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Analysis: Alcohol in adland and its impact on staff

Content warning: This story discusses alcohol dependency, mental health, and suicide. If you, or someone you know, needs help, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

It would appear adland has a drinking problem, and it is impacting staff of all levels, isolating non-drinkers and addicts alike. In this extended feature, Mumbrella’s deputy managing editor - news and analysis, Brittney Rigby*, shares her experience, and those of a range of industry professionals, to unpick why our industry operates this way.

Alex Watts doesn’t drink, but he used to. In 2017, the 30-year-old had a year off alcohol, before going back to it the next year. “I’ve learnt all these great lessons, I understand my limits, I’m going to be so capable of moderation,” DDB’s head of social told himself. Within two months, he was drinking as much as ever. Or, as he puts it, he was drinking “like everyone else drinks” in advertising. But lots of people rely on that excuse. “‘I’m drinking as much as my MD is’, or ‘I’m drinking as much as my mate is’ and that’s just the way it’s going to be.”

Adland networks and negotiates, celebrates and commiserates over alcohol. But it takes a toll. Almost half of the industry is drinking at risky levels, last year’s Mentally Health survey revealed, despite the broader population’s consumption declining over time. 30% are drinking at that lowest level of ‘risky’, 8% are drinking at a harmful level, and 6% are dependent.

These figures don’t exist in a vacuum; adland’s mental health record is an indictment: 56% of the industry display symptoms of depression, and 52% of anxiety. One fifth of our peers are severely or extremely severely stressed. And only 6% think their company is addressing mental health highly effectively.

45% of the industry is drinking at risky levels. Click to enlarge

“When I got to silly season of 2018, I was exhausted,” Watts says. “I was having a bunch of really surprising medical problems and I was super depressed, to a point that I was just like ‘I need to get out of the industry. I can’t do this. I can’t handle advertising anymore’.”

It was a friend’s birthday at Goros, a Japanese bar in Sydney where “we did karaoke and I got absolutely shit faced”, that prompted Watts to become sober. At one point during the night, he climbed onto a pool table and attempted a dip – commonly called a ‘death drop’ – which involves extending one leg, bending the other, and falling onto your back in a very quick and dramatic sequence. It isn’t as easy as the drag queens on RuPaul’s Drag Race make it look, as Watts found out.

“I didn’t hurt myself, thankfully. I embarrassed myself and tore my jeans open, and was at Goros, at two in the morning, pants open, just drunk out of my mind.

“There were colleagues at this thing as well … Thankfully, everyone was kind of on the same level, so I don’t think anyone else remembers it as much as I do. But the day after, the hangover, I was just like, ‘What the fuck am I doing?’ And that’s when I stopped drinking.”

If you say no in an agency and nobody hears it…

Personally, I don’t drink much. The next morning anxiety-hangover is rarely worth it – without fail, the wine glass extends its spindly, finger-like stem and turns up the dial on the day-to-day hum of my anxiety disorder. But as Watts says, you’re rarely allowed to make the choice not to drink peacefully: “Even if you say you’ll only have one drink, you’ll get pressured into the second one … maybe you won’t be more fun, but you will have more fun”.

But a senior industry figure will insist. Soft drinks and water are hard to find; waiters circle with trays of cocktails and wine and beer. I’ll regularly nurse a single drink to save the exhausting repetition of ‘no, thank you’.

A quote from one Mentally Healthy study participant

“Sometimes I would have the intention of driving,” says Megan, whose name has been changed to prevent a potentially adverse impact to her career.

The 28-year-old media manager’s desire to have just one drink would be met with, “‘C’mon, it’s Wednesday, we’ll have a bigger one tonight. It’s close to the weekend, leave your car here’”.

According to Megan, younger talent can be “swallowed up in that kind of life” because of the pressure. And leaning into it can feel like a way to increase the value of a low-paying job.

“You’re pushed to go to these events to make these relationships with the publishers, to benefit the business and the client. You’re not getting paid a lot, but you get to go to this show, and you get to go drink here and have dinner here.”

She’d think: “Well, I can’t afford to drink these cocktails or have this dinner or drink this wine really on the weekends, so why not live it up now while I can. I’m doing all this extra work.” Her friends would say, “Oh my god, your job is so cool”, but she felt “like crap”.

I previously worked in the legal industry. The hours were long, and drug and alcohol dependence is common. But the media and marketing business is something else, its culture a large bath of booze. I ask Watts why advertising is like this. Firstly, he points out, you can’t easily untangle the industry’s culture and Australia’s. Think about the definition of the word ‘sober’: “serious, sensible, and solemn”.

“And that’s weird, isn’t it? Isn’t that funny? Isn’t that such a challenging barrier to sobriety, that the Western cultural context of sobriety is not fun,” Watts asks.

“Fun people are heroes, we’re larrikins… Even the way we venerate beer advertising. I don’t work on any beer brands currently, so I can say this: No one’s done a good beer ad in Australia in a long time, but we will hold up beer advertising as [though] that’s where the truest version of the Australian spirit is.”

Watts

But there has to be more to it – we’re also an industry dominated by Brits and expats. And Watts tells me his friends don’t drink with their colleagues everyday.

“My wife’s a teacher and they have Christmas parties. They have a couple parties a year, but they’re not getting blotto three, four nights a week as a group.

“Drinking there is instead individually moderated, which is still difficult and may still lead to over-drinking, but it’s not mandated. The cultural pressure there is different to the cultural pressures that we’re talking about in advertising.”

I think Watts gets even closer to the conundrum when he muses: “The industry trends towards big energy people who like to do big energy things, and the social rewards for being a big energy person at a party feels great. It is exhilarating to chat to everyone, to be in every moment, to be everyone’s friend.”

I’ve wondered regularly during my time at Mumbrella how anyone with an alcohol addiction, or recovering from one, could remain in this industry, or at least attend the events that lubricate it.

‘I just didn’t want to be here anymore’: Drinking at risky levels

Advertising’s drinking culture drove Beth, whose name has also been changed, out of the industry. When she moved from Wollongong to Sydney at 19, she didn’t drink much, maybe once every two weeks. “There was nothing ever at work. We had one awards night a year where there’d be a bit of alcohol, but that was it.”

Then she started working at radio station 2GB – “I thought I’d made it” – and she drank more, first at Friday drinks, then at client lunches – “so many relationships in the industry are formed and cemented and deals done over lunches” – radio ratings parties, and other functions. Beth’s alcoholism was progressive, but persistent; she ended up drinking daily, and getting sick.

“I had really bad depression and anxiety… It was a really lonely, scary time. It went from being social at work, to me going home and drinking on my own all weekend, because I didn’t want to see anyone because it was too painful.

“I was always too scared to say anything because of the stigma attached to it [but] I had become addicted.”

Part of the challenge was, “I didn’t know how many drinks I was going to have”. “I remember, if it was a Friday night thing, dreading all weekend going to work on Monday because I was like, ‘How did I behave?’ Experiencing blackouts where I couldn’t remember anything that happened,” she recalls.

“I’d get told sometimes I was really, really fun. Sometimes I’d get really upset and I’d cry and I’d be embarrassed, especially at some of the big advertising functions when everybody was involved. Stuff that I’m not proud of, and it’s not a true reflection of who I am, but when I was drinking that much, I became somebody that I don’t recognise.”

During COVID-19 lockdowns, the industry’s drinking habits worsened. 51% of the roughly 1,500 respondents to the Mentally Healthy study reported drinking more. Beth wasn’t surprised by that jump: “Something like a lockdown back when I was actively drinking would have been the best thing ever, because I could drink with impunity and nobody would know. I could pour a drink at lunchtime at home, and I wouldn’t have to worry about somebody smelling my breath.”

The industry drank more during COVID-19. Click to enlarge

Eventually, Beth’s company asked her to stop drinking. “We don’t want to cause a scene,” a manager told her. It didn’t help. She was still dependent on alcohol, but felt even more isolated, “like an idiot”.

“I felt like a bad person. I felt like I was a disappointment. I’d wake up in the morning with a lot of guilt, shame and remorse… Because I didn’t understand the disease of alcoholism.

“And in the early days, when you’re trying not to drink, if you surround yourself in those same environments, you’re gonna drink.”

Beth began calling in sick to work, but was lying to her health professionals, saying: “’I’m anxious, I’m this, I’m that’, but I wouldn’t tell the doctor the truth, that I’ve drunk three bottles of wine the night before”. One doctor told her that if she kept drinking, she’d die.

“I just didn’t want to be here anymore. I wanted to take my own life, because I thought ‘This is just so hard. I can’t live with alcohol, but I don’t know how to live without it’”.

Beth knew she needed help, so she resigned. Recovery and advertising felt incompatible, “to the point where, when I got sober, I was like, ‘How am I ever going to go to work again without drinking?’” She went to an addiction treatment centre to wean off alcohol safely, and is now two years sober.

But she hasn’t returned to adland. Looking back, she thinks she didn’t realise she had a problem as early as she should have because heavy drinking “was normalised and that’s what everybody did”.

‘So many senior people are massive alcoholics’: Culture from the top down

One senior media executive muses that drinking is so prevalent because it’s enabled from the top down: “so many senior people are massive alcoholics”.

“Look at pubs in Pyrmont or Surry Hills or North Sydney, and they’re often jammed with senior managers at media companies,” they tell me. “I was punched by a senior manager at a media agency I worked at more than ten years ago, in the office and for no reason. The manager got put on a week’s leave and still works in the industry. Ended up being promoted to MD at the same holding company.”

A quote from a Mentally Healthy survey participant

Leaders create, or erode, culture, and as Watts observes: “if the culture is a drinking culture, to participate in the culture, you have to drink”. That creates an expectation, whether it’s explicit or implicit, for junior and mid-level talent. “That’s the wild thing, is that people take it as a personal affront,” Watts adds. “’Oh, it’s my farewell. Just have a drink, just one drink. It’s Christmas. Come on, mate. What’s it going to do? What’s the hurt?’”

At Megan’s old job, her mental health deteriorated, but she didn’t feel safe disclosing that because managers had made some “really sly comments” about employees previously hospitalised with mental health issues.

Advertising’s ‘glamour’ is a thin veneer, easily chipped, but effective enough to distract from the danger of drinking multiple times a week, every week. And a booze-soaked night with colleagues can very easily flip from fun to job-threatening. At internal work events Megan attended, “there was always someone that would tell upper management what they think of them”, causing “quite a lot of chaos”.

“That could sometimes get very ugly and quite awkward,” she continues. “It’s hard because it’s encouraged. But then at the same time, if they want to get rid of you, I’ve seen it before where they [management] use it against people later on. And it’s unfair because it’s like, ‘Well, you’ve condoned this bad behaviour and it’s okay when it suits you, when it’s building relationships for your business.’”

Watts has noticed that seniority matters; the further he’s climbed, the less he’s been pestered to drink. Now, when a creative director or chief strategy officer asks “Hey, do you want a beer?”,  he responds, “No, I don’t drink”, and they no longer egg him on.

He says he’s gotten better at the hardest but most important part of sobriety: recognising when he wants a drink, but then examining why he wants one. He gives the example of desiring a cold beer when he’s out in his garden, not necessarily because he’s craving the taste, but because drinking on a sunny day is a thing people do.

“Why do I want to drink in my backyard today?” he’ll ask himself. “The answer will change. Sometimes it will be, I had a fucking hard day’s work, and I just love a beer. Other days, I just need to switch off, I need a break. And then other times it’ll be like, I just want a beer because I want a beer. And all of those answers are different, right? They all have different, complex things and they take time to engage with.”

Now imagine you’re in the office and someone goes to pass you a can. Or at a lunch event and a colleague or client says they’ll order a bottle of bubbles. It’s much harder to find the space and willpower to step through that thought process, Watts acknowledges. But, “when someone asked me for a beer, if I’d want a beer, I’d always say, ‘Oh, just give me a second. I’ll think about what I want’. And that trigger, that little bit of time, gives you the space to answer the question properly.”

The importance of such contemplation is why Watts has an issue with initiatives like Dry July. While “it’s really nice for people to experiment with not drinking… there’s such a race to the finish line”. As soon as 31 July arrives, “it’s like, 31st, I’m gonna get fucking shit-faced… I’m not really judging those people, but it gives you a timeframe to not drink in, rather than giving you the tools to examine drinking.”

A cultural problem, in more ways than one

While the aforementioned senior exec singles out inner-city bars as industry drinking hubs, Watts claims those bubbles extend from offices to homes. In Sydney, a big chunk of the industry lives near the ocean, either in the Eastern Suburbs or Northern Beaches, and these postcodes act as incubators of cliques and connections. Many agency bigwigs end up at the same watering holes on Saturday nights (Watts mentions one and asks me not to name it because “they’ll get mad”). I live in Parramatta, and can’t recall ever meeting an exec also based in Sydney’s Western Suburbs.

What do our drinking habits mean for the industry’s goal to be representative of the people to whom we’re trying to sell stuff? Watts notes that, “if we are to be a diverse industry, we have to allow for people who don’t drink. And there’s a lot of people that don’t drink culturally”.

Then there are those who don’t drink because they’re sober, or pregnant, or on medication which doesn’t mix well with alcohol, or having a night off, or prioritising a big meeting the next day, or their caregiving responsibilities.

Founder of agency Electric & Analog Peter Brennan continues that list: “People who go to the gym in the morning, or go for a run, or go for a surf, or entrepreneurs who are really working hard and have deadlines and are under immense pressure at work. Or young parents that are being woken up every hour by their baby and trying to function through that.”

40-year-old Brennan had all of these people in mind when he co-founded Heaps Normal, a non-alcoholic beer company for “whether you’re off the beers tonight or you’re living a life of sobriety”. I ask him whether it’s easier not to drink when you can still hold a can and have something that tastes like beer. That’s the point, he explains.

Brennan. Source: LinkedIn

“It’s by no means an exclusive and anti-alcohol movement, it’s just having a more mindful relationship with drinking.

“The reason we created it was to be able to be in that situation where we could have a beer, still be the life of the party, still being involved in the conversation, not stand out like a sore thumb, not have awkward questions like ‘why are you drinking a Coca-Cola?’”

While each of the Heaps Normal co-founders have different motivations for successfully creating and selling a non-alcoholic beer – they snagged $1.3 million from investors late last year – Brennan acted on his lifelong ambition to create a brand after becoming a dad.

“I’ve personally never been a good drinker. My dad was an alcoholic. I lost him to suicide when I was 11-years-old. I think I always kind of grew up in the shadow of that. I never really came to terms with it.

“Then when I became a teenager… all my friends would go out drinking and I joined them, but I was always the one who would get emotional or would do something stupid or would get in a fight with somebody.

“The older I got, the less frequently it happened, but when it did happen, I would wake up going, ‘I can’t remember what happened at the end of the night’.

“[I] became, I guess not reclusive, but just avoided those situations where I knew ‘alright, there’s going to be booze flowing tonight. I could probably get involved and I’d probably wake up in the morning with anxiety… and regret’.”

Just 3% of last year’s Mentally Healthy respondents said yoga classes are absolutely essential. Click to enlarge

Watts has also turned his attention to finding alternatives. When he wants a drink, he’ll ask “what’s my physical reminder that I can drink and have that moment without the alcohol?” and “go and get something that’s bubbly and I can put it in a nice glass”. At the moment, it’s the Kombucha he brews.

I spoke to a variety of people over many months for this story. Every one of them thinks the industry also has an onus to do better. Megan says some publishers have started hosting yoga, or heading to a nail salon instead of a boozy lunch.

Although, “people were making silly excuses like, ‘Oh, I don’t think it’s appropriate to be in my workout gear … with someone I’m going to be negotiating with’. And I’m like, ‘Yeah, but do you think it’s appropriate to be necking all these drinks with them and then vomiting on yourself?’”

Sobriety ‘changes the kind of work that you do’

Unsurprisingly, Beth’s journey from addiction to sobriety has had ripple effects: her liver has repaired itself, her nephews can rely on her, and she has a “really good routine”.

“Even little things like eating, like I had to teach myself how to eat properly again, because in the end, all I was doing was drinking,” she says. “I don’t have the shame that I had… you’ve got to work at it every single day. You do get there in the end.”

The industry is moving slowly. Late last year, Watts was “hearing about things that have happened at Christmas parties after I’ve left and when everything goes awry. The drunker you are, the bigger the moment, the wilder the thing you’re doing, the more fun it is.”

But ultimately, he’s at a point where he’s “comfortable” in sobriety and thinks he’s better for it.

“I still work for alcohol brands… but I’m very transparent with them about that.

“‘I’ll be like, hey, I don’t drink. And that means the way I’m going to work with your brand is probably slightly different than the person who’d just be like, ‘let’s get everyone on the piss’.’ And it changes the kind of work that you do.

“I’m a better husband and I’m a better friend and I’m better at my job… I try not to evangelise too much, but honestly, advertising would be better if we didn’t have our drinking culture. Because we would have to find other ways to have culture, and they might be healthier.”

*Earlier this month, Brittney Rigby announced that she would be joining DDB Group Australia.

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