Jul 1 2024
Ben Larrison

Burnout in Digital Advertising Demands Real Changes


Let’s start with this: Burnout is real.

Though it’s not a medical condition, burnout is nevertheless a very real, very definable occupational phenomenon that can tax a worker’s physical and mental health. Mayo Clinic defines job-related burnout as special type of stress related to work—specifically, one that “includes being worn out physically or emotionally” and “may involve feeling useless, powerless, and empty.” The syndrome has also been tied to anxiety and depression, fatigue, and reduced cognitive and emotional abilities.

Burnout has been having a moment of late—first basking in the dull afterglow of the COVID-19 pandemic, then helping fuel the mass job departure movement known as the Great Resignation, and finally continuing to plague workers as they have navigated the economic uncertainty that has defined the past several years—and its impact has been particularly acute in the advertising industry. And even with the Great Resignation no longer wreaking havoc, the folks who remain in the agency world have only seen their burnout risk rise amidst heightened pressures to deliver new dollars, fewer co-workers to share the burden, and increasingly smaller budgets. Given these pressures, it’s no wonder that more than seven in 10 agency professionals feel their job is harder today than it was just two years ago.

The impact, inevitably, is exhausted employees making more pitches with less time to prepare—and then, for the clients whose business they do win, having fewer hours to actually optimize and analyze campaigns. Not to mention the lack of employee engagement and talent retention woes that burnout exacerbates, particularly among younger generations of workers. So, burnout leads to more than just a stressed-out staff: it has a very real, very negative business impact for all parties.

Combatting Burnout In Digital Marketing

Burnout is no fun—like, at all—and trying to just power through it only further exacerbates is effects. Fortunately, many employers have begun investing in an array of benefits to support their employees’ mental health and general wellness. Whether it’s giving inflation-based bonusesbringing mental health professionals on staff, adopting half-day Fridays, or providing paid subscriptions to mindfulness and meditation apps, these kinds of perks and gestures are one way companies can show their staffers that they care about their wellbeing and are taking measures to support them in the battle against burnout.

But while these employee-friendly benefits are both thoughtful and effective, they ultimately serve to treat the symptoms instead of addressing the underlying illness that prompts the burnout in the first place. In order to effectively tackle those concerns, leaders will need to holistically address the way they do work. Here are three good places to start: 

1) Lead With Empathy

During a time when so very much is complicating people’s everyday lives—from global wars and crises, to economic turbulence, to political polarization, and more—a little empathy can go a long way in establishing a stronger relationship between employers and employees.

Basis Technologies’ own Head of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, Lois Castillo, wrote up a great blog post that features a list of four strategies for leading through turbulence, including acknowledging what’s going on, establishing systems of care, addressing situations head-on, and giving folks a (well-deserved) break. In it, she shares the following bit of wisdom: 

“Your people are your best asset: They’re the heart of any organization. You need them healthy and vibrant and committed. As leaders, if we don’t consider all the external stressors that are affecting our people and make sure we’re providing an environment that mitigates some of that harm, then our employees won’t be able to come in and focus on the job at hand.”

It’s a great reminder of the importance of taking the time to understand and support your people—both as a marketing leader, and as a human being.

2) Foster Appreciation and Open Communication

Nurturing workplace cultures built on appreciation and open communication is another way advertising leaders can prevent burnout among their staff. According to Gallup, employee appreciation boosts productivity and engagement, but many employers don’t offer it frequently enough. This is likely especially true in the agency world, where long hours and tight timelines make it easy for employee recognition to fall by the wayside.

Additionally, a recent survey found that nearly 90% of agency professionals feel that most people outside of the industry fail to appreciate the role that advertising plays in supporting the modern internet. This lack of external recognition, combined with internal pressures to continuously deliver for clients, can exacerbate employees’ feelings of being undervalued and unheard. Over time, this can lead to increased stress, decreased engagement, and burnout. And if workers are left to navigate these feelings on their own, burnout can quickly give way to larger challenges, such as low employee engagement and high team turnover.

To improve employee appreciation in their workplaces, advertising leaders should ensure they regularly acknowledge individual and team success, as well as create systems to recognize and celebrate particularly outstanding work. To support open communication, leaders can create channels for employees to give feedback and voice their concerns, as well as ensure all employees have the chance to participate in regular one-on-one meetings with a manager to check in on overall wellbeing and workload. For younger employees, setting up mentorship programs can be a particularly impactful way to reduce burnout and increase engagement.

Overall, by taking these proactive steps around appreciation and communication, leaders can reduce the causes of burnout and ensure their teams are able to recognize and mitigate the symptoms of burnout early on.

3) Empower Your Workforce

Beyond the care and consideration that can help foster a healthier workplace environment, employers can help prevent burnout by providing their staffers with the tools and resources they need to do their jobs efficiently, effectively, and satisfyingly.

In digital advertising specifically, there is ample room for improvement to the tech stack status quo. For agency teams, the campaign process can be a tedious, mind-numbing, time-consuming slog. Part of that comes from the complex and fragmented nature of media buying: More than half of agency professionals currently rely on six or more tools as part of their adtech/martech stack, with 17% juggling 10+ tools to manage their clients’ campaigns. To put that in perspective: On the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft, astronauts piloted the semi-autonomous rocket to the International Space Station using just three large touchscreen panels. And as valuable as the work we do is, digital advertising shouldn’t be harder than flying a rocket to a floating laboratory in the middle of space.

However, there is one key thing that the future of digital advertising and the future of space travel have in common: leveraging innovation to empower users. By embracing the possibilities afforded by advertising automation and AI, marketers can tap into new efficiencies that both save time and money, and can create a more employee-friendly job experience.

Automated functionality like inventory forecasting, bid multipliers, algorithmic pacing, machine learning optimization, group budget optimization, bid shading, automated billing, and automated dashboard reporting can combine with convenience features like trend benchmarking, inventory forecasting, inventory directories, in-platform communications, and unified reporting to create a simpler and more enjoyable job experience for media buyers. Additionally, AI tools can help streamline workflows, reduce inefficiencies, and give employees more time to focus on high-level, creative, and meaningful work. Given that agency leaders and employees alike feel that inefficient processes are the biggest challenge facing their teams today, taking the time to test and implement innovative solutions that reduce inefficiency can help reduce employee burnout. Investing in the right tech can be daunting, but investing in the right tech can make for a more rewarding workplace (and, incidentally, a more profitable one).

Burnout And Digital Advertising: Next Steps

Burnout is a beast, and the digital advertising industry is far from immune to its wrath. The campaign process is in-depth, complex, and relentless, and today’s marketers are asked to deliver more ROI despite spending large chunks of their weeks on small, repetitive tasks. Add in external economic pressures and top it off with global instability, and you’ve got yourself a workforce that’s often burning the candle from both ends under what feels like a rocket booster. 

By leading with empathy, fostering appreciation and open communication, and empowering teams with the right tools, agency leaders can help protect their employees and prevent burnout from setting in. And who wouldn’t want to work somewhere with a promise like that?

Want to know more about the state of advertising agencies today? In our 2024 Advertising Agency Report we share insights from industry professionals, exploring how they feel about their jobs, their agencies, and evolving challenges and opportunities shaping the industry.

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