How to Win at Parenting and Advertising (Through a Global Pandemic)

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The challenges of being a parent in advertising are very real. As a high-achiever, you want to ace both with flying colours. But in reality, you often find that something usually has to give in the pursuit of excellence. So the question is, can you really be parent of the year while also gunning for a Cannes Golden Lion? And if so, how do you do this amid the uncertainty of a global pandemic?

Modern parenting is tough. Everything is shared in our ‘pic-or-it-didn’t-happen’ world. And even if you’re not one to litter your social media feed with your little ones’ best moments, other parents are more than happy to (guilty!). While not a bad thing in and of itself, this open window into how we do parenting can also be the cause of unwarranted ‘advice’ from other parents or nosy relatives on how you should be raising your child, or even worse, comparison with other parents based purely on an IG story highlight reel. What more, in an age where hands-on dads are becoming the norm, the pressure is on for dads, too. Again, modern parenting is tough.

Modern advertising is also tough. An industry that has long celebrated one’s ability to spend their nights in the office fuelled by pantry-issue instant noodles has become even more demanding as agencies are forced to pivot and pivot fast in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But pandemic aside, the statistics alone aren’t very encouraging for working parents in advertising. For example, a U.S. study conducted by The 3% titled ‘Parenting In Adland’ revealed that 9/10 women and 8/10 men regarded advertising as a tough environment for parent.¹

My wife (who also happens to be my colleague) and I welcomed our beautiful daughter into the world on February 12th, 2020. In just a matter of weeks, the nation, along with much of the world, went into lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19. As first time parents, a barrage of questions ensued. Will we have enough baby formula in light of the panic buying happening around us? How will we be able to hire a nanny to help out? Many parenthood based questions later, came the career questions. What will happen to our jobs? What will happen to our industry when clients are already calling to tell us that advertising and operating budgets either have been or will be slashed? But let’s not magnify our plight with a then relatively docile new-born. What about parents having to look into home-schooling… on top of their regular parental duties… on top of the new working norm of endless Zoom calls?

Most of the world may have eased their lockdowns and are continuing to keep infections at bay. But with the looming possibility of another surge of infections (or God forbid, another pandemic altogether) some of these new working norms are likely here to stay in some shape or form. So whether you are a newly minted parent or have been in it for longer, these are some practices and disciplines for both the individual as well as agencies to consider in creating a conducive working environment for parents.

1. Don’t compartmentalise work life and parenthood. Integrate them.

Leon with his daughter on one lap and laptop on the other

The adage of ‘don’t bring your personal life into work’ or vice versa, may still hold weight in a traditional setting, but times have changed especially post COVID-19. While most of the world’s workforces have returned to the office, it’s worth noting that 56% of companies plan to maintain a long term remote working arrangement for some of its staff.² If your agency is one of those, it’s great in that it allows us parents to be physically present for our children, even in this line of work. But can we really be truly present both for work as well as at home when we’re operating remotely?

When agencies are pivoting at breakneck pace to keep up with changing consumer behaviour, quick turnaround trumps all. For us in the ad world, this involves many moving parts – from aligning our internal strategy, accounts and creative teams, managing our clients and ensuring fruitful and timely collaborations with third party production partners. With this comes a certain expectation to always be available until your final output is delivered.

Now, if you try to compartmentalise your personal life and work life as neatly as possible, you are more likely to underdeliver in one, if not both areas. You’ll often hear account directors talk about managing clients’ expectations. When it comes to juggling parenting with agency life, we should also be applying this to our own expectations in both as parent and ad man/woman. What this means is for you – whether as an individual or as part of the senior management of the agency – to be OK with allowing some overlap between duties. If you have a call, but your child needs to be monitored, ask for permission to take said call either in the child’s room or for your child to be able sit with you on the call (without being overly disruptive of course!)

The added benefit of integrating your life at home with work is that your co-workers who do not have children will be better able to appreciate the challenges of juggling your work with the needs of your family at home. This can help other team members be more aware of where they can lend a hand with work or generally be a bit more careful with booking meeting times that involve you. Not to mention, it’s a great way to break the ice and make for some good virtual happy hour conversation!

Being a working parent should be seen as a singular way of life with different core functions or duties – not a balancing act between two completely separate lives. Imagine life as a see-saw with you as the fulcrum (or pivot point) and your core duties as parent and employee stacked on opposite ends. The work life balance ideal assumes that you as the fulcrum can stay put while ensuring you can maintain equal weight on both ends at all times. But herein lies the problem – if your child falls sick, weight will naturally get piled on that end of the see-saw. And unless you move the fulcrum by shifting more time and energy in that direction, you’ll have a very unhappy household.

When we allow ourselves to be dynamic in placing our time our energy according to the needs, we’re able to maintain not so much a work-life-balance but rather, a work-life harmony. So assess the needs, then where appropriate, shift your resources in that direction. The key is to communicate clearly with your team members or family in the event that one side of things will require more time and energy. A church pastor of mine once shared a useful principle called ‘family revenge’. If you’re absolutely needed for a big pitch that would take you away from family over the weekend,

  1. Communicate the need to your family
  2. Do what you need to do (and do it well)
  3. Set an intentional date in the calendar to make up for the time taken – this could be a nice meal the day after or maybe a staycation.

The key is clear communication and intentionality.

2. Set clear no-fly periods with your seniors and teams

This is one that ad people might struggle with given our industry’s habit of glorifying the midnight warriors of the office. But as a parent, there are times when it is simply not practical to pull a string of all-nighters.

In her third month, my daughter was going through a ‘sleep regression’. This meant that she was waking up every 1-2 hours through the night. This coincided with the development of an AI-based index together with running a virtual conference to launch said index to a global audience. With only a month to develop the index, market and run the virtual launch event, the entire team was pulling all-nighters for most nights of the month.

As usual, the adrenaline rush birthed some great work. And no bother, because we’d normally be able to catch up on a little sleep when the days’ tasks were completed anyway. But I forgot that unlike the rest of my colleagues, I’d now have to continue soothing my daughter back to bed at 1-2 hour intervals for the remainder of the morning until 7a.m., by which time, emails would begin streaming in and with it, the pressure to clear the inbox and plan the rest of the day.

First of all, operating on little to no sleep for prolonged periods of time isn’t healthy. But secondly, what we as parents think is helping our team can actually end up being counterproductive if our lack of sleep affects our decision-making, attention to detail or just all-round mood around our colleagues.

You are far better off being honest with both yourself and your seniors/teams about what pockets of the day you will be able to add the most value at work, then identifying intentional no-fly periods to attend to non-negotiables like your kids’ meal prep or bed times.

You will find that seniors and team members will be more accepting of this than you think, provided you communicate these clearly while ensuring that your output during your ‘on’ hours is up to par. After all, you don’t want to become that parent who always uses their kids as an excuse to underdeliver.

If you’re a suit worth his or her salt, then planning your time effectively should be second nature. But if you’re a creative – especially the sort that thrives on spontaneity and being able to deliver a stroke of genius just-in-time – then you can use this prioritisation matrix to plan your day.

The principle is simple – divide your tasks into 4 categories:

  1. Important and urgent
  2. Urgent but not important
  3. Important but not urgent
  4. Not important. Not urgent

Now, plot your individual tasks within the matrix to establish a base for what should be prioritised for the day. With this base, think realistically about the non-negotiables in your child’s day e.g. feeding or putting to bed. With that in mind, begin thinking of your most productive slots for you to deliver on the prioritised tasks. And if those slots happen to be outside of regular work hours, it’s on you to let your peers know and to have the discipline to ensure that work gets done. This framework is not rocket science, but it will allow some degree of structure and set both you and your teams up for a win.

3. Focus on quality outputs as opposed to perceived hard work

It is no secret that the attrition rate for agencies is one of the highest – 30% in 2017 according to Forbes³. While there are many factors that contribute to this, one of them is likely the culture of jumping ship in hopes of pumping up one’s career opportunities. What this tells us is that agencies are still not doing enough to give employees the assurance of career development and growth within the agency.

This can pose a problem if you’re an aspiring tiger mum who is also bent on getting that regional Chief Creative Officer role. Why? Because besides the perceived lack of a structured roadmap for career development, if your peers generally glorify the ones who never leave the office, then how are you going to fare when you’re also fixated on raising a child prodigy?

This is especially pertinent for women in advertising. The sentiment for agency people in the U.S. points to success in the ad world being easier for dads compared to mums, with 93% of mums agreeing with the statement – far outweighing the 76% of dads who agree.

We will make far better use of our time and resources (both physical and mental) if we focus on being present where it really matters. Ask yourself – am I truly adding value to this meeting or to this particular stage of the process? If you’re not, then don’t be afraid to excuse yourself with ample notice and a clear rationale as to why. Management will value your outcome-focused thinking, while your teams will appreciate not having the additional chef in the kitchen if you don’t actually have anything valuable to contribute.

As hard as it is, being a parent is a privilege and indeed a blessing. And it’s the constant tension of managing parenthood with the demands of the agency life that can multiply the value you bring to your agency and clients. As parents, it’s dealing with messy diapers and unwarranted screams that teaches us to be collected in chaos. It’s having almost no time in between meal prep and school runs that helps you make the best use of it. It’s finding new ways to deal with tantrums that helps you understand that it’s not about you, but what you bring to the table. Parenting is tough. Advertising is tough. But persevere through both together, and the reward is pretty great.

Being able to navigate the tightrope of parenting and agency life effectively through the points above hinges on clear, frequent and engaging communication. COMMUNICATE is a brand consultancy that believes in the power of words either spoken or written, combined with captivating design and anchored on data to build people (working parents or otherwise) and build brands.