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Managing Marketing: The misunderstood concept of psychological harm in the workplace

Michael Morrison Podcast
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Managing Marketing is a podcast hosted by TrinityP3 Founder and Global CEO, Darren Woolley. Each podcast is a conversation with a thought-leader, professional or practitioner of marketing and communications on the issues, insights and opportunities in the marketing management category. Ideal for marketers, advertisers, media and commercial communications professionals.

Michael Morrison was a highly successful media and advertising executive who is now the Founder of the Blacklight Principle. Here he talks with Darren on his own experience of the advertising and media industry and the impact of psychological harm and mental health in the workplace and the important work in addressing this issue in the same way we acknowledge physical harm.

You can listen to the podcast here:

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Transcription:

Darren:

Welcome to Managing Marketing and today I’m sitting down and having a chat with Michael Morrison, who is the founder of Black Light Principle, which is a work place mental wellness consultancy. Michael and I go back many years and in fact we are both Melbourne boys so here we are in Sydney having travelled all the way from Melbourne.

Michael:

Except we live here now.

Darren:

Michael, welcome.

Michael:

Darren thank you it’s great to be here.

Darren:

Black light Principle, what is the Black Light Principle?

Michael:

Well a black light is an ultra violet light and they reveal things that are hidden. I decided to start writing a book last year and I decided to call depression a black light illness because it’s an illness which I had hidden for many, many years. I was thinking through what would be a good metaphor for depression and anxiety, as it resides in the work place.

I came to the conclusion that like many people, I had hidden it and I walked into work every day saying I’m fine, I was good, I’m just a bit tired. Some of the symptoms of depression are simply tiredness and forgetfulness.

I decided that Black Light would be a good way to capture what I think is one of the issues in and around mental health; that is, we choose to hide it and in choosing to hide it that does not help solve it, particularly in the work place.

In a lot of the work places where I’ve been in advertising and media, for twenty-eight odd years, you dress up and you go to work, and you don’t want to reveal any vulnerabilities.

There are also performance-based jobs where one role I had was to get sixty to seventy million dollars a month in advertising sales. Other roles I’ve had where you’d easily have twenty or thirty pitches in a given year so there’s a pretty absolute metric there and that is did you win or did you lose.

Darren:

Would your sense of self-worth obviously often be linked to how successful or otherwise you did?

Michael:

Absolutely for me it was. There’d be some people far more evolved than me and they’d be able to win or lose and still have great self-esteem. For me it was very much about whether or not we won and my contributions to some teams that were very successful and conversely when you lost it was gut wrenching.

I think I didn’t have any remedies really for that and so I was in between a trapeze a lot and that is a fear of failure and also there is a great flight in all of that. That’s a very anxious way to live going from one win to the next.

Darren:

But it’s an industry where there are sayings like ‘you’re only as good as the last ad you did, or you’re only as good as the values of the accounts you control.’

Michael:

They are all very much borrowed from the military a lot of those expressions, like ‘did you kill it today’ you know ‘I killed them today’. It’s very much, the metrics are absolute, everything is very temporary, and it’s always about succeeding.

When you work for some of the very big firms in a holding company it’s always just about hitting the numbers and if you don’t hit the numbers well everybody’s very disappointed and if you do hit the numbers nobody really cares because there’s always another set of numbers.

Darren:

I know this is a bit crass, but do you think you were attracted to advertising a little bit because you had this underlying illness, because it is known as mad men isn’t it? That’s what I mean by crass, we call ourselves mad men and it’s almost celebrated that the industry is not like anything else.

Michael:

I use to say to people “what we do here, we’re helping capitalism sustain itself, you’re not saving lives, you’re not flipping burgers, what we are doing here is necessary”. There was an underlying philosophy that you didn’t dig too hard into what you were doing.

Darren:

For deeper meaning?

Michael:

For deeper meaning because there was none.

Darren:

Yeah, scratch the surface, there’s more surface.

Michael:

Under tinsel there’s more tinsel so whether or not you were working on a tobacco account or a toilet tissue account or selling cars, you were creating demand, right, so you were creating false needs and then meeting them, so you actually enjoyed that and that was the game.

Darren:

But it is incredibly intense isn’t it? You called it a game and that just immediately made me go yes, we keep talking about it as a game but it’s a game that has incredible highs and lows and to the victors, the spoils but if you fail.

Michael:

Well you fail hard and you fail public and so if you do really poor work it’s very visible if you fail and you loss say from a pitch point of view that’s very visible, everybody knows. It’s not a war and so to use warlike lexicon seems to me to be a bit irreverent but we would always say listen, lives aren’t at stake, but livelihoods are.

And the reality in advertising is that if you do lose a big piece of business, even a small one, more than likely places are going to be resized. In other words, we are going to sack some of your friends or you are going to become de-emphasised. All these wonderful euphemisms to say, we are going to have to whack thirty people because we’ve just lost a big chunk of business.

Darren:

Downsizing.

Michael:

And those decisions were made prior to the pitch result coming out. And it’s worse when you are incumbent. When it’s an incumbent pitch the victory is twice as sweet cause you’ve saved the jobs of people that you know as opposed to simply winning a piece of business and putting on jobs.

Darren:

The irony for me running pitches is when accounts move the people also move. It’s almost like half the people move up from one agency and move to the next especially on those big pitches.

Michael:

It can be. I think the issue for people’s health with regard to advertising is just how much stamina that it takes. You’ve got to be incredibly resilient. It takes an extraordinary amount of stamina and there is no respite in it.

I never found that there were days where I was bored and certainly the more senior that you became the more responsibility and you saw the greater extent of what you were responsible for, the people you are responsible for and consequences of not delivering.

Darren:

And I think that’s one of the things isn’t it, because when you first get into the industry, it’s more about the parties.

Michael:

It’s glamorous.

Darren:

Making the ads, doing all of that and you work really hard. People in advertising work sixty hours, they work weekends and you climb this tree except that there’s no reward at the top except more responsibility.

Michael:

No.

Darren:

Unless it’s your own agency.

Michael:

If your names on the wall it’s different, but we were joking to get to the top and there’s nothing there. We regularly got to the top of a number of agencies and then transferred to others and it was still the same problems just with a different set of letters on the wall in a different colour and cultures weren’t that different.

The only culture that mattered was a winning culture.

So, if you had a winning culture that was the culture, but to say we had some deep and highly textualized culture to me would be over playing it. I think that advertising; it’s funny, you do get into it when you are young, you think it is glamorous, however, the ads are glamorous, but the business is not.

We would regularly say to each other lets never do this again; work through the night to 3am go home and come back again at 6am, rehearse for another hour and then go in and yet that would happen. We were pretty good at being able to manage pitches.

But it’s no way to live when you are regularly telling the studio staff, hey listen what do you want on your pizza because we are about to order in another twenty? Phone your partner you’re not going to be home tonight. That’s routine, that’s not irregular, that’s common place and what is common place is I’d come in and get ready to do a rehearsal at 7.30 and we didn’t leave, Mike, and I’d say thank you.

Darren:

It’s interesting from my perspective. When I left advertising as a creative person and started this consultancy I tell people it took me about two years to de-institutionalise myself and that was when a client would say I want to meet with you it was like jump and I would say ‘how high’ and it took about two years.

I remember the conversation; it was with a client I’d been talking to for about a month and they weren’t quite sure and then suddenly they phoned up and said ‘yeah, yeah we are ready to go’ and I looked at my diary and there was just no way I could meet with them that week unless I started moving things.

I remembered at an agency you would do that. If a client said I need to see you tomorrow or this afternoon you would move everything to actually do it. Look I said I can’t see you until next week and they went, ‘oh okay’.

Michael:

Clients would play to that and they would know that we see it as a sign of your passion for our business that you are going to make time and sacrifice for us. That’s not noble and certainly at times it simply looked mean. And at times there was just an ambivalence: I don’t care if you want the business, I’ll see you at 3 o’clock.

I think there are two parts to the advertising business and that clients can dictate a great deal of the culture in the place. The biggest client in the agency always dictated the culture or the organisations I was in.

So, for all of the agency’s great philosophies and books and processes and strategy and all of that which I was involved in, if the client subscribed to any of that, well then you simply operated the way the client did in the organisation. For some people who aren’t in advertising or who are in agencies, it doesn’t dawn on them that the client in fact has dictated the culture of the organisation.

Darren:

And you are right because since leaving advertising and having those conversations with accounting firms and lawyers and things like that, they just have no concept. They literally think of advertising agencies as crazy places because they think that they operate on a completely different paradigm.

I mean law firms are not jumping because the legal process just goes on, grinds on and on and on. Having come from medical research and working in hospitals—in a hospital its life and death. And yet I saw the same responses in advertising agencies as if it is life and death, the culture and relationships.

Michael:

Yeah very much.

Darren:

And I remember when I did copy school in Melbourne.

Michael:

I remember the old Melbourne copy school.

Darren:

Sandy Ladiko who was a copy writer at the Palace at the time, said to me ‘this is life

and death’ and it just didn’t compute, but I’ve seen that.

Michael:

It’s a competitive business and you know who your competitors are.

Darren:

Well, often your colleagues.

Michael:

Well first of all the competition resides inside the organisation and we would often say listen the competition is outside the window not inside but that is somewhat naive because there’s competition inside the glass.

The competition is very public, and they are well known, and you know who they are and that’s why we call it a game; how do you get yourself bought before your pitch? How do you get yourself bought before the presentation?

If you think that you are pitching against four teams/ agencies and you think you’ve got a one in four chance that’s naive. We would try and always get it down to the last two and then give the procurement guy someone to play the price-off game with, but we were never in the business of making it fair.

And indeed, when I was at George Patterson we were known as the Chairman’s choice for years, and for obvious reasons. We weren’t in advertising; we were in business. It just happened to be that our business was advertising.

Darren:

Here’s something I noticed, and I wouldn’t mind you commenting on it. It is an incredible pressure cooker. It really is very demanding on people and people form really strong bonds while they’re working together but I also found that when you move from job to job or leave, the actual number of those people that you’ve formed the strong bond with is actually relatively small.

Is that your observation as well?

Michael:

It depends very much. I think it’s like being on a team. The other thing that people must consider is that in any commercial relationship, even though you might be friends and colleagues, there is a dollar bill between you and that person.

That means that there will be times in which teams together can achieve great success and that’s fantastic and you get a lot of war stories and things like that. That doesn’t mean that that is always going to hold you together—maybe the genuine relationships that are based on genuine friendship (that you confide and are vulnerable with).

Maybe they’re the relationships that you take with you. But you could count those on one hand. It’s a bit like Facebook friends; there are a lot of people who are familiar to you and you may have worked with and that may have been fun, and you’ve had some success and failure but that doesn’t mean it translates into that next level of that close circle that genuinely cares about you and you care about them.

Darren:

Going back to Black Light Principle—I get depression as a mental illness and it was called the black dog. I hated the black dog, but I like this idea of black light revealing what’s hidden. But there is a whole range of other mental illnesses in the work place aren’t there?

And some of those make people incredibly successful. Talking with a psychiatrist friend of mine and he said the most successful CEOs often have what’s called borderline personality disorder.

Michael:

Yeah, personality disorders and the ability to focus on the goal at the expense of all else is something which helps you succeed in advertising. And there’s an absoluteness and a purity in the thinking that keeps you focused.

And I remember being at George Patterson and there were three of us; Hamish McLennan, Matt McGrath and myself and we were toured by the likes of Hamill, Cousins and Elliot and they would say, ‘our client only needs one answer, but they need the right answer’.

So, when we were preparing a project campaign or pitch, that was the mantra, so there was a purity in the thinking there. And that means that you don’t actually discuss thing in great depth or breadth.

That means you are looking for the answer that the client needs right then that will get you bought. It doesn’t necessarily need to be the right answer for the client; it’s the right answer to get you on the slate.

You can come up with the right answer after that. That’s why a lot of pitch creative work never gets made. It’s all very good. However, that was to demonstrate that we like you and we like the way in which you think etc. etc. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve presented the right answer. And it takes time to produce an answer.

Darren:

And the expectation that someone who doesn’t really understand your business or has had the opportunity to get under the skin of your business can come up with an answer is a pretty flawed expectation anyway.

Michael:

It is.

Darren:

But I’m interested because borderline personality disorder is something that can make people incredibly successful and not just in advertising but in all sorts of businesses. It only really becomes an illness doesn’t it when the behaviour has implications in the wellness of the whole person?

Like you could be incredibly successful in business but if you go through a succession of relationship breakdowns, if you start using drugs and alcohol to deal with the sense of emptiness or futility it’s only when the whole person is not functioning that it does become an illness. You could be a completely functional personality disorder.

Michael:

Well you can but the other thing also is that people who have either got personality disorders or are bi-polar they can be very damaging to other staff. However, they are kept on because they might be very effective.

In my own experience, I suffer from being bi-polar too and that means that I suffer from some highs and lows and when I was on people could tell that I was on. And generally, I was fortunate that a lot of those being on moments were in and around pitches and so they would say Mike’s really on today.

I would often write a presentation, however, when I was on and then I would deliver it. And I would have to deliver it in a week or two, fly half way around the world and I would be in a really low space when I had to deliver it and I’d be on the plane rewriting it.

Darren:

The total opposite.

Michael:

The total opposite, rewriting the presentation furiously to simply deliver it in a confident and less bold way. Now that was deeply troubling for me to manage. And sometimes I could feel it coming on or I would wake up and say no, this is not it, I don’t need it today.

And whether it was big meetings we would have with Sol Trujillo at Telstra. I was running two-day workshops that I was charging an enormous amount for and I would wake up and say no, I’m not on, how am I going to do it? How am I now going to re-manage myself so that I am still on and adding value and yet people will not notice that I am feeling morbid?

Darren:

And then that becomes a performance.

Michael:

It is.

Darren:

You have to put it on and it’s incredibly draining because when you’re on it’s almost like the energy is driven by your own illness.

Michael:

Well the joke at Y&R was where’s Mike because after a presentation or whatever I’d drive home and go to sleep or I’d be asleep in the couch in my office. And the joke would be where’s Mike? Because depression is exhausting—yes, there is sadness, worthlessness, but there is also exhaustion and I’d suffer enormously from that exhaustion.

And so, after I was on and because I was doing large lumps of the strategy and I’d be first on my feet and I’d do a lot of the face to face and the deck etc. etc. I’d find that I would be exhausted, and it would take me awhile to recover (and I don’t mean an afternoon).

That post-pitch presentation fatigue would last for some time. Buoyed only if in fact you got a phone call within that three days. If there was silence for three days our rule of thumb was you were dead. If you were buoyed by some questions that might come back that might make you feel better.

However, I found it to be like in between a trapeze—just a terribly exhausting experience.

Darren:

You were left dangling there because you fill up on the success. In some ways what you describe are the types of extremes that people go through in that industry.

Michael:

It is. It’s easy to lampoon the industry and sometimes so it should be. However, the people I have met have been first of all incredibly hard workers. And we often said that part of our job was to do our client’s job for them and many clients said that to us.

The other thing is that a lot of people have skill-sets and some people have talent and those people who have talent they’re really the ones that can turn it on and they are the rainmakers. If their name is not on the door they’re part of that top 1% of the agency world which are really seriously gifted.

And we knew at times we could strike lightning into a client’s business and it would get a great result. But keeping the team together was the most important thing and when you do have a great team and it is together and you win a lot it feels, not invincible, but there is an enormous amount of confidence that you walk into the room with. And people buy people and therefore they buy that confidence that you have.

Darren:

They’re attracted to it and want it.

Michael:

These are our guys. You leave the room and they say these are our guys.

Darren:

I’ve actually been on the other side of the clients when you and Hamish and Matt came in and you did the almost spotlessly perfect presentation and left the clients absolutely knocked off their seats.

I think they saw eight agencies in one day and there was only one agency they could mention by name and that’s testament to when a team has got it together and presents brilliantly.

But more than just the advertising space because you also worked in media when you were working at Ten.

Michael:

I did.

Darren:

A very commercial focus there.

Michael:

Unbelievable.

Darren:

Because it was all about selling and hitting numbers and things—advertising is part of that. But this was relentless, month in month out, week in week out at a time when the business itself was number three amongst the commercials and people had question marks. And then you went to another agency.

Michael:

Yeah, I went to Innocean

Darren:

You ran an agency. The reason I bring that up is not necessarily to talk about it but now you’ve taken all of that experience and what are you offering business in Australia? What are you offering the commercial landscape of Australia with all of that experience?

Michael:

A way to achieve productivity gains but not through working people harder or through just another process but by addressing the accelerants to mental health issues inside companies. And because I’ve worked in companies and been on assignments all around the world I know what it’s like inside a few companies.

I know that sometimes the language, the processes, the KPIs, the workloads that we use they are friction points, which can increase the likelihood or accelerate anyone who might be suffering some sort of mental condition.

That is my primary focus and the financial gains out of that are simply gains in productivity. Productivity as defined by the World Health Organisation (or the lack of it) is forgetfulness and tiredness. And people see things like absenteeism, a rise in bullying and they call this bundle a lack of productivity.

So, I set this up first all to be able to speak about mental illness in the workplace, which resonates with a lot of people, and that’s not to say they ring me up or give me a like here and there, it just resonates with a lot of people.

Darren:

Well TrinityP3 is a corporate member of the Ethics Alliance, which is part of the Ethics Centre and earlier this year there was a big presentation and discussion around moral harm within corporations.

And it seems to me that there is a huge growing awareness and wave of interest beyond the physical harm to the moral and psychological harm that some of our modern business practices are creating.

Because everyone pays lip service to our human resource, our human capital is our most important asset.

Michael:

Which is the worst term I’ve ever heard in my life. When we started referring to people as human capital that was another tipping point for us to look at people in spreadsheets.

Darren:

Dollars and sense.

Michael:

There is a triple dividend in treating mental illness. There is one for the staff member, one for the company, and one for the community. So, there is a triple dividend in doing that. What we do have now is badly organised companies that have systems and processes that give rise to friction with customers.

Now those customers then create occupational abuse and take it out on staff. If we think about everybody who might be in a call centre, whether it’s an insurance company, a telco or a bank, all of them have received occupational abuse.

They have received occupational abuse because at some point the systems and processes of that company have created such friction with that customer they’ve gone past a point where they’re being polite and orderly, and they go ballistic. Now that’s an area that needs to be addressed.

If you ever received a no-reply text or email and you felt like replying to it coupled with five phone calls to try and get something hooked up or put on or whatever and nothing happens and you’re ringing back different people–those digital notes, those lack of organised processes are in fact contributing to flashpoints with consumers who then take it out on staff who have families and homes to go to.

Darren:

And the problem is the decisions are made by people higher up that are not seeing the coal face, the interface to the consumer where all of that abuse occurs.

Michael:

I used to double-jack phone calls in staff call centres when I was working in various telcos etc and I was horrified at the way in which they were treated. And I know they’re trained in that but that doesn’t make it any easier. Just because you’re trained in handling abuse.

You’re being shot at; you’ve been trained in getting shot at. That doesn’t mean it’s right. I’m sure there is a way we can do it better.

Darren:

And the other thing, certainly at middle and higher management is where the performance metrics for those mangers are all about hitting the numbers and it rewards people who might bully their staff, might take a heavy-handed or uncaring approach because everything is about hitting those numbers and not about building a cohesive, healthy, performing team.

Michael:

That manager possibly uses bullying as a strategy because maybe they’ve not had any input into the composition of those targets. I’ve been in jobs where I have received the budgets I’m meant to hit without any input whatsoever into the composition of those.

As a result, you feel this has been set as a high bar for you. It’s been set for you to do anything that it takes. And I remember we had a philosophy in one company I was in and it was ‘whatever it takes’.

Well whatever it takes me, all bets are off—it means politeness, stewardship, care for the customer, care for your staff, care for yourself – that goes out the window all in the name of hitting the number.

Darren:

Nice lip service, nice things to have on the website but as soon as it actually comes down to hitting the numbers.

Michael:

When do the targets become too much or excessive or simply not reasonable given the business conditions? Because they are set given a set of assumptions and if those assumptions and conditions change then achieving those numbers is an impossible task.

And sometimes when the tide goes out in business it stays out and a miracle is not going to pull it back.

We would call the budget committee in New York the disappointment committee—we are very disappointed in your performance.

Darren:

The other one I like is the seagull tour where senior management fly around and they get to shit on everyone before they fly off again.

Michael:

Well they are. Agencies are like medieval villages; you get visits from popes, there are artisans there, there are kings, queens, princesses, and there are knights and to me it resembled a medieval village far more than it did anything else.

I remember one time I was running an organisation and when the global CEO came over and the lift doors opened we were all in reception and we all had to applaud.

Darren:

Spontaneously.

Michael:

Spontaneously applaud. He was presented with flowers and introduced to the rest of the staff. That’s o.k.; it’s a cultural thing.

Darren:

Now, you mentioned before you’re working on a book.

Michael:

Yes, I am.

Darren:

What else are you doing? You’re available for speaking I believe.

Michael:

Yes indeed. Two things. I drew a line in my health last year. I felt I wasn’t getting anywhere with it, so I decided to admit myself to a facility to try and reset my health goals and that was a very trying month—I was in at South Pacific private.

Darren:

Confronting?

Michael:

Very confronting. Easily the hardest thing I’ve ever done. That’s where they take you through a process of assessing your mental and emotional health and you’re there with 50 other patients.

And I decided this was necessary and came out and I’ve written a book called ‘To be continued—flying high, feeling low’. And flying high, feeling low is really an apt description for my career because at times I flew high while feeling 3 out of 10.

This first book is largely a book about my life and story and how I mastered my condition but coming out of that is a second book, which is more about now what are the strategies that I use to be able to manage my life? So, one is the story, the other is a more practical guide.

I’m speaking to companies now regarding mental wellness in the organisation. Part of it is telling my story; part of it is here is a Dorothy Dixit question that I ask every single conference that I speak at: ‘who here wants to do a good job at work?’ 100% of the hands go up.

‘Do you have a culture and people and processes in place that allow you to do a good job at work?’ About 40% of the hands go down at that point. So, there is a huge gap. And that gap contributes to things like depression. There are also industries that are far more susceptible; health care workers, carers, people in the transport industry.

Darren:

I’d imagine the banking industry would be a bit depressing.

Michael:

I’d say they’d be suffering. They might be suffering short-term sadness. I don’t know whether or not it’s going to translate into long-term sadness, which is what depression is. However, depression is also the lack of joy in anything that you previously found joy in.

Yeah, they’re having their ‘come to Jesus’ moment and hopefully there’ll be a bit of shaking up.

Darren:

Mike, unfortunately, we’ve run out of time, but I just want to thank you. You’ve been so generous with your experience, your thoughts and sharing what you’re doing so I wish you all of the best for the future.

Mike:

Appreciate it, Darren, Thank you.

Darren:

Just one last question for you and quite a controversial one. Who is the biggest bully you’ve ever worked with?

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Darren is considered a thought leader on all aspects of marketing management. A Problem Solver, Negotiator, Founder & Global CEO of TrinityP3 - Marketing Management Consultants, founding member of the Marketing FIRST Forum and Author. He is also a Past-Chair of the Australian Marketing Institute, Ex-Medical Scientist and Ex-Creative Director. And in his spare time he sleeps. Darren's Bio Here Email: darren@trinityp3.com

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