I’m a copywriter and I’m not going to apologise for that to those who consider themselves right-on, though I can’t help but laugh along with the likes of Bill Hicks who famously encouraged all advertising folk to ‘just die’. I don’t kid myself that I add to the world much by wrapping up certain products and services in storytelling – although now and again I get to work on something a little virtuous, which is fun. Does that make me cynical? Perhaps, but I don’t feel cynical, and here’s why.
I wasn’t always a copywriter. Until a couple of years ago I had been an A level teacher teaching Literature, English Language and Creative Writing for nigh on a decade. I did a good job, I enjoyed it for the most part and my contribution made a measurable difference to the lives of many hundreds of young people, many of whom felt inspired enough to continue to study those subjects themselves.
I left teaching, in part because it proved too much to fit a 60-hour+ week (though paid for around half that) around bringing up a young child in a way that was in line with my views of what half-decent parenting should be. Many teachers handle it, I couldn’t – the price on my emotional and mental wellbeing was too high, and I’m not going to apologise for that either.
But there are many who will concur with the view that the education system as it is, squanders creativity, energy and enthusiasm until good teachers are powered only by an overbearing sense of responsibility and the fumes of the good will that are left in the tank.
When I left teaching without a job to go to, all I had were my creative skills, some literary knowledge and a bit of an understanding of how language works, plus a fair bit of experience working closely with many different people. I didn’t have much in the way of a commercial portfolio (some bits and pieces from over a decade ago when I was freelancing), but I was lucky in that a young marketing agency was willing to take a chance on someone who, if nothing else, had a decent work ethic, solid grammar and some proofing skills.
Some will say I should have thrown myself into my own creative work, which I did as far as my remaining pay permitted, but where will your creativity get you a career if you haven’t been immersed in semi-supported bohemia with parental patrons propping you up since your toddled out of your teens? But I was lucky as the commercial word was happy to accept me – in spite of a modest CV. So I began to make the transition from public sector to private, and repackage my skills set accordingly.
In an advertising agency I could flog my wares alongside other creative types: designers, web developers, illustrators, filmmakers, other writers, not to mention energetic and bright project and account managers, each of whom is motivated by doing their job well. In marketing, the patron of the writer or artist is the brand rather than a nineteenth century aristocrat – or the parent of the trustafarian.
To brands, my value as a copywriter is higher than my value as a teacher is to our current government. To brands, good ideas are respected more than good ideas in the teaching profession, which are muted by a stifling system that works to diminish a teacher’s spark and self worth. To brands, agencies are paid generously for the creativity they foster, whereas to the government creativity is a buzzword applied to compel educators through ever-diminishing hoops in spite of the associated personal cost.
And yet, I’ve just learned about a new charity, one that has been set up for overworked creative professionals within the marketing and advertising industry. This charity is NABs – the National Advertising Benevolent Society.
‘Bollocks to that!’ I said when my colleague first flagged it up. Why should a charity for those working in the most affluent of careers exist when there are many thousands of actual deserving causes out there? I had to pause to consider the fury I felt about a charity having been set up to support ostensibly hard-pushed, overworked and stressed out creative professionals.
I’m one of the lucky ones: I work in an intimate and friendly agency in the southwest. I complete a 9-5 day with a lunch break (unlike in teaching when day two begins again at 7 and finishes gone 11pm almost every night of the week and most weekends, for most months of the year). I have a decent line manager, and a workload that’s sensibly managed by a conscientious and realistic studio manager. I take advantage of a flexible working policy that means I can sometimes work from home – all major perks when compared to teaching, for which even the much-lauded holidays turned out to be something of an exaggeration.
I understand that it’s not like this for many agencies in London, where cut-throat companies hire junior staff, often on minimal pay as interns, or on a voluntary basis for months, with the promise that they will glean useful ‘experience’. Here managers, clients and deadlines are demanding and unsympathetic to the existence of any reality beyond the working day or night. In the advertising industry proper, there appears to exist an almost cult-like commitment to not only selling your creativity and vision, but your body and soul to brands, just so you can add their sacrosanct names to your LinkedIn profile. These you will reel off in hallowed breaths to prospective employers, ones who may pay you well enough so you can afford not to kip on your mate’s couch three years after you have left university. You might even nurture dreams of one day getting on the property ladder, albeit in a city owned by oligarchs – who might make much of their money from, well, the clients you work for.
So it’s perhaps not all that surprising after all that against this backdrop a charity has sprung up, one that recognises that there’s a layer of the workforce within the advertising and marketing industry that’s being exploited for its intellectual and creative labour. Not dissimilarly perhaps to their counterparts in education, who instead of ensuring corporations yield baffling profits are merely attempting to facilitate the learning of subsequent generations.
NABS is a ‘benevolent’ organisation. It exists presumably because it has to – never mind the fact the advertising industry is not short of a few quid. Despite this, at the bottom of the ladder there remain those suffering from exhaustion, stress, depleted wellbeing and the resulting mental health problems.
But why should an employee with a degree or knowledge of marketing, SEO, design or English need to be rescued by a benevolent society in one of the richest, and most powerful, industries of our time? And yet, why should a teacher, whose job mostly constitutes social work and voluntary hours, have zero support from any charitable institutions funded by sympathetic benefactors?
The answer is clear: the commercial world is deemed worthy of charity; the educational world is not.
And perhaps for this reason, teaching remains one of the few professions for which unions still hold some modest currency. But teachers, often inhibited by the financial strain of the rising costs of living life, single parenting, childcare costs, and an unbearable pressure to ‘do right by their students’ – not to mention handling the ill will vented at them by large swathes of the right wing media-reading public – often feel they simply cannot afford to strike. Crossing a picket line is sadly now pretty standard for many. Unions are now so diminished and demonised by the corporate press and their agents as to have become almost entirely powerless. Nevertheless, when the worst happens and a teacher is on the edge of cracking up, or when they encounter brutally unfair circumstances, members can still seek some refuge from their union.
But in the private sector, where does such refuge exist? Sure, there are unions out there. Some creatives – copywriters among them – can join the NUJ for support, advice and guidance.
Gone are the mills and mines, but where is the culture of the union in a modern commercial landscape? Can an ephemeral workforce reared on consumer culture and the mantra that unions of the 70s are a Bad Thing, really expect to find support in a collective body that will fairly represent them against exploitative employers that benefit from maintaining those beliefs?
What’s clear is that whether they are in the private or public sector, enthusiastic, creative people are being tapped for those same skills and abilities that are valued as a commodity, but not as a resource, and there are currently limited protections in place to look after them.
Much like the corporatist attitude to the natural world, the business entity will use up those resources until they are depleted or spent, and then they will replenish them with generations of new hopefuls – be those teachers or marketing professionals. But without the former, where will the latter come from? Who will help inspire the young to harness their creativity and apply it? What will happen when there are no teachers beyond cover staff and NQTs left to teach, and young imaginations are so without stimulus that they don’t even expect to be financially recompensed for their creative resources?
Today, workers must go ‘above and beyond’ what is asked. They must be a ‘grafter’ with a ‘can do’ attitude, someone who commits themselves in total and with gratitude to their employer, because this is the ‘real world’ and proper jobs are hard to come by. They must do what’s required smilingly, and make the job their own – no matter how banal it might be, and they must ‘step up’ – whatever that actually means. And all without a career trajectory, or one that won’t be recompensed even with somewhere decent to live.
And if you’re not up for that? Then you’re problematic, idealistic, a naysayer, not a ‘solutions person’ and you can probably expect an enthusiastic and desperate worker to fill your place because you are, after all, dispensable.
What is clear is that we need to take a new approach to creativity and imagination as worthy of value, to the producer of that work as well as to the recipient. Resources like inventiveness and energy must be encouraged to flourish through careful cultivation, and not obliterated in their infancy like a chick to the grinder.
Should charities like NABS have to exist? No – not if workers could take the power they deserve over their own lives, rather than treat the symptoms of the problem with emergency charitable support. Should unions exist? Yes, for now, because until all employers understand what fair and decent treatment of a workforce looks like then we need bodies that can lobby governments, make a difference to policy and speak for workers in both public and private sectors to ensure that creativity is nurtured rather than squandered.