Agency Life And The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy Of Stress

By / Agency Culture

Let’s face it, stress is a real issue in most industries. And in the agency world, where life moves just a little bit faster, that stress can feel relentless. It never really ends. The deadlines are shorter, the turns are quicker, and at any given moment, an agency-specific bundle of variables can be stacked against you. From ever-changing technology to finding, training and retaining talent to the simple fact that every approach to every problem is extremely subjective, each day brings a fresh set of challenges.

I’ve been in this industry for over 15 years, so what’s always been top of mind for me is: How can I manage it all? And while many of the cliches do work (drinking enough water, exercising, taking a break, getting enough sleep, etc.), I recently changed my perspective on stress—especially as it relates to the agency world—after reading a book on how stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

In her book, The Upside of Stress, research psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonigal debates that there’s a difference between stress and the perception of it. We’ve been conditioned to believe that stress is nothing but bad for us. We are constantly bombarded with studies, data and articles about how stress is a silent killer, so naturally, most of us have a negative response to it as a feeling. But according to Dr. McGonigal, changing how we think about stress can make us healthier. It’s no longer about getting rid of stress but rather making ourselves better at stress.

When it comes to running your own agency, there’s a lot to care about. Projects that can make a difference for clients you’ve fostered relationships with are all driven by the stakes of stress. But what if we reframed our feelings about stress?

The deadlines, the pitch meetings and the curveballs are never going away. But when we change our mind about stress, we can change the body’s response to it. And instead of viewing any inkling of stress as negative, what if we instead saw it as a sign that the body was energized, preparing us to meet each challenge?

I’ve spent a lot of time and effort implementing this into my life over the last year, and the results have been transformational. What used to be a debilitating email from a client was suddenly an opportunity to deliver more impact. The blackhole brainstorming session was suddenly a mountain I wanted to climb. The stress of agency life was suddenly an endless source of energy and fulfillment.

Needless to say, I’ve learned a lot along the way. Here are three ways I’ve reframed my stress as it relates to agency work:

Feedback can lead to hidden fortunes.

There’s a ton of subjectivity when working in creative, and sometimes client feedback can feel like an unhelpful opinion designed to flip a project upside down—at least, that’s what I used to think. Feedback used to be one of my main sources of stress, especially when it’s dropped on your desk at the eleventh hour. But here’s the thing: Almost every last-minute note starts as an insurmountable wave of stress and ends in a solution that can exceed your original expectations for the project. As soon as I started looking at feedback as an opportunity to stretch my creative muscles, the stress turned into inspiration, no matter how “unhelpful” the note initially felt.

It’s all about communication.

Speaking of stressful feedback from clients, I learned the hard way that most stress ties back to ineffective communication. When a call feels convoluted or challenging, our instinct is to assume we’re not on the same page about the vision for a project. The truth is, most clients don’t speak the same language as us. And most of those notes are just an attempt at collaboration. Once I adjusted my perception, the stress was shed from the task at hand.

Busy is good for business.

Being busy is something we sometimes take for granted. When my calendar is packed with deadlines, it’s easy to let the deluge of work flood my sanity and blossom into stress. But I’ve also been in a position where I was desperate for deadlines, clients were hard to come by, and I felt stressed because the work at hand was nonexistent. When I think about it like that, a week full of responsibility suddenly feels invigorating.

Most importantly, it always works out. Every seemingly impossible day I’ve encountered, I’ve survived. Every impossible project I’ve agreed to, I’ve completed. And every impossible bundle of stress I’ve carried, I’ve defeated. When I remember that, agency life doesn’t feel so dire.


I’ve concluded that “stress management” is gibberish—what truly works is mindset management and perception adjustment. Sure, you can do all the hacks—delegate, time block, meditate and so forth—but ultimately, it comes down to the fact that your mentality is your reality. And this realization is what makes someone win at an agency … and in life.

This MODintelechy authored editorial originally appeared in Forbes Agency Council

Written by / Agency Culture


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