How I came back to my dream job after battling a drinking problem

Richard Bradford: group strategy director, MEC
Richard Bradford: group strategy director, MEC

I didn't learn my best lessons from the ladder - I learned them from falling off it.

I’m quite afraid of writing what I’m about to write. I have a more vanilla version saved on my Google Drive that documents all the good things I’ve done and all the positive lessons I’ve learned. But I just don’t think life works like that.

I didn’t learn my best lessons from the ladder – I learned them from falling off it. You can’t grow up until you’ve cocked up. If I sent the vanilla version in, I’d be a charlatan. I’d have learned nothing.

Two years ago, I thought I was doing great. I was about to be made head of something. After a nine-month pitch, I’d helped retain our most significant client, against the odds. I could afford to take my parents out somewhere with waiters and tablecloths.

A week later, I went to the doctor’s surgery. I had a drinking problem serious enough to be told not to stop drinking too suddenly. I came home to tell my partner. She was running out of good reasons why we were together.

I told my boss and mentor I needed to change. He was brilliant. Everyone was. I am ceaselessly amazed how when we admit our own human frailty, we find it in the people around us.

I left the account that day. I took a job cut, a pay cut and left the role that I had made my name on. I came back to MEC with my tail between my legs.

What had gone wrong? I was a long list of things that seemed to mean success. But I wasn’t happy and, increasingly, didn’t recognise my own behaviour.

The people who loved me most seemed to know me least those days. I thought about leaving advertising and becoming anything from a goatherd to a therapist. But I loved advertising. I loved understanding what motivates people; I loved finding out what connects them to the things they do; I loved the beautiful simplicity of a well-made ad; I loved that my career highlight had been talking to a three-generation family in a hot tub in Butlins and understanding how much going there meant to them.

But I didn’t love the way I’d been doing it. I made myself (and Ruth) a promise. If I was going to do it, I was going to do it the way I thought was right. Even if that meant I never got another promotion, never got another pay rise, and even if I got fired and ended up advertising the Happy Camper Car Wash in Honolulu.

In the two years since then, I’ve pitched six times and we’ve won six times (with some amazing people). I’ve had stand-up arguments with our chief executive and global chief strategy officer on the morning of big pitches. I’ve stood up for what I’ve believed in, and I’ve backed down when I’m not right. But I’ve never backed down because I’m afraid of not getting promoted or losing my job.

There’s more of what I believe in the work and less of what I imagine people want. And it’s made the work better. I don’t have a long list of advice. I just have one thing I believe:

You don't have to compromise who your are to do well in this industry

If you stop thinking about where you’re trying to get to, and start thinking about whether you’re proud of how you’re doing things, you’ll do better work and enjoy the work you do a whole lot more.

Richard Bradford is the group strategy director, MEC. Bradford was featured in Media Week's 30 Under 30 in 2012.

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