After The Campaign
What happens when things actually go better than we planned?
In the advertising world, our account service teams have a process called reconciliation. It’s their way to wrap up a particular job, check head hours are correctly attributed and ensure all the money is where it’s supposed to be. Reconciliation is not something the rest of an agency (outside of the finance department) usually ever think about. But it’s incredibly important for one fundamental reason; it marks a definitive end point for a campaign.
Campaigns aren’t limited to advertising, nor the creative industry. They represent a large-scale commitment to an idea or project that can go anywhere from months to years. They’re not a new phenomenon, but they’re incredibly popular with my generation, many of whom are hellbent on changing the world. At the time of writing, I have friends in politics, architecture, philanthropy, hospitality, medicine and tech grinding day and night on game-changing campaigns. I have little doubt that many of them will be successful and that their campaigns will come off wonderfully. But I also doubt that many of them are equipped to deal with what comes next.
After the campaign, your sense of purpose dissipates. After the campaign, your barometer for success — and failure — moves considerably. After the campaign, normal work feels sort of ordinary. After the campaign, you’re still running on fumes even though the train has long left the station. The notion that we can seamlessly return to regular life after investing ourselves wholly in something, often at the expense of our partners, families and friends, is simply untrue. That new Personal Best up there on the big screen can be terrifying. And very few industries prepare you to deal with this effectively.
Last year, I worked on a pro bono campaign for Keep Sydney Open. It was a project that I invested myself in fully, living and breathing it for nearly six months. Because I took ownership and micro-managed almost every element of the execution, creating this campaign became an intrinsic part of my life. I happily gave away nights and weekends, something I usually loathe to do, sacrificing mental and physical energy to get it done.
The better it got, the worse my life did. As the campaign came to fruition, I was so wired that I didn’t sleep or eat for days. I couldn’t come down, nor accept that the campaign was over. Eventually I engineered a way to extend the reach of it for another three weeks, chasing an illusory sensation that was always going to be made of dust. Then, instead of slowing down, or acknowledging what I had achieved, I jumped straight into the next thing.
Work that keeps us up at night and rouses us early in the morning is something all of us strive for. The question is what happens when it actually happens; when we make it, when we open that restaurant, win that medal, host that keynote, make that record, find that cure? So much of working on any campaign is focused on the grit and determination is takes to really make shit happen and get it done. That energy builds over time and doesn’t just turn off like a light switch once a campaign ends. I would posit that not managing that spark effectively is as dangerous as any other career hurdle. It can really hurt you.
For context, we can look to rap music, which has arguably set the cultural agenda since many of us were in high school. Around five years ago, some of the genre’s biggest stars, from Drake to Kanye West, Rick Ross and DJ Khaled, began toying with the concept of ‘suffering from success’. At the time, it seemed both offensive and hilarious; how could these multi-millionaires, surrounded by women and fancy cars, be suffering from anything?
The core of the idea, however, was less pernicious, and has played out in the recent work of more conscious artists like Chance The Rapper and Kendrick Lamar, who have both spoken volumes about their difficulties in handling success. We are, all of us, well versed in dealing with failure. We know what it means, how to convert it into positive fuel and take it as a learning experience. By contrast, nobody prepares us for what happens when things go as we planned, or even exceed expectations.
On Instagram, on LinkedIn, there is a success story every minute. Someone out there is killing it, slaying it, owning it. We have entered a strange time in which success has been devalued, where we only see the endpoint of campaigns rather than the process. When everything we read and see is an algorithmically-augmented, SEO-selected headline, it is little wonder we don’t know what happens in the gaping void after something great occurs.
Ironically, one discipline we can look to for guidance is sport. It’s a field which has long established the practice of psychology that deals with the entire spectrum that comes with a serious campaign, whether that’s for Wimbledon, Tour De France or The Olympics. Top athletes spend their entire professional lives involved in one campaign after another, trying to build on their own legacy. That they can achieve this, that people like Serena Williams and Michael Phelps exist, is testament to the fact that there is a way to manage success and find peace after a campaign. But for every Serena there is a Kyrgios, and for every Phelps a Thorpe, whose inability to manage his personal relationship to success came at great personal cost.
Thanks to my line of work, a number of my friends are musicians. Some of them are now at the point in their careers where they play to crowds of tens of thousands of people. One would imagine this is the culmination of everything they’ve worked for, the end of the campaign, after years of shitty gigs, being ignored by A&R, being told they’d never make it and struggling to find a home on radio. But many of them are not happy, in fact, they’re desperately unhappy. There is no reconciliation process for rock and roll, at least not emotionally. There is no stopping to acknowledge what has happened, a distinct absence of the present.
Life is full of campaigns, some of them professional, others personal. When they go pear-shaped, we cry, we bitch and moan, we get drunk with our colleagues and we move on. There is a process in place. It’s time we established what that looks like on the other side of the coin. My industry partially uses awards for this reason, but they’re often issued long after the fact and disconnected from the work itself. The fact is, you don’t need to be DJ Khaled to suffer from the after-effects of success.
You just have to be human.