The Musings Of An Opinionated Sod [Help Me Grow!]

When Work Tries To Destroy You …

So as I said on Monday, this is my last post for a couple of weeks.

Given the extra-low quality of rubbish I’ve written over the past few days, that is probably of huge relief to you.

However I want to leave you with a post that – for me – is deadly serious, as the title of this post hopefully suggests.

It’s quite dramatic isn’t it?!

Well, sadly it’s not a joke and it is really happening.

Worse, it’s seemingly happening more and more.

What am I talking about?

The systematic destruction of employees confidence and experience to either leave them questioning their ability, their future or forcing them to be a complicit robot to the whims of management.

Now I should point out I am not in any way suggesting this is something companies are actively trying to do – however, many of their managers actions and behavior are doing just that.

Maybe it’s down to the pressures they face from the people above them.

Maybe it’s down to a sense of insecurity about their ability or their job security.

Maybe it’s the competitive environment and so it’s about ensuring clients are always happy.

Or maybe it’s simply their inability to deal with people who have different opinions to them.

Whatever the reason, it’s destroying talent, standards, creativity, agencies and client relationships.

I don’t care that some people will say that’s the ad business and everyone needs to toughen up … because the reality is it’s NOT the ad business and it’s not a case of toughening up.

Sure we will continually face disappointment and judgement, but that is very different to undermining individuals confidence, especially when it’s from the very people who should be giving you protection and encouragement.

Adland is at its best when it harvests diversity of opinion, backgrounds, experiences … when they have people who look at the World differently … but nowadays, everyone is trying to look and act like the clients they represent or – worse – punishing those who don’t fall into line with the company narrative.

The very existence of our job is to help companies have a role and position in culture.

To connect … entice … seduce … play with …

You don’t do that with people who look and act like their clients, you do that with people who can translate what clients need and express it in interesting and intriguing ways that culture will actually give a shit about.

Once upon a time I had a job that did this to me.

Of course, at the beginning everything was fine.

While there were the odd difference of opinion, I just put it down to that thing where every new job starts off with this balancing act between expressing who you are and learning how everyone else is. But quickly – and I mean within a few weeks – I started to sense this was something more than just teething problems, because it felt certain individuals were going out of their way to either stop me expressing any different point of view or just openly devaluing it to others.

What made it more confusing was generally, these people were being nice and smiley – possibly because they didn’t see or think what they were doing was causing any harm – but it was and I started reacting to it.

At first it was just asking them if there was anything wrong and if there was a better way for me to communicate my views. But after they said all was fine but their attitude towards me continued – I started to get a bit dogmatic.

No one wins when this happens … but then no one wins when someone feels this way because of others actions.

I should point out clients and colleagues seemed to be happy with my work, but certain bosses – regardless what I did – seemed to immediately sideline me and then position me as ‘the problem’, without ever telling me what the problem was.

The worst bit to all this was that I only mildly understood how damaging this was starting to have on my mental health over time.

I knew I was miserable – truly miserable – but the full impact of their subtle destruction only became clear much later when I realized I wasn’t the only person this was happening to and a few of us started to chat about it openly.

It was then that I knew I had to take action.

Again, I must say I am sure none of this was intentional – they too were going through personal and professional bad times – however it doesn’t lessen the fact it happened and while I could have made life much easier for myself if I just agreed with them 100% of the time, the reality was I was just trying to make things better and genuinely thought my experience or viewpoint was worth at least discussing rather than dismissing out of hand.

And while I tried to find ways to work better with them, their attitude towards me – and countless others – didn’t change and the effect it was having on me was getting much worse.

I questioned myself.

My abilities.

My hopes and dreams.

And what’s even more criminal is how it affected me outside of work.

I felt isolated and abused.

I became very argumentative.

I let people who cared for me feel left aside or behind.

I hate what these people did to me … because unintentional or not, they caused it.

While I’ll never know the real reasons for their attitude towards me, I have my thoughts …

Survival being one of them.

Survival in terms of salary. In terms of role. In terms of ego.

Where their insecurities – personal and professional – were able to be managed by undermining the confidence of those around them … the very people they were paid to nourish, grow and trust.

It’s almost the ultimate betrayal.

While this all happened a while ago, I still believe that if I’d stayed I would have suffered from clinical depression.

A depression that could have ended up breaking the things that I love.

Which is why I am so grateful I was able to get out and move on, while appreciating I was in a situation that meant I could do it relatively easily because I didn’t have to worry too much about family responsibilities, financial commitments or simply not having any other options available to me.

I still remember the shock I felt when – in my new job – I showed some work to my boss and they said it was great.

I asked them what they wanted me to change and they looked at me like I was a lunatic before saying, “you’re hired for your opinion not to repeat mine”.

It was at that moment I knew just how far those bastards had hurt me.

But now I am seeing many of my friends in a very similar situation.

Where they feel they are also being destroyed by managers who want to control them by undermining them.

Letting them feel they are failing so their bosses can appear strong. In charge. In control.

Going home crying … wondering who they are, what they do, what their worth is.

A sense of being trapped because they’re too worthless for someone else to want them.

It’s psychological abuse, pure and simple.

Thankfully not every company and not every manager is like this. In fact there are probably more good than bad – however given how many of my friends are going through a situation like this, I also know it’s not isolated incidents and I know it’s getting bigger.

Given how all these company mission statements say their staff are their most important asset, I find it disgraceful more and more people feel their employers are actively hurting them … where the only way to survive is to follow leaderships orders, whether they are in their best interests or not.

Of course the great irony is our industry in particular is built on those people who see the World differently.

Who challenge, provoke, explore and experiment … but as adland chases money – having sold the commercial value of creativity down the river long ago – we are increasingly regarding anyone or anything that gets in the way, as our enemy, ultimately speeding the pace of our demise.

Which says the leaders of the companies who are allowing this to happen, are basically only focused on their own future.

Where any member of staff left behind is simply regarded as collateral damage.

Labeled as not good enough.

Not strong enough.

Not adding enough value.

It’s wrong.

Worse than that, it’s an act of viciousness.

I know money is important.

I know business needs it to survive and it’s getting harder to get.

[And not just because there’s more options for clients than ever before]

But when many talented people are feeling broken and worthless by their bosses, maybe it’s time we all take a good look at how we’re operating and what we’re asking our people to do, because if our future is dependent on showing how we can do amazing things with creativity and smarts … we’re doing a great job of making sure that stops happening.

If anyone recognises themselves – or someone they care about – in this post and wants someone to talk to, please reach out. I can’t fix it for you but I can listen and I can encourage.

66 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Companies have greater responsibility towards their employees than just providing them a salary and paying lipservice to issues of mental health. I know what you went through and I’m proud of what you have written.

Comment by Mary Bryant

Yes they do Mary. As do shareholders – who often talk about wanting the companies they invest in to operate by certain moral codes as long as it doesn’t affect their dividend.

Comment by Rob

What a post. 👏👏👏

Comment by Bazza

I agree with everything you wrote. The other thing is the people I’ve seen go through this tend to be junior or older with families. People that either know no better or can’t afford to complain. It’s precision bullying and it needs to be stopped.

Sad you went through it Rob but proud you wrote this post.

Comment by Bazza

Precision bullying is exactly what it is. Designed to counter their lack of talent or satisfy their inflated ego.

Comment by Pete

Writing about this epidemic is one thing. And it is an epidemic. Admitting you went through it is something entirely else. I believe the reason so many bosses get away with it is because people don’t complain about it. They have been broken and made to think they are worthless so it’s about their inadequacy rather than their victimisation. Reading you went through it may help others believe they can to. You’re a good man Robert.

Comment by George

It is an epidemic. Maybe it always was and people just didn’t talk about it – but for whatever reason, I am seeing and hearing more and more people talk about how empty they are being made to feel and it’s wrong. I don’t care how good or bad you are at your job, being made to feel you are worthless … that all you’ve done before had no value … is cruelty. Of course the great irony is that if bosses think this of their people, it doesn’t really reflect well on them – for both their hiring and development skills – but they never see that because they only see a World that is supposed to revolve around them.

Comment by Rob

The worst ones – the individuals I have a particular loathing of – are the people who publicly talk about how much they care about others. Who claim the welfare of their staff is paramount … before going back to the office and telling them they’re all shit and will have to work through the night because a client didn’t like something and all they really care about is their client loving them. Not necessarily the company … but them.

Comment by Rob

Not realizing how an unhappy workforce reflects on them is so true. But when their organizations reward them on financial targets not staff morale, why should they care.

Comment by George

I know a few people going through this situation right now. Talented, bright, funny people who are pretending everything is fine when everything they say and do communicates something entirely different.

I have tried to talk to them about their situation but they have brushed it off. It is almost like they are ashamed to admit it because they think it means they have failed. I’m going to send them this post. Thank you Robert.

Comment by Pete

We don’t want to tell people because we think it means admitting we’re rubbish … that we aren’t capable of working to the expectations and standards of our bosses … the people who are supposedly the ones who know how it’s done.

But as you said, you don’t need someone to say they’re going through it because you can tell in their actions.

What we need to do is to bring the issue to light so bad managers can’t continue to ply their trade knowing no one will complain about them because no one wants to say they’re failing and falling. Though the ego of these managers means they think what they’re doing is making their employees better at their job … ignoring the fact that [1] complicity doesn’t equal quality and [2] having a big title doesn’t mean you are operating at the same standards as others with the same title.

Comment by Rob

I second George’s comment. What you have written is extremely important. Not just to give the issue oxygen, but by admitting you have experienced the situation, you stop people being able to conveniently label this as a millennial issue with their alleged entitlement approach to life.

Comment by Lee Hill

That’s very kind but I’ve done nothing. But I intend to.

And I agree it’s not a millennial problem, just like I agree millennial’s don’t have an entitlement problem.
We all have – or have had – a belief we deserve more … the fact we have bestowed this only on millennial shows how we are insecure and wanting to make ourselves feel better at the expense of people who are smarter, more driven and more worldly than the rest of us.

Comment by Rob

Mediocrity at the highest level, is being rewarded everyday. I know some really amazing talents that have quit after 2-3 years in the biz.

They’re no moaning millennials, they’re very preceptive and are wise enough to step back and say, I’ll do something creative on my own thanks.

This game is ridiculous.

Comment by Insanity

Yep … I agree on all counts.

The sad thing is the ones who get out and can continue down the path of the thing they love are the lucky ones. Too many take it either because their income is keeping their family afloat or they have been so broken, they don’t believe that anyone else could want them.

Comment by Rob

Half seriously: why isn’t this on something like Campaign?

Thanks for being so open (again)

Comment by Stefano

If there was a golden buzzer for best blog article, I would press it for this one in an instant. What a brilliant, accurate reflection on what is true for so many in the industry. Thank you, Rob, for being so open – I’m certain what you’ve written has helped, and will continue to help many people – myself included for years to come.

Comment by Oli

Not just advertising.

Comment by john

No it isn’t. Not by a long shot. How depressing eh?

Comment by Rob

Awesome. I too have felt this. It’s a horrible reality for the vast majority of businesses, and always has been.

Comment by Fergus

bullying happens. Whether it’s 3rd graders in the school yard or upperclassmen in college, or an entire company that is terrified of someone who can actually do a better job than they can, bullying is the last resort of the mediocre.
Their reasons boil down to fear that you, being brighter, and more skilled, will take their job away, or somehow make them appear less worthy than they pretend to be.

Think of them as the wolf pack who sees a new, better, faster wolf that threatens their personal/professional space in some way.

Kudos to you for getting out from under, and recognizing it for what it is. The hard part is cutting through the haze if self-doubt and understanding it ain’t you, it’s them.

Comment by judyt54

I agree.

The even more devastating thing is these bad managers will likely never admit they are wrong because to do that would create a crack in their carefully crafted universe that means they have to face the truth they have so carefully engineered to hide from.

Comment by Rob

sometimes youre a prick. sometimes youre alright campbell.

Comment by andy@cynic

Good one Rob. I had it happen to me once and it’s shit. Cynic saved me. I might not tell you guys enough how much your support meant to me, but it did and still does.

Comment by DH

I agree with every point you make
Thanks for writing this

Comment by Northern

The camaraderie amongst managers is also frightening. When you get to a place you feel like you can tell someone, they’re too scared to take action, choosing the path of least resistance.

Comment by Lani Dourado

They back each other to feel they’re not doing anything wrong.

Comment by DH


Comment by Jemma King

Over time I have started to value more and more when you can actually level with someone and talk to them as a human.

That is definitely a redeeming quality of yours, so thank you for that. And sorry you went through that in your past, but I think to see someone as successful/brilliant as you to have had that experience come out OK on the other side is something that needs to be said more often.

We need more authenticity. And less assholes. But authenticity would help us sort those out.


Comment by Bryan S

Wonderful post. I left a job with a boss I had worked with twice before. It was painful to see someone I thought as a mentor tell me they were trying to help my career by berating me and telling me my work, I wasn’t good enough. Yet he took credit for everything I did, came back to work drunk after lunches and expected me to help with his work, because during those times, apparently I was a fantastic employee. I became depressed at work and at home. When I quit, I was told I was stupid and I’d killed my career, my reputation for leaving such a good boss and he’d never work with me again when I’d come back wanting a job.
I don’t know why it took me so long to realize it wasn’t me (why I went back to work with him for 3 times total I’ll never know) We need to speak up about this systemic abuse in our industry so thank you

Comment by Marissa

NY = front stabbing LA = back stabbing

Some smaller agencies can feel like an American elite high school movie…major chip on shoulder about outsiders, eg. Head Teacher wants to raise the bar, increase diversity – the mean girl, homeschooled shut-ins, jocks, cheerleaders etc sabotage behind the scenes to preserve their status.

There’s no way to study for their tests. Because they’re made up questions. Even if you do your homework you’ll get the wrong answer. Culture of constant hazing. Smiling to your face, while stabbing you in the back. Eventually a nice nerd or non-conformist may stand up for you. Alternatively it can be like lots of wolves pissing in circles to be alpha pack leader. And a mean girl. Possibly add a football reference about coaches who recruit top players but umpires move the goalposts and change the rules of the game. No one knows where the ball is.

= nervous breakdowns, anxiety and paranoia or alcoholism!

Comment by MD

Oh… My… God. This article describes somewhere I know to a T…

Comment by blogging4lemons

I spent one year in Adland and will never return. The number of broken people who’re overworked and feeling shit is just too great. Meanwhile, my friends who started out in other industries have balanced lives, happy, calm colleagues, bosses that won’t give them work on weekends, and overall a culture where everyone feels valued.

Advertising is dying from inside and the smart kids are going elsewhere. Working your ass always and at odd hours because of upper management le’ts you know that your job is “cool” makes me think of my firsts jobs working in restaurants. A bunch of stressed out, underpaid people in a shit environment motivated by bosses who want you to feel grateful for just working there.
Sad oh so sad.

Comment by nisse

This is a great post & Ive seen this happen so often. And the fact you’re offering help or at least a listen is great. If I can help in any way too, let me know. Paul

Comment by Paul constable

It’s amazing you’ve written this. I can relate to your story. The whole industry left me feeling worthless for such a long time, that my friend sent your link to me.
It got to the point when I worked myself to the bone, not for the money or creative expression, but to feel an ounce of security. When people continually make you feel you aren’t good enough, the toxic atmosphere takes it’s toll on your health. I believe that, as an Art Director, I should have been brimming with confidence, after all, advertising should be fun, right? But people in the industry, at various times of my career, reduced me to a nervous wreck. That’s not me at all.
It’s taken a complete change of direction to get
my confidence back. And with it, everything else came too. I now work in a happy hospital as a Healthcare Assistant, and I feel i’m doing a far more worthwhile job. I began working with an author on a book when I left advertising, illustrating and doing the marketing for it. As soon as my change of life came, so too did the book deal with Penguin UK, Penguin Random House USA and book deals in eight other countries.

I don’t need an agency to validate me. Far from it. I feel happy in myself every day now. I walk the 8 minute walk up to work, looking forward to my day. I spend time with my family, able to feel a far greater sense of work / home balance. And I’m still creative – all the skills I taught myself in advertising, I use for myself now.
I’m so glad you’re free of the toxicity of that environment – people who set out to belittle and crush others will always end up as nothing in the end. I had a lucky escape, a chance to change my life. And I found that If you keep pushing yourself through, no matter what, your work, and growing confidence will carry you forward and you’ll leave them all far, far behind.
Thank you for writing this, I think it resonates with many people 😊.
And sorry my post is so long- I just got off a 12 hr night shift and my brain is all fuzzy. ☺️

Comment by Natalie

fuck me campbell, youve turned into a shit version of mandella, proud of you. for once.

Comment by andy@cynic

He is the internet right now.
It’s amazing and scary.
I feel for anyone who comes on this blog expecting all his posts to be so powerful and important.

Comment by Bazza

Rob – thanks for writing this. It means so much that someone at your level and industry reputation is willing to talk about this

I’ve just been through everything you described in the last year. In my case I was naive plus didn’t have the financial means to just walk away when the behaviour started. As you say it took time to see the pattern of what was happening as it seemed so bizarre at first (Work was winning awards, client was happy whilst being told by my managers that the business ‘lacked confidence in me’, I was having information vital to my job withheld and was being deliberately excluded and ignored). The planner in me wanted to rationalise what was going on and fight for the truth but once they started gas-lighting me to my face (flat out denying conversations ever happened that sort of thing) I knew I had to go. I had no savings, no bank of mum and dad to fall back on and damaged my credit rating in the process, but I got out and regained my sanity. I’m now at a new agency where I’m excelling. The saddest thing is being surprised and confused when people are decent and kind to you.

In my exit interview my head of HR hinted that she knew boss was a narcissist. But they were happy to leave him in place because he made the money and had a vision for the business. As a young women who dreamed of going into advertising and worked so so hard to get here and hard ever since it feels devastating and confusing; the consensus from the trenches is that the generation above us are now only interested in asset stripping agencies for their own personal gain. They have no interest in its future. It’s extra margin today at any cost – young talent doesn’t get trained, doesn’t get mentored and when we try to forge our own path through hard work we get bullied and undermined to ‘keep us in our place’.

To anyone going through this or knows someone who is my advice is to do whatever you can to leave.Take a babysitting job or a temp job stacking shelves if you have to. It REALLY isn’t you. It won’t get better and you won’t win.Once your mental health starts to suffer and you burn out they have you where they want you – they’ll say your work isn’t good enough and throw you out like yesterday’s trash. Remember how you used to be and go somewhere that deserves you. Unfortunately I’m starting to suspect this means leaving the industry altogether and retraining.

Comment by Claire_London

Man, thank you for this post.

Comment by Miguel

To everyone who shared their story on here. Thank you.

The more we talk about this. The more people know this is happening and on a huge scale. The more we can help those who think they are alone and worthless and the more we can hold people to task who adopt this self-motivated and utterly callous approach.

Being told you’re wrong is fine when it’s done by people that you feel genuinely care about your improvement. Being told you’re wrong by people who are doing it to protect themselves – especially at the expense of others self belief – is abuse. Pure and simple.

Thanks again to everyone for writing and here’s to happier times for all.

Comment by Rob

Wow, brings back memories. Luckily, in my situation I was canned. I remember experiencing body odor as a result of “fear” at work on certain occasions. (Keeps the wolves away?) Great post Rob. And we learn….

Comment by Steve Poppe

Thank you, it is comforting to know that someone with your career sees this problem and understands its seriousness.

Comment by Nicolas

I have a plan.

So someone just wrote asking if my post was about them. I said if they feel guilt, then they need to take a look at themselves as I mentioned no names or places. With that, I’ve decided to set up a blog of corporate gaslighting. Would love to fill it with anonymous stories of systematic corporate abuse so anyone who goes there and thinks a story is specifically about their actions will be forced to look at their attitude and behaviours. If you’re interested in contributing (no names of people or companies will be used) please let me know.

I’m actually flying into the great firewall of my beloved China right now and will be there for about a week, but if you write to me I promise I’ll get back to you as soon as I’m back. Thank you.

Comment by Rob

I am living this nightmare, a twenty year planning vet and now crumbled to the point that I can’t believe that anyone will respect me or my work again. And learned through this experience that a boss bullying you isn’t illegal. I’ve officially complained (as I’ve got another few weeks before I can resign), and learned there is literally nothing more I can do. I hope it amounts to something in the end, and I hope to shake this experience off as soon as I’m able to walk out the door. I can’t thank you enough for posting this. I’m going to have to convince those who know me that I didn’t secretly write this, lol. BTW I’ll be your very first poster on the corporate gaslighting site, can’t wait.

Comment by Cam

If I can help in any way, please let me know. Even if you think I can’t, I’d be happy to listen.

Comment by Rob

You are wonderful, I appreciate the offer, and many many thanks for sharing this. The article and the response are amazing.

Comment by Cam

Thanks to jetlag I saw your comment at the exact moment you posted it. I also saw you used your full name and I wasn’t sure if that was a mistake as you used an abbreviated version on your initial comment – so I changed it back to the shortened version you used, just in case.

I also see you left your email. So I’ll write to you today.

Comment by Rob

As talents are leaving adland in masses (at least here in Germany) change is inevitable. But as long as there are some management people out there who say “you’re hired for your opinion not to repeat mine” there is hope. Great post, thank you!

Comment by Christoph

This has happened to me by the way. Didn’t even realise it. Properly immense this

Comment by Northern

Sometimes it’s not about what they say, but what they don’t say. Literally, not communicating with you, not replying to your emails or instant messages.

I’ve encountered it at several agencies.

It puts you on edge.

It makes you feel constantly uncertain, and ultimately, anxious.

Because to simply ignore someone is the easy option – especially when they’re more senior to you.

What can you do?

You eventually feel guilty for hassling them, when actually, it’s their duty of care to support you and give you the time you need to do your job.

All of these comments tie so closely to sociopathic tendencies; no empathy, cold disposition, superficial charm, manipulation… – it’s almost uncanny.

Comment by A bloke

YES!!! Exactly this – information = power so lack of communication can therefore be a very violent act to cut you off at the knees.

I experienced this with an Account Director a couple of years back who didn’t like me questioning client briefs or having opinions on ways of solving them (literally my job) because HE wanted to make all decisions on the account. When I objected his response was to leave me out of meetings internal and external/refuse to answer any emails from me or requests for meetings or project updates/ started changing my work behind my back to reflect what HE thought it should say. Finally he wouldn’t allow me to talk through my own work in client presentations – the meetings themselves were coordinated so I would only join after they had started to leave me with no context and on the back foot. (Am a senior strategist with over 10 years experience) I fought back against the whole.thing so hard but the episode had me having panic attacks in the stairwell within 6 months.

Looking back, the worst and most unsettling thing about this was the very many people who saw it happen and chose to look the other way and not step in – including those more senior to me who I classed as mentors, my manager and my head of department. Unless it effected their *personal* reputation they didn’t care, whatsoever.

Comment by Beckyldn

So happy this has caught fire. It’s an issue that affects many people but is rarely ever discussed. Good work Rob.

Comment by DH

I just had this exact thing happen to me. Lucky for me I got let go in a huge round of layoffs due to client budget cuts. Yes – LUCKY for me. Feel bad for the poor people still working for this toxic person. I had no idea this was such a common experience.

Comment by No Filter Career Advice

It’s almost always more than just one person, because there will always be those who know of the situation but choose to look the other way, and in doing so, they’re complicit.

Comment by A bloke

What an incredible response Robert. I can see your post has already helped many people by realizing they’re not the only person going through this terrible situation.

Comment by Mary Bryant

It’s bitter sweet Mary. Happy it has allowed people who were obviously feeling alone and isolated to realise there are many like them who have suffered abuse at the hands of bad managers. But obviously the sheer volume of people who have been made to feel this way is tragic and wrong. I hope I can help stop this situation happening as prolifically as it obviously is.

Comment by Rob

So on point Rob. Spot on.

Comment by Gary

campbell. my fucking daughters teacher told me about this post today. im not even joking. we were talking about bonnies future and her teacher starts telling us about this article she read that “beautifully explained” the value of peer support. it was this. how did this happen. when did blog posts become articles. why am i so fucking proud of you.

Comment by andy@cynic

Wow, that’s incredible. That makes me almost as happy as hearing I’ve made you proud. For once. Even though we both know normal service will be restored shortly.

I would be interested to hear how Bonnie’s teacher came to hear of it and if it’s an issue she feels extends into her profession. Given the huge amount of terribly sad stories that I’ve been sent – from all industries – I would imagine the answer to that will be affirmative.

In all honesty, hearing how so many people have – or are – going through a similar or worse thing to what I endured means I feel compelled to try and do something to stop it.

More on that – though I kind-of mentioned my plan in one of the comments above – later.

Comment by Rob

He referred to it on Twitter as an article. But that leaves the mystery of why people are reading his tweets.

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