A sobering perspective: five minutes with David Ponce de Leon
Interview with David Ponce de Leon by Siobhan Fitzgerald.
When I released the Booze issue of Gabberish last week, David got in touch with me. He told me we had missed an opportunity to talk seriously about a real problem that affects our industry.
David had done what many of us contemplate but don’t dare, giving up booze altogether nine years ago. In the conversation that followed his initial email, he told me that he was happy to share his story to help bring a better understanding to the issue of booze and the problems it can present to us individually, in the workplace, and as a society.
SF: Tell me about your start in advertising, and what the social culture was like.
DPL: I started my career a bit longer than 20 years ago in a graphic reproduction house. This led to jobs at advertising agencies in Melbourne, some of the biggest ones. I caught the last wave of the long-long lunch era and of course, copious amounts of alcohol were consumed.
Friday pub lunches followed by Friday evening drinks. Parties. Late nights. Sounds pretty normal, but I definitely feel it was more extreme back then.
Incidentally, I’ve always found that workplaces with a heavy drinking culture tend to be more male-dominated and those engaged in excessive drinking were in most cases, men. Which encourages an even stronger case for diversity, but that’s the topic of a different conversation.
SF: Binge drinking in Australia often starts as early as school, and if not then at university. For many of us it’s a familiar past-time before we hit the advertising industry. Does our industry just reflect the society we live in, or is there more to it than that?
DPL: Our industry is a reflection of our society. Definitely. But it has, of course, its own dynamics.
Alcohol is so strongly associated with ‘having a good time’ in Australian culture that to choose not to drink is quasi-sacrilegious. Un-Australian, almost.
Peer pressure plays a big part. I only realized this after I stopped drinking. When you stop drinking, people start asking why and when you share with them you believe you might have had a problem, they get really confronted. Some get defensive. Some start denying it for you. But what they are really thinking is “If I drink more than you, and you believe you have a problem, where does that leave me?” It’s quite a trip. But, at the end, you need to do what’s right for you.
SF: Many of us drink too much—at most agency events you’ll see the whole agency drinking too much. And when the overconsumption of alcohol is normalised, it’s hard to recognise what problem drinking is. What would you say were the warning signs people should look out for in their own drinking habits?
DPL: I’ve been taught, that if when you honestly want to, you find you cannot stop entirely, or when you stop for a period of time it’s not long before you pick up again, or when drinking, you have little control over how often you do it or the amounts you consume, you are probably a problem drinker.
But as you said, when it’s normalised in such a way, it’s hard to recognize it.
It’s only after serious in-depth personal appraisal that you end up getting the answers you’re looking for. And people usually find it really hard to be rigorously honest with themselves.
SF: How much is too much?
DPL: It’s hard to say because even the experts disagree. If you go online you’ll find 10 different websites telling you 10 different things. The science is shifting all the time. The Australian Government Department of Health says if you’re a healthy adult man, on any day, you should not drink more than 2 standard drinks, up to a maximum of 14 drinks per week. Half of that, if you’re a woman. And on any single occasion, you should not drink more than 4 standard drinks over several hours. In addition, they also recommend alcohol-free days, two in a row, every week. The question is, how many of us are actually adhering to those basic guidelines?
SF: Was there a tipping point that prompted you in your decision to give up alcohol?
DPL: It wasn’t a specific tipping point, it was more like a series of realisations accumulating over a period of time. However, more than any external event, it was how I was feeling inside that prompted my decision to break up with alcohol for good.
I felt, for no logical or evident reason whatsoever, perennially restless, irritable and discontent. Anxiety and depression were constant companions. The highs were very high and the lows were very low.
Hangovers were excruciatingly painful. To put it very simply, drinking was not fun anymore. It was becoming, in fact, a seriously unpleasant and debilitating experience.
SF: Why do you think alcohol plays such a prominent role in the Australian advertising industry?
DPL: Ours is an industry of connection, in essence – we get paid to connect. With consumers, on behalf of brands, products or services. With each other, as we work collaboratively towards a certain objective.
As human beings, we all want to connect. And the easiest, most Australian way to connect, is over a drink. Drinking is the great cultural equalizer. The social glue of our society.
And there is this innate, ingrained desire to connect with others that drives us to drink. Whether we want to or not. Sometimes way too much. And some of us clearly shouldn’t.
The issue of stress and mental health in our industry has been raised too. People drink to relax and destress but alcohol really acts as a depressant. So after a while, it ends up having the opposite effect. We need to find other ways to unwind, both as an industry and as individuals.
SF: What can agencies do to encourage a workplace social culture (and working culture) that doesn’t revolve around booze?
DPL: Well, it needs to be about MORE than booze. It’s OK to have a drinks fridge and all but you have to provide and encourage other opportunities beyond the pub or the agency bar for people to connect.
Trips to nature, museums or galleries. Picnics in the park. Off-site training sessions. Well-being sessions. We have a lot of people here at Ogilvy doing amazing things around fitness: Tough Mudder, fun runs, team sports. The list is endless.
Our message is: You don’t have to drink alcohol to connect with another human being at a deeper level. There are many different ways to do this and people should give them a chance and be open to them.
SF: What effect have you seen alcohol having on those around you?
DPL: In the last 20 years, I’ve seen the whole lot. Avoidable disagreements at work, difficulties at home, broken relationships, separation, divorce, occasional trouble with the law, health issues, mental health issues. I’ve seen the usual cycles of anxiety and depression, caused by drinking excessively. Guilt, shame and remorse.
I’ve seen really talented people not achieving their full potential or living really sad, unfulfilled lives and it’s a damn shame, it’s not pretty and it’s very much avoidable.
SF: Alcohol is a key contributor to deaths across Australia, and anecdotally I have heard of a number of alcohol-related deaths within the industry. But we keep doing it because drinking is fun. What do you say to those living by the ‘live hard/die hard’ motto?
DPL: There’s absolutely no doubt there are millions of people out there who can enjoy two or three glasses of their favourite alcoholic beverage, in moderation and with total impunity. And have a lot of fun in the experience.
But there’s others for which one drink is too much and a hundred not enough.
How much you drink is your choice, but everyone should know that drinking is never free of risk. The more you drink, the greater the risk to your health and your wellbeing and of those around you. There are solid statistics around that.
Alcohol is not the inoffensive, fun, gregarious life partner we imagine it or want it to be and it can quickly become the complete opposite if left unchecked.
Alcohol is a drug, pure and simple. There is no safe level of drug use. Use of any drug always carries some risk.
SF: Statistically young people today are drinking less than they did ten years ago. Do you think there is a change in the air, and if so what do you think has brought it about?
DPL: Latest statistics are encouraging. In fact, there’s a pretty clear decline in alcohol consumption amongst young people since the year 2000. I do believe there’s a change in the air and I think there’s a number of reasons for it.
Number one is education. Alcohol education starts at home and Generation X parents who came from the heavy drinking days of the 90’s don’t want their kids to repeat their same mistakes. So it seems they are setting a better example of restraint and moderation.
Today’s youth are a lot more connected, have access to a lot more information very quickly. So their awareness of the risks associated with excessive drinking is more acute and perhaps even more graphic than ever before. Legislation and restrictions have also helped, but we’re seeing a massive social shift in attitudes too.
SF: Have you got any advice/words of encouragement for those who wish to give up drinking?
I want to say to everyone out there that it’s definitely possible to be a human being in Australia, in advertising, and not be a drinker and be happy about it.
The last nine years have been, categorically, the best years of my life. But I’m no special case. I’m a just a human being that through personal experience realized his own life will be better without alcohol. And, I would like to help others, if possible.
I know there are more of us out there, and I want to reach out to them and say, it’s ok to ask for help. This is very hard to do on your own, you need all the support you can get and there’s many ways to ask for help. There is a solution and there is an alternative. It’s absolutely possible to have a happy, joyous and free life without alcohol and you can talk to me about it. In full confidence.
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