “Unless the risks are poorly calculated. If you have a drug addiction, your number one motivation is never your work. It’s drugs.”
Amazingly, there are still people in our industry with notorious drug habits who have managed to hold down senior jobs, although this is getting rarer as the ‘brat pack’ get closer to retirement.
A man who had reconstructive surgery on his nose some years ago thanks to his coke habit is now running a large agency group in another part of the world.
But there are also sad stories that continue to haunt the industry. One of the brightest minds in media lasted just one week at an Australian ad agency due to his debilitating drug habit.
This man was, the agency’s boss said, “unemployable and in serious need of help”.
A cautionary tale for us all.
This story first appeared in the weekly edition of Encore available for iPad and Android tablets. Visit encore.com.au for a preview of the app or click below to download.