‘The reality is we have to be professional’: Confessions of an ad exec on working amid the chaos at the Capitol

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During the insurrection at the U.S. Capital building last week, agency execs and marketers were pressing pause on paid advertising, especially on social. Doing so has become part of the playbook for marketers amid a crisis, especially over the last year with the coronavirus and the social unrest of last summer.

For those who work in agencies, it can be difficult to keep focused and effective on client needs as frightening crises unfold in real time on social media and some of the same screens on which they’re working. In the latest edition of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor, we here from an digital agency exec about how managing client expectations during external upheaval has become a norm. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Has it been hard to work?

Obviously, it’s been a challenge. It’s been very busy. There’s been a lot of business which on the one hand is great, it can be a welcome distraction. But it can also be hard because a lot of what I do involves tapping into creativity and being able to access that part of your brain when so much of your brain is taken up with questions like “Are we actually going to have a functioning government?” It can be very challenging. Also, I have a team reporting to me and being cognizant of their own ability to be creative while balancing the need to feel the feelings they’ve got about this and to be realistic [about what they are able to do]. 

Are you talking to your team?

People are reluctant to talk about it. I think they don’t want to be that person who’s being fragile or precious, especially at a company whose roots are in [the] startup world. I’ve tried to be proactive and said, “I understand that this might take a little bit longer, especially given everything that’s happening.” That’s hopefully given people the ability to feel like they’ve been heard. 

Are clients more understanding that employees are distracted and might need more time to manage tasks? 

My expectation is that clients may not be understanding so it’s helpful, for the most part, that what we do is in social. The fact that it would be in an environment that’s impacted by the zeitgeist helps us to build that time frame in. It’s also based in the reality that it’s probably a bad time to [be launching new work on social] but it also allows us to say, “Let’s give it a couple of days. You don’t want to rush something out.”

I don’t think it’s necessarily right for us to say, “Things are messed up so it’s going to take longer.” The reality is we have to be professional. In business, people’s emotional wellness is not always the first thing that comes to mind. You have to be cognizant that not everyone has the awareness that we do. 

The insurrection at the Capitol was chaotic but over the last year with the coronavirus and the social unrest this past summer it’s become more common for employees to work through times of crisis. Does doing so simply become a new norm?

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Once the chaos dial is at 11, does it ever go back to five? Or is 11 the new five? The answer is that we don’t know. In March last year, there was a lot of scrambling to change the way we did things because everything changed. Being productive in the midst of that was a real challenge. By the time we got to September, October, it’s horrible to say, but in some ways the virus became a known quantity and background that people had adjusted to. In a way, the question is does political instability also become a steady drumbeat that in time you don’t even notice anymore? I hope that’s not the case. But it’s always a bleak possibility that that we tune it out, it’s just the everyday noise of a collapsing democracy. 

You work in social media. Social media played a big role in the events of last week. How’s that affecting you or your colleagues?

Seeing a lot of the seeds that were always present in social get magnified as the reach and power of the platforms get magnified and seeing the decisions the platforms made to ignore it or not address it more actively is dispiriting. I have a lot of friends who work at platforms and I know they are hurting thinking about the role that their employers and, in some sense, they have played leading up to this. That can feel very painful. I have friends who were proud to say they worked at Facebook for a number of years and now it’s like saying you work for an oil company. That’s a shift. I guess it’s an opportunity for them to try and grapple with that, but my hope is there can be a realistic look at their responsibility. 

What do you wish they would change?

I’m old enough to have started working on social when there were message boards and you had active moderation in those places. Sometimes it was deputizing your own community, but it happened. There were rules and if someone was acting up in the chat you dropped the hammer. Maybe that wasn’t such a bad model. Maybe that’s an “old man yelling at a cloud” thing to say. Is it hard to scale? Sure. But I think it’s worth thinking about.

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