How to have a killer career without killing yourself

Advertising is worth getting up for in the morning. But it's not worth dying for--even a little bit at a time, writes the retired CCO of Phelps.

Advertising is tough. It puts incredible demands on your time, your mind, your body, and (not to get too dramatic but ...) your soul. But I've learned firsthand that you can have a long, successful and even joyous career if you understand this simple truth: It's all about balance.  

Your career is not your life. It's getting easier to confuse the two, as advertising gets more intense. While it's essential to be passionate about what you do, it's crippling to let advertising define you. Balancing work with other interests, hobbies, friends and family—maybe even a puppy—can add years to your happiness and longevity. Besides, real life will be there long after your career is just a scrapbook.

Don't suffer for your art. We all want to do killer work that sets the world on fire. But if you let yourself be consumed by it; punish yourself because you can't seem to hit on the big idea; worry and fret and spend too many sleepless nights—then it's time to restore your balance or give it up. Suffering may sound noble, but it's not conducive to creativity.

Don't worship at the altar of advertising. Advertising can be an immensely rewarding way to make a living. But it's not a religion, and it doesn't promise a spiritual experience. It's up to you to keep it in perspective. Gaze into the eyes of your children. That's where God is.

Ten Clios are not worth one divorce. True happiness doesn't exist on a printed page, a computer screen or a TV reel. It's in the arms of the one you love. Nourish your relationship at home and learn to leave your work at the office. The phone may buzz all night long, but you don't always have to answer it. There's no bonus prize for answering texts after 8 p.m.

Be a champion, not a tyrant. When critiquing work, make sure people know you're talking about their work, not their talent. A moment of humiliation can undo months, even years, of encouragement. Remember this when you're tempted to scream or set storyboards on fire. My favorite line that I learned from a mentor many years ago is, "I wish I loved it more." It's kept the fire going in many a creative person.

Take care of your body—you only get one. When you're under pressure, it's easy to succumb to pepperoni pizzas at 2 a.m., big celebratory Mexican lunches and too many agency Happy Hours. Maybe more than other professions, we need to watch what we eat, get a good night's sleep, and consider doing a little yoga. It just might extend your career—and your life. It certainly has mine.

Find a culture that agrees with you. There are agencies that support a healthy balance between work and life. Honesty, kindness and an appreciation of balance are infectious. I was lucky to be chief creative officer for the past 19 years at a place where you can feel the positive energy when you walk in the door. People like and respect one another; enjoy collaborating; root for the best work no matter where the idea comes from. That's a healthy work environment for everyone who comes in contact, especially clients.

Advertising is worth getting up for in the morning. But it's not worth dying for—even a little bit at a time. The future MVPs of the ad biz will be the ones who keep calm while everyone's losing their minds. They'll take balance to the bank of life, where things really matter.

Howie Cohen, author of Alka Seltzer's famous '70s ad "I can't believe I ate the whole thing" spot, retired this week as CCO of Phelps after a 52-year career as a creative director.

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