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Are agencies in the Middle East killing creativity with an overworked culture?
Overexertion limits creativity. Due to client-centric structures and stressful work conditions, many creative workplaces in the region struggle with talent retention.
The agency environment has long been hailed as an oasis of creativity. But, amid the pressures of a fast-paced and often hard-nosed digital world, agencies are becoming more all-encompassing than ever. Creatives are overexerting themselves to do the job. From perpetual urgency to overarching expectations, the potential for creativity is lost in corporate translation.
While working within agencies inculcates creatives with a spectrum of skills, agency culture often glamorizes overwork, constant hustle, and a lack of personal boundaries. When employees churn out creative tasks at the expense of their well-being, toxic over-productivity trumps their creativity.
Agencies mold hardworking people who learn to master multitasking but social media expert and consultant Hiba Bou Nasr said it all comes at an expense: work-life balance. “Working at an agency increases stress levels, has competitive environments, tight deadlines, unusually long working hours, and no flexibility.”
With almost 15 years of agency experience under his belt, co-founder and creative director of luxury creative technology company Bureau Béatrice, Jon S Maloy, who worked for several award-winning advertising agencies in Paris and the UAE before shifting his focus towards brand experiences, says his job affected his health. “A few years back, I really wasn’t mature enough to understand when too much was too much and what really mattered,” he recalled. “Work is work. No matter how much you love it, but life is life.”
Echoing similar concerns, Dubai-based creative director Rawad Habib, who has worked with several regional and international agencies before becoming the creative director at TikTok for the METAP, said most young, driven graduates thrive off that thrill of last-minute feedback, to working Saturdays and Sundays, and staying late. “However, it often leads to burnouts and depression.”
Having dedicated almost half a decade to the agency world before taking on the regional social media specialist role at a GCC retail company, Marwan Hasbini learned the truth of work-life balance the hard way: it rarely exists beyond self-development books. “I used to deal with governmental clients, and non-stop feedback and requests made me feel like they owned me,” he said.
One of the factors that limit the creatives, said Hasbini, is overexerting. “Our duties weren’t measured by creativity; instead, by time spent on each task,” he said. “Creativity is no longer a major component of agency deliverables. Most online content and artworks now look the same since there’s no time for brainstorming. Everyone is becoming robotic.”
However, creativity alone isn’t enough, said Bou Nasr. “If agencies do not take into account the client’s background, every single detail from the client’s brief, and the practicality of implementing ideas, no matter how ‘creative’ they get, their ideas simply won’t happen,” she added.
No matter how creative you are, being constantly caught up in unreasonable deadlines raises existential questions. “Let’s face it, it’s a stressful career. You’re getting used to it in some way to count it as a part of your lifestyle,” said Shady Deeb, an experienced content creator and founder of digital creative agency The MediaHoliks.
Before co-founding his agency, Deeb worked in the agency business for a long time. “At any point, you are dealing with many clients from different industries, all of whom are active and demanding, and you need to keep an open mind and try to understand everything that is going on around you,” he said.
Due to their client-centric structures and stressful work conditions, many creative workplaces in the region struggle with talent retention and employee turnover. “Most agencies have a core structural problem: their wealth comes from a service they offer, an external decision at the client end, rather than an internal product they have power over. The party that pays always holds power in this equation, and employees are often confused about who is leading: the client or their managers,” Habib said.
Working at an agency also implies fewer “me times,” said Deeb. “Whereas you build a closer relationship with your clients one way or the other, they sometimes abuse the employment relationship and start to consume your private time. This problem increased during the period of remote work.”
Hasbini explained how his well-being took a hit during his time as an agency creative. “Looking back at my agency days, I notice having become an impatient person, full of anxiety. Dealing with difficult clients affected me to the point where my visits to my psychologist increased.”
“The stress of never-ending long nights and early mornings and the lack of compassion of my management at the time threw me off,” said Maloy, who kick-started his journey in the region with Havas and TBWA. Following this episode, he took a step back from the industry for about six months.
Further, while burnout is one of the biggest enemies of creativity, other factors that come into play include “budget constraints, clients interfering with ideas and imposing their own, overloaded working hours, improper understanding of client briefs, and the agency’s inability to put itself in the client’s shoes and properly understand what is being asked,” said Bou Nasr.
That being said, management also plays a huge role in regulating client outbursts and keeping creatives motivated. “I’ve rarely met an engaged, proactive communicator in management,” Habib said, reflecting upon the commonly found management style in the agency world. “Trust is built when an employee feels cared for and that their well-being and improvement matter.”
Aside from toxic work cultures and client-induced anxiety, working at an agency can still benefit creatives if managed and incentivized correctly. “Agency life provides a faster learning environment as you are surrounded by seasoned and rising specialists who can boost your knowledge and open up your horizons to a whole new world of skills and personalities,” Deeb said.
Bou Nasr also credits most of her experience in the marketing and communication field to working at local and multinational agencies. “When it comes to soft skills, the agency world has taught me how to work under pressure, meet tight deadlines, multitask, communicate, and research,” she said.
“If agencies want to foster creativity, they need to redefine it. Creativity is about creating great original ideas that are useful to the client and the client’s consumers,” she added. “Doing so will lead to less back-and-forth feedback, lower frustration levels, and higher client satisfaction.”
Based on his experience as an accomplished and proactive creative director, Habib believes reinforcing creativity also has much to do with internal structure. “Going forward, creative agencies would do better by adopting a flat horizontal structure, annihilating titles, and allocating tasks on a per-project basis: an employee can do well designing on this task, another feels passionate about pitching this time, and that creates a more dynamic role play.”
An aspect Maloy has been focusing on is avoiding pitches. “People often underestimate how emotionally draining a pitch can prove to be. If you’re fortunate enough to win it, you kick-start the project feeling you’ve spent months on end working on it, and you’re burnt out before the event starts. So we like to keep things short and sweet. We will always favor proactively approaching clients rather than entering into a pitch process.”
While this employee-first approach implies having to miss out on opportunities sometimes, it allows Maloy and the team to produce work they love, which makes for a more future-proof creative process.
A fundamental part of the creative process, brainstorming can also make employees’ opinions feel more valued. “Weekly brainstorming sessions should be added to the team’s schedule to encourage their creative side,” Hasbini said. “Furthermore, team building and workshops build a strong trust and foundation within the company’s core.”
After all, an agency is worth no value if it doesn’t leave enough space for its creatives to explore their abilities freely.