Hamster on a Wheel

IStock_000006158722XSmallLife in an agency is not easy.  The level of churn is infamously high, especially at the junior level. 

Some folks stick; they really love the agency way of life.  Others are motivated by outside interests: they overdose on “perspective” and make some major life changes.  And some people forge a middle path: they dig marcomm but prefer the regularity of a corporate career.

Do you need to have a screw loose to envision an enduring career in an agency?  Is burn-out a forgone conclusion?

I think a key thing to communicate to agency employees, especially the Millenial Set, is that “getting frustrated” is not the same as “getting stale” or “burning out.” 

Just as importantly, the employee needs to understand the need to take personal responsibility for avoiding that burnt-out feeling.  A manager can’t make you feel invigorated, not on a consistent basis, cuz at some point that manager needs to drop the rah-rah and get that darned report over to the client.

It’s certainly true that in the early stages of a PR career, many of the basic elements of the job can start to feel mundane. For every exciting newbiz pitch there are weeks of reporting, media outreach, dbase entry, etc.  This can make the young PR pro feel like the proverbial hamster on a wheel.

Meanwhile, the junior staffer might look upstream at their superiors on the org chart and wonder, “Is that the job I really want?”  It’s fair to assume that those higher-ups are often stressed and crazed, so the answer might well be, “Umm, NO.”

The reality is that everyone, at all levels, needs to take responsibility for challenging themselves.  That’s the secret to ending Hamster Syndrome.

IStock_000006158699XSmallThe account exec might need to set a goal like, “Get a hit in the NYTimes” and plunge into it.  The account manager might need to make it their personal mission to turn a doubtful client into a raving agency fan.  The account director might need to commit to a series of public speaking engagements that terrify them but keep things fresh.  The agency principal needs to busy himself with — (aww, heck, trust me, he feels plenty challenged!)

Achieving these small, personal goals are more challenging and ultimately more satisfying than banging through the metrics presented during an annual review.  Why?  Cuz only y-o-u know what you’re really bad at, terrified of, need to work on; only y-o-u know what’s going to make you feel like a goddamn worldbeater.

The trick is to recognize the need to set the personal goals in the first place — to see beyond the whirring wheel in the hamster cage to the green fields of victory beyond.

Posted on: July 21, 2009 at 6:04 pm By Todd Defren
91 Responses to “Hamster on a Wheel”


  • Thank you. I am a young professional who is looking to jump start my career and I totally agree with you on the burn out. It seemed that way at my internship at the beginning I was wondering if I was ever going to write anything.

  • Jon Clements says:

    Apologies for stealing from JFK, but if you’re in an agency you need to ask first what you can do for your agency (and, in turn, your clients) before asking what the agency can do for you. If you do well at the former, the latter will come.

  • Erin Bury says:

    Wow, does this post resonate. I was at an agency for over a year before moving to a startup (still doing PR and communications) and this is so true. It’s hard to see the bigger picture and feel motivated when you’re slogging through pub reports or building media list after media list. And it’s true – when I looked up at the people who’s jobs I was supposed to aspire to, all I could think was “I’m not sure I really want to be a senior consultant.” I really do believe that there are people who love agency and would never leave, and there are people who got out of agency life as quickly as they could to go corporate or pursue another career. But whatever you say about agency, you can’t argue the fact that it’s great experience and worth it for the lessons learned.

  • I’ve been working in PR for the past seven years — all of which have been spent on the agency side. I love the variety of clients … the crazy-fast pace … the constant, looming deadlines. While there is some appeal to the “client side,” it’s hard for me to imagine wanting to cross over at this point.

    That said, I can easily see how people would burn out. We need to remember to take time for ourselves, to keep things in perspective and to set realistic deadlines. Identifying personal goals can help with this as well. Set mini-benchmarks along the way to foster a sense of accomplishment. If you can figure out how to keep it all straight — and avoid the “hamster wheel syndrome” — agency life is rewarding and exciting. Sure, it’s stressful at times, but it’s also just plain fun!

    Heather (@prtini)

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