Interviews

“The very act of having ideas is defiant”

Mark Pollard, Strategy CEO at Mighty Jungle on writing and busting the myths surrounding resilience, freelancing and imposter syndrome.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director

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“The very act of having ideas Is defiant. Because what you are saying is that you can put things together in a new way and most of the world doesn’t want to change. History is riddled with tales of people being punished for telling the truth.” Mark Pollard is discussing the process of writing his new book Strategy Is Your Words with a rare openness and self-awareness.

“I wanted to write for a long time. I did have a mental block, but I had talks, blog posts and tweets I could base it on,” he explains. Pollard had visited the Dublin’s Writers Museum, a trop which provided him with the grounding for the book. “What I really saw there was those writers had a really strong sense of self. I never really called myself a writer before, but I thought what if I see myself as an artist?”

This what if very quickly became a why not and very quickly three to four days a week Pollard was writing Strategy is Your Words. Pollard, who had reached day 98 of his 100 days of teaching at Sweathead Strategy Summer Camp, is no stranger to ambitious projects. His Sweathead podcast has racked up over 500,000 listens, while the Sweathead Facebook community is active in its goal of “helping people who think for a living practice how they think”. 

You can’t control the systems, but you can control how you respond.

Mark Pollard

The simple act of giving a shit

“One of my strengths and one of my flaws is that I'm an empath. I tend to think about how other people are feeling rather than how I am feeling,” explains Pollard. Yet, arguably it’s this empathy-led approach which has fuelled Pollard’s career.

Having run strategy teams at McCann, Leo Burnett, and Big Spaceship, Pollard has an in-depth understanding of the beauty and brutality of the advertising industry. “Many strategists right now are account planners. You can’t control outcomes, but you can control the time you spend writing, practicing and listening,” he says.

Yet, in an industry in which ‘I don’t know’ are three very under-used words and the term ‘side-hustle’ all too quickly becomes a source of derision, giving a shit, caring about the work and investing your own time and energy into your craft is not always encouraged. Pollard believes it should be a priority, “even though people will shame you out of it because you are supposed to be the smartest in the room.”

He continues: “You can’t control the systems, but you can control how you respond.”

“I didn’t like being an employee”

Pollard believes that a lot of strategists feel quite isolated. “I have been putting honest stuff on the internet for over 12 years. As a community we support each other. The challenge has always been the business environment,” he explains.

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic this business environment has arguably never been more brutal, something Pollard compares to a “near death experience” for some in the industry. Yet it is also ushering in the oxygen of honesty into the room. As he explains: “Right now people are having a near death experience. This experience has stripped away the social personas and it will create more art and more honesty.”

It’s an honesty he believes is necessary; as he notes businesses are “structured for sociopaths.” He continues: “For most leaders empathy is a performative act. In general business has been suspicious of your emotion.” It is a distrust which is particularly abrasive in the creative industries, which arguably build their entire value systems on eliciting emotional response from consumers. 

There can be a big gap between the head of strategy and their staff and that can lead to a feeling of disconnection.

Mark Pollard

The burnout effect

Comparing the current crisis with the 2008 financial crash, Pollard notes that people are smarter now: “Very quickly people have responded by saying here are the things that I can take responsibility for.”

He notes that for those who find themselves no longer employees the key is maintaining focus. But even for those who are within agencies there are challenges. He notes: “There can be a big gap between the head of strategy and their staff and that can lead to a feeling of disconnection.”

He warns that people are burning out, trying to learn and improve their knowledge but at the same time facing “survival guilt” if colleagues have been let go. Or guilt at not doing enough to keep up and improve their skills. 

The power of community

In the midst of the vacuum of leadership and mentoring that some in the industry face, online communities are stepping in. Yet, as Pollard notes, online “there is a primal scream for validation.” 

“Strategy Twitter is a weird place,” Pollard concurs. “There is a weird reflex to criticise people who care about strategy. It's a relatively supportive creative community; it has become a bit angry but there is still love there.”

He continues: “It is rare for an agency strategist to have a training budget. Most people who work in strategy don’t feel managed, they don’t know how to interact with each other, and the mid-levels have just got gutted which means there is even less support.”

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Mind the freelance fallacy gap

Yet that doesn’t mean that the freelance life is always the solution and Pollard notes it can take a long time to find your identity after being an ‘employee’ for so long. Even if you don’t see your job title as key to your status, our roles in the workplace can become embedded into our sense of self and identity over time.

“My hunch is for people in advertising who leave, it's a three to five-year process to get there,” he explains. “For most people whether or not there was a crisis that led them to live, it takes time to see what you do or who you are when you are no longer an employee.”

Yet he is clear that the freelance life is not some kind of creative panacea. Noting that freelancing can in fact become a “state of limbo”. He suggests that it is vital to be honest with yourself about why you are freelance. “Are you doing it to heal or because you want to do the harder work of making it on your own terms?” he asks. While also noting that many freelancers are simply “pseudo-employees” without the workplace roles. 

Yet the path he has carved for himself and the ownership he has of his own career is nonetheless aspirational in an industry in which so many have been stripped of their sense of self-control of their own careers. So, what did he do differently?

Perhaps, just as when you learn to cycle on city roads and you must take your space on the road as if you were a bus, independent strategists, thinkers and creative people need to think just as big to create their own sense of space and self-belief. “If you behave like a company in two or three years that identity will shift,” he explains. 

He points to the example of copywriting guru Vikki Ross as a trailblazer in this space. For being the opposite of the malaise seen in some corners of the industry because of her clear and vocal love of being a copywriter. 

If I could contribute to a place where people aren’t just existing for timesheets, but for themselves and their own development then I am happy with that.

Mark Pollard

The reset

So, what next for the industry in the wake of the crisis? “There is always an arm wrestle within companies. A change in humanity is always difficult,” explains Pollard.

He notes that the conversation and awareness surrounding mental health is growing. Yet he notes: “Once you have given something a name it is not just easier to understand, it is easier to identify with. So, the question with things like imposter syndrome is, do you need to identify with it?” 

Having been raised by a single mother, it's clear he holds no patience with the plethora of articles suggesting that women in advertising need to build ‘resilience’. “Resilience is a term that is all over the place. I don’t think it's useful and it is often used by people with low empathy.” He notes: “Just keep going might be a more useful approach.”

He points to the ethos of Vicktor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist that we are making everything up as we go along. He explains: “The question then becomes what do you want to make and how are you going to take responsibility for it. That is the fun and the peril of thinking for yourself.”

As our video call draws to a close, I ask Pollard what his hopes are for a more inclusive, empathetic industry and if we will see a positive reset in the wake of the crisis? Like all great strategists he side-steps my thinly veiled request for a cliched happy ending.

“If I could contribute to a place where people aren’t just existing for timesheets, but for themselves and their own development then I am happy with that,” he notes. A welcome, practical reminder of why we need not just more empaths in leadership but to take greater responsibility for our own careers. 

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