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What It Means To Slay Dragons

by Kristine Lasam

Finding work life balance in the agency life.

It’s 4.16 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon and Thursdays, like Sundays in the agency world and within the Dubai context absolutely means frenetic.  I have a ton of things to see to and usually deadlines run end of play, (and that for us is usually a minute before midnight) and I pause to look up from my computer at the team heavily focused on the task at hand (each one have a long list) and looking intently at their own screens.

My phone is next to me and Whatsapp message notifications come in helter skelter, each wanting to be the first.  My Whatsapp stopped being a messenger app for my personal life many moons ago—my work life has taken over it shamelessly (albeit at times, recklessly too).  If I didn’t keep my phone on silent, or my Whatsapp notifications disabled, I would function no differently from those lab rats, mobilizing like a disembodied version of itself at the sound of a bell, doing its bidding as it has been trained to do.  And this thought has spurred me to stop whatever it was I was doing (crunching on a pitch deck)—to talk about work-life-balance.

When Sunshine shared the Mental Health Day request of Madalyn Parker on her FB Timeline.

A few days ago, 11th of July, 9.30 p.m. to be exact—one of my project directors, Sunshine (that’s her real name) shared the trending news of Madalyn Parker emailing her boss and colleagues to take a “mental day off” so she can bounce back to being 100%.  Madalyn’s email alone did not make the incident viral—however the response of Madalyn’s boss did.  He empathized and agreed with her.  He (Ben Congleton) had written, “I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organizations.  You are an example to us all, and help cut through the stigma so we can bring our whole selves to work.”

I read what Sunshine shared that evening.  It really gave me pause.  I went to see her post again, liked it and replied that her mental day is approved, and that I would actually love to join her.  The following day, like a sense of foreboding—I suffered my worst migraine episodes yet.

I sent a message to Sunshine on Whatsapp—(because her work life had taken over her Whatsapp too).  I told her that I have to take some mental days off to see to me too, so I can bounce back to 100% and apologized profusely that we couldn’t do it together.  She replied with an LMAO emoji, told me to get some rest and that she was so looking forward to taking a mental day off with me sometime soon too.  I dropped my phone on the bedside table, almost on autopilot and popped some Zomig in my mouth and aimed for sleep.

While I lay fetal-like in bed with a sleeping mask on to ward off light from entering my eyes (any light is a killer when you are toughing out a chronic migraine)—and after many trips to the bathroom nauseous, blinded by the white, blinking aura on the side of my head and largely immobilized by debilitating pain, I promised myself I would articulate my thoughts if only to spark a small conversation about the importance of work-life-balance; and mental health to each and everyone of us—not only to me, or my team.

What it really means to slay dragons.

We always banter at the agency that we are humans slaying dragons in our daily grind, in our agency life—and I tell you, it’s Herculean.  Dragons come in the form of impossible deadlines and to a large degree unrealistic expectations from those we work with.  Dragons come in the form of unclear briefs, design by committees and multiple iterations outside of scope.  It comes as a Whatsapp message at wee hours in the morning, waking us up from sleep—and sometimes haunting our dreams.  It usually comes late on a Thursday, or sometimes when we are about to catch a flight (nearly missing it)—and it follows us on our holidays.  It drives us to want to drink in oblivion, instead of sharing a good plate of chicken peri-peri, drinks and laughter while on holidays in Portugal.  Dragons follow us during our lunch hours; toilet breaks and nail or hair appointments.  It follows us when we sit at the dinner table with our loved ones, or at the gym, or when we walk our dog.  Dragons follow us everywhere that we couldn’t help but become Dragon slayers, not out of our own volition though.  We would like to welcome change,  befriend the Dragons instead and enjoy a ride together, on its back exploring and doing amazing things making the dragons fire-breathing no more.  I think I saw this from a movie somewhere and I liked that picture in my head.  I’d also very much like a reversal of art imitating life.  

Much has been said about hustle and slay, not a lot has been said about the importance of restoring balance in our lives so we can continue to do good, simply because we feel good.

Yes. People do good when they feel good.

I’ve always been an advocate of that.  I have seen my team work endless hours and it’s always been about the fact that we love our work, we love what we do, and we are a proud, solid bunch of individuals who are passionate about our grind.

Maybe this why we hustle and slay everyday regardless of whether we have had only 3 hours of sleep.  There is always a danger of being burnt out.  Or worse–like the case of one brand strategist at Ogilvy who passed away earlier this year while clocking in impossible hours doing the agency grind.  This sad event sparked a new debate about the state of work-life-balance in agencies all over the world.

I have shared this with anyone who would care to listen that people do good when they feel good.  And in our world, in this grind we call Pink Entropy, feeling good is heavily reliant on being able to shift from slaying the Dragons to befriending the Dragons.  We cannot befriend the Dragons without our clients’ help; and a genuine shift in mindset.  There must be a mutual desire to work together better and collaborate stronger—achieving the ambitions that we both set out to do, designing our relationship outside the legal literature of contracts and agreements.  Designing it in a way where we champion each other as partners, a real clamor for change but one that can sustain and thrive in what is already a demanding, frenetic world.

I read something that struck me the other day:

  “Choose your clients like you would choose your friends.” 

I think this is golden.  This agency is already different from other agencies by the culture we enjoy and promote.  We are an agency who treats each other as friends and family.  We enjoy an intimate relationship with each other and this camaraderie, this intimacy—the care and kindness that can only come from such a relationship have allowed us to ride the toughest times especially when the market contracted last year. 

When things were uncertain—we were all certain about supporting each other.

Friends look after the welfare of each other.  I think there is a wider call to understand that work-life-balance is something all organizations should champion.  It doesn’t matter how small or big you are in size.  The welfare of an individual—the mental health and the balance needed to pursue and enjoy happy are what we should all aim for. 

If we want this for ourselves, how can we deny this to another? 


And so I take a brave step to articulate this in our own venue but only to get back on my knees in supplication and say:

If I can’t champion my tribe, no one will, and so I fire up this conversation.  I want my team to know that they are supported.

That their mental health comes first, that their work-life-balance will always be something that this agency will vigorously defend and uphold.

That we will all collectively aim to befriend the Dragons.  That we would all choose our clients like we would our friends.

That we will have kind conversations with our clients, partners and all of those we work with when the situation demands that we draw lines.  Life is better when balance is restored.  Creativity thrives when we run at 100% capacity—this clamor for change, for respect of work-life-balance does not only impact us as individuals, or our work but the society as a whole.  We’d rather befriend Dragons than slay them—and we’d like to believe you would think that this is a noble ambition too, one we can achieve together.