Advertising + alcohol: An examination of modern agency culture

Bevan Mahaney asked six creatives across the country about the industry's relationship with cocktails.

Alcohol and advertising, two worlds intertwined since the Mad Men days. This was the era of martini lunches and in-office bars. Back then, agencies were eager to be rebellious and anti-corporate and a boozy culture supported that. Alcohol and advertising were reflective of a larger zeitgeist of independence.

Does that still ring true today? Does our industry have the same need for alcohol to drive identity and culture?

As we approach the full swing of the holiday drinking season, it’s a good time to take a closer look at the role alcohol plays in our business. With increased awareness around the dangers of mixing work with booze, specifically in regard to sexual harassment and HR liabilities, has agency drinking changed? And how does the current cultural movement towards health, wellness and self-care factor in, with millennials shifting towards meditation over mimosas?

I spoke with six industry creatives from around the country to explore the relationship between alcohol and advertising and find answers to these questions: Is the industry sexy with or without the cocktails? Could sobriety be a new form of rebellion?

To avoid placing a spotlight on the drinking behaviors of agencies or our contributors, comments are anonymous. Here are the roles they saw alcohol consumption play in our world.

Alcohol as American celebratory landmark

One ECD from NYC described booze as a badge of honor in our industry. Hours worked and drinks consumed serve as bragging rights for office-bound creatives. Another creative pointed out that it might be bigger than advertising, "alcohol is in the DNA of the American work culture." Also, many of us rely on booze to mark important events. An ECD said that drinking can signal, "off duty." As our business cycles between highs, lows and never-ending workflows, maybe it's reassuring to have something to mark a beginning and an end.

Alcohol as bonding agent

An SVP/Strategy Creative says that alcohol can serve as fuel for ideation or as cement for team bonding. It’s widely accepted that close teams create better work and perhaps alcohol is seen as facilitating that. This could be because of alcohol’s role in momentarily reducing social anxiety.  An ECD in NY said that a few drinks can "erase the shyness" while another CD in LA says alcohol and can help her "loosen up" on occasion.

Alcohol as romantic notion

A CD from the Midwest spoke to the aura around alcohol and advertising. "Clients want the ad agency fantasy, so alcohol becomes a part of the strategy of winning new business or strengthening current client relationships." It seems that many employees, at least when starting out, want the fantasy too. Smart outfits, great ideas and a healthy drinking habit are wrapped up into one sexy image of the typical agency creative.

Alcohol as compensation perk

Ah the corporate card. It seems to exist solely to buy endless overpriced cocktails that junior creatives could otherwise not afford. It’s "the carte blanche for getting blackout post-pitch" as one junior copywriter put it. As we move forward it’s likely important to think of alternate ways to compensate creatives outside of the barroom. A creative in LA suggested dining experiences, sporting events, games, and outdoor activities as options.

Alcohol as corporate ladder

Younger creatives are perhaps experiencing more pressure to drink. One junior said they know they don’t have to drink but they think they’d miss out on important gatherings where information is shared if they don’t. Further, an ECD in LA said that she felt less pressure to drink as she rose in her title. Age and position clearly impact how and when creatives choose to drink.

Alcohol as liability

While many do see the benefits of drinking, everyone agreed that it was hard to stop after two drinks. Older creatives talked more about the increasingly difficult hangovers and anxiety that comes with booze. One creative director added, "there are no real benefits to drinking."  A junior creative discussed fear of embarrassment at holiday parties. A CD in New York says he’ll have one drink with his juniors and will then retreat to another bar so as to avoid inappropriate situations. The downside seems to become more evident for those who’ve been in the business longer.

Alcohol as wall to inclusion

Almost everyone I spoke to agreed there is some level of stigma for nondrinkers in this booze-centric industry. A junior copywriter said that people may feel like "they can’t bond with you if they can’t drink with you." But there’s evidence this may be changing. As more people choose to opt out, imbibe less or participate in an alternate substances like cannabis, dynamics are shifting. An ECD said she feels less pressure to explain her choice of not-drinking now, compared to when she started in the industry.

For the foreseeable future, it looks like alcohol will continue to play a role in agency life. But as more people move towards wellness, some agency functions might stray from the bar stools.  Perhaps the nostalgic era of drinking will give way to more honest conversations around the role of alcohol in our business. For an industry with such a heavy pour, there’s room for discussion.

Bevan Mahaney is an award-winning creative director and writer based in Los Angeles.

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