By Jess Lilley
Competition for career success exists in every industry, but trying to make a buck out of creativity must surely be up there with the toughest of them. Actors schlep to casting call after casting call vying to outdo each other, writers face a million letters of rejection hoping to be elevated from the slush pile, singers and wannabe chefs battle it out on talent shows, artists tap-dance for funding and art prizes.
I had a conversation with an author once who said the only reason she ever managed to get her first book published was because her graduating year of uni pals were all so talented she felt an enormous pressure to do something, to prove she wasn’t nothing. She is brilliant and had a great idea; but it was that competitive edge, the fear of failing where others might succeed, that really spurred her on.
Another friend pitched an idea to a TV network, never to hear from them again. A year later, she saw a promo for a show on the same network with an uncannily similar premise and script. Instead of crumbling, she became even more determined to top that idea with ten better ones, to go even further in spite of this deceit.
These scenarios are played out time and time again in advertising agencies as creative teams are pitted against each other as we hunt down the best ideas. Healthy competition can be of great benefit, I’m told. I call Marita Knight, a psychologist, to ask how and why.
“Competition is good for us because it helps us feel good for doing well and winning, which inspires ambition and drive. Also because it helps us know loss or disappointment, which is important too, to keep us humble. It also makes us want to not lose again, so we try harder.”
Ok, sure. Competition pushes us to overcome seemingly insurmountable problems, to amplify skills we never knew we had, to make okay ideas excellent ones. It also helps in a deadline-driven culture, otherwise we all might just go to the pub and not give a shit. But part of me thinks the way it manifests itself in advertising is a bit OTT.
There is a big difference between the competitive drive necessary to build a career out of your art, and the level of competition that drives some behaviours endemic in advertising culture. The complication with the world of advertising is that the creative work we are talking about is predominantly voicing someone else’s message rather than expressing who we are as individuals. Creative, yes. But ephemeral—so competitiveness gets a little murky. It’s not just about being spurred on by a healthy rivalry with your nemesis, or yourself, or your classmates, or your food dream, knowing that when you finally breakthrough it’s a solid and real testament to the expression of your creative voice.
In advertising, as soon as you’ve fought off the competition to get your thing made, it briefly appears, anchored in a moment in time, then disappears into the ether and you have to start the journey all over again.
Only we know who did what because no one else is that bothered. So not only is the competition relentless and cyclical, it can become very inward-looking.
As an industry we can develop a bit of a nasty sense of competition among us, quick to judge and loud to criticise. Free from the glare of accountability, we can be utter pricks to each other (ahem Campaign Brief trolls). And the competition can become unhealthy very quickly—corrupted by ego, we can behave wickedly under the misguided belief that we need to protect our genius, and undermine our competitor, or someone else will go further than us.
It sounds dramatic, but there are so many levels of competitiveness in advertising, it’s hard to know where to begin. And so I divert to my favoured subject when it comes to these sorts of discussions. I mentally tick through all the people I’ve ever worked with, for whom being competitive seemed so baked into their DNA they didn’t care who they trounced on their path to the podium.
The people who compete like seasoned pros, who thrive in industries like advertising. The sociopaths and the psychopaths.
According to an article in The Drum, “experts believe that one in 25 people is a psychopath… and the advertising and media industry is crawling with them.”
Back to Marita. “Healthy competition tips over when the competitors aren’t evenly matched in skills or experience or the way they work and play. For example, sociopaths play dirty but most others wouldn’t. Also sociopaths are drawn to advertising as a suitable environment to gain power as you can get a form of ‘fame’ or mastery in the field, which they love.” Ergo they can keep going further and further in their career, at the expense of others, gaining accolades and status.
Culture is important in advertising. But profit even more so. And when someone is very good at contributing to the latter and not the former, their behaviour can be overlooked or excused.
This is where sociopaths thrive—where the commercial results of their hyper-competitiveness outweigh the distress they might be causing their colleagues.
“Sociopaths thrive on manipulation and deceit. They see us as weaker because of our emotions. They’re like aliens,” says Marita. So basically, don’t try and be competitive with these ones or they’ll liquify you.
It feels like the right time to swing this convo back to a level of competition we can control. I ask Marita, how much does competition help or hinder creativity?
“It’s a thin line because a bit of competition is important to push people not to be complacent and to push themselves. But if it’s too much competition the pressure can stifle creativity. It also depends on the person. Some people aren’t cut out for tough competition and others thrive on it.”
I like to think that the people I know who’ve had real creative success have not only used their competitive edge positively, they have gathered a community of trusted, likeminded people who help push them, and who they can share and better their ideas with. Advertising is no different.
Competition might be unavoidable, but collaboration is more fun. And you can turn the former into the latter. Whether it’s between you and your mate, or you and a broader cohort of work buddies who get you excited to make things better—riff off that as much as you can.
Share all your ideas freely and liberally, confident in the knowledge you have plenty more where they came from.
At the same time, trust your vibe when it feels like competition at work tips over from healthy to unhealthy: a tightening of the stomach or a little niggle that someone isn’t playing by the same rules as you. Trust that instinct and leave a dead fish in their drawer. Or turn it into your life’s work to take them down. Sorry, I mean walk away. Hmm, yes, that’s what you’re supposed to do.