By Angel Guerrero and Rome Jorge
On Sunday February 19, Mark David Dehesa, brand strategist with Ogilvy & Mather Philippines, passed away from complications leading to pneumonia.
A driven professional who had previously worked in Publicis for over two years, J. Walter Thompson for five years, and trained in BBDO Guerrero for a year after graduating from De La Salle University, Dehesa had been part of Ogilvy & Mather Philippines since May 2016.
At 35 years of age, he was an avid frisbee player who participated in adobo magazine's annual adobo Football Cup tournament. He balanced his career with volunteer work in Tacloban after the devastating super typhoon Haiyan in 2013, and political activism during and after the 2016 Philippine presidential election.
Elly Puyat, CEO of Ogilvy & Mather Philippines, promptly released this statement that read in part, “Mark was a much loved and important member of our family in the Philippines, and our thoughts and prayers are with him, his family, and friends at this very difficult time.”
Golda Roldan, managing director of J.Walter Thompson Philippines, confides to adobo magazine, “Mark Dehesa was a decent human being, a great friend and a reliable colleague. He had a thirst for learning and was always trying to be a better advertising person. At JWT, the younger AEs saw him as a kuya [elder brother] who was ready to help out. Whether about the process or dealing with the other departments, Mark was a willing and able co-worker. As a friend, he was a close friend of our family. He celebrated milestones with us and that is why he will be sorely missed.”
In an interview with adobo magazine's CEO Angel Guerrero, Puyat notes, “We have an agile office, we gave the free reign to our employees to decide where and when it is best for them to work. And this is the same case for Mark. He was on transition from Ogilvy Public Relations Strategic Planner to Ogilvy & Mather Advertising Account Director. He was still being eased into the role so his load wasn't heavy.”
“Timestamps in fact debunk erroneous reports of working 'until early hours of the morning.' These show that while he worked until 11 pm on Thursday, he offset this by not coming in until 11:30 am on Friday. He went home that evening at 7:53 pm, with colleagues attesting that he was in good spirits, and even invited them for dinner,” attests Puyat.
Dehesa's tragic passing may not be related to overwork, but there has been a series of young fatalities within the advertising world throughout the years that have caught global media attention and have sparked discourse on work life balance.
On December 25, 2015, 24-year old Matsuri Takahashi, of the internet advertising division of Dentsu Inc., killed herself by jumping off the third floor of the company dormitory after clocking 105 hours of work in one month and the number of staff in her division slashed from 14 to six. She had posted on social media, and tweeting, “They decided again I’ll have to work Saturdays and Sundays. I seriously just want to end it all,” “It’s 4 o’clock. My body is trembling... I just can’t do this. I’m gonna die. I’m so tired,” and her superior telling her, “Twenty hours of your overtime work is worthless to the company,” and “Your sleepy face during meetings shows you are incapable of managing the work.” Japanese authorities referred Dentsu and one of its executives to prosecutors on suspicion of violating Japan's labour laws. According to an investigation by labor authorities, much of Takahashi's overtime work was unreported and unpaid. Dentsu President Tadashi Ishii stepped down on December 29, 2016.
On December 15, 2013, 24-year old Mita Diran, copywriter for Young & Rubicam Indonesia, died of heart failure. She had slipped into a coma after not sleeping for three days according to her father. She had been consuming copious amounts of energy drinks according to her colleagues. Her last tweet was, “30 hours of working and still going strooong.”
On May 13, 2013, 24-year old Li Yuan (aka Gabriel Li), tech team staffer for Ogilvy Public Relations Beijing, died of sudden cardiac arrest according to doctors after collapsing at the office. The Yangzi Evening News reported that he had been working overtime for a month and not leaving the office until 11pm every day before his death. Contradicting this was The Beijing Times report in which his supervisor Selina Teng stated that, before his death, he had taken the week off due to ill-health, and had died on his first day back at the office.
On August 27, 1991, 24-year old Ichiro Oshima, involved in the planning of radio commercials and events for Dentsu Inc., killed himself by hanging after working overtime two out of every five days most often until 6am the next day, leaving no time for sleep before going back to work the same day. On March 1996, the Tokyo District Court ruled that Dentsu was responsible for Oshima’s suicide caused by depression due to exhaustion after working excessively long hours. On March 25, 2000, the Supreme Court of Japan upheld the ruling and gave even greater compensation to Oshima's family after finding the agency was even more responsible for his death.
Karōshi and Mode de Vie
Death from overwork is real. The Japanese have a word for it—Karōshi. The Labour Ministry of Japan has defined Karōshi as death from either: cardiovascular illness linked to overwork or suicide following work-related mental stress. A study by the Japanese government of 1743 companies and 19,583 workers found that 22% of Japanese workers were logging 80 hours of overtime per month—four more hours per day—the official threshold at which risk of death from overwork dramatically increases.
In contrast, France instituted a 35 hour workweek in February 2000 aimed at reducing unemployment by compelling companies to hire more employees instead of asking fewer employees to work longer hours, since it was more costly to pay for overtime. Since January 2017, French law requires companies to guarantee their employees a “right to disconnect” from technology after working hours to ensure their employees continue to enjoy the French Mode de Vie.
Undoubtably there are other deaths of young employees in other white collar industries besides advertising. However it is deaths within the advertising industry that receive media attention and it is these deaths that are attributed to Karōshi.
Unlike Japan which has made companies legally liable for Karōshi, the Philippines has no law defining or penalizing overwork specifically.
In contrast to Japan where the government has enacted studies and white papers to quantify the number of deaths from overwork and which industries they most often occur, the Philippines has no hard data upon which to base company policies, industry standards, and labor laws.
Unlike France that protects its Mode de Vie, the Philippines has yet to vividly define the “Filipino dream” or the “Filipino way of life.”
Regardless, no industry should have to wait for news headlines, studies and surveys, court rulings, medical findings, or laws to better foster employee well-being. Regardless of the cause of his death, Dehesa's all-too-brief time with the Philippine creative industry will be more meaningful if it leads to happier lives for his colleagues.
To its credit, the Philippine advertising industry has long recognized the need to better care for creative industry professionals.
In 2014 at ADFEST in Thailand, Chris Thomas, former BBDO Asia Pacific chairman and now CEO of BBDO Americas, stated, “For us, the challenges of work life balance are not is just about the advertising industry it is about business as a whole and what we really wanted to address is to go beyond work life balance. How do we get higher levels of creativity given the way the world is changing and the way creating works. How do you live more for better ideas in the communications industry. “This is the golden age of creativity in our business and we have to protect our talent. If we think about our industry in counting hours, and how long we are sitting in meetings, and how many emails we are answering, we are doomed to fail.”
At the same ADFEST workshop in Thailand, Andy Wilson, head of strategy of BBDO and Proximity Asia, noted, “We had been concerned about the increasing pressures on everyone. Not only does the increased amounts of time away from home, and the accompanying stress, bring huge health risks, we knew that creativity and productivity plummet after a certain amount of time in the office. In today’s always-on world, and in a passion industry such as advertising, we wanted to underscore the view that a life well-lived was crucial to having better ideas, and succeeding at work. Indeed it was a duty to ourselves and to our clients to lead fulfilling, interesting lives outside the office.”
Also in 2014, at adobo magazine's Festival of Ideas, Matec Villanueva, former chairman of Publicis Manila, and Marlon Rivera, filmmaker and former president and CCO of Publicis Manila, spoke on the subject “Work Hard, Play Hard – Work Life Balance.” “No one is at fault for you not having a life. You have to take responsibility for your life, and to do that, you have to work at it ‘til you deserve it,” Rivera declared. “Advertising is about life. And if you don’t have life, you’re of no use to us. You have nothing to bring to the table if you don’t have a life. Work-life balance is putting together all the things you like to do and make sense of it, and when you go home, you can say, yes, that was a good day,” espoused Villanueva.
These words are even more relevant today given the string of tragic deaths of young creative industry professionals. Noel Lorenzana, former president and CEO of MediaQuest Holding, reacting to Dehesa's passing in an interview with adobo magazine, comments, “What happened was truly unfortunate and I would not wish it on anybody, any agency or any organization. But to be simplistic about it and start passing blame would do no good to the people, the situation nor the industry.”
Lorenzana opines, “Pressure treated the right way could lead to progress and achieving what we aspire for, however not at the expense of our health and our well being, I have always believed in having the right balance. The organization and the individual should take ownership of maintaining a process and mechanism to turn pressure that leads to productivity such as proper planning, stretched but realistic timetables, efficient and capable people in teams, and being sensitive to our personal needs and the people around us.”
Esteemed industry veteran Ramon Jimenez, former Tourism Secretary who, together with his wife the late Abby Jimenez, was joint CEO of JimenezBasic, recalls, “Abby [Jimenez] and I have always believed that the most valuable insights we contribute at work come from the lessons we learn outside of it. That is why we always encourage everyone to have a life, a real life outside of the ad agency. The more you love your time outside of the office the more power your bring back to work everyday. Get a life. Get a [Cannes] Gold Lion.”
Jimenez highlights that it is the nature of the creative industry to engender a devotion to excellence that goes beyond the 9-to-5 working hours, noting, “We [advertising professionals] have a romance of obsession.”
Solutions and policies
For her part, Puyat enumerates current policies that strive to give Ogilvy & Mather Philippines employees the best working conditions possible:
“We have a policy of making people go home at 7 pm. Any need to go home later needs the approval of their MDs/GMs.”
“Our vacation leaves are not convertible to cash because everyone is encouraged to take a break. We all need it to refresh, recharge, experience life so that we come back even more creative.”
“Employees who need to extend working hours may file requests for Replacement Time.”
“We have a clinic in our office with a nurse on duty from Mondays to Fridays, 9am-6pm. Power Plant Mall, next to our building, has Hi-Precision Clinic which is operational from Mondays to Sundays, 7am to 6pm.
“We have consistently made investments in our people, spending a significant amount on training, trips, our work place, year on year.”
Pepe Torres, vice president and head of strategic marketing of the Transaction Banking Group of Banco de Oro, goes further. He contends, “The system needs to change and first and foremost; clients must be held accountable. The profit motive of the agency is driven by their desire to satisfy the client's requests no matter how unreasonable they might be. The average client is arrogant and/or ignorant so when the work is dis-intermediated or contracted out to an agency, very few care about the actual well being of the employees within the agency. They don't want their own people working 100 hours a week but they don't mind passing that on to other people they don't see as much because 'they paid for it.'”
“We need to strengthen regulations. A client-agency consortium needs to put an end to this lopsided and sometimes tragic relationship. Member agencies must be held accountable to truly safeguarding the well-being of their employees and should be empowered to push back against clients. Violating clients should be fined or blacklisted,” Torres proposes. As one who comes from the client side of the business, he attests, “It's not too farfetched. I recently pitched out a project and was very happy to comply with the 4As' [Association of Accredited Advertising Agencies] regulations on pitch fee requirements and minimum turn around time.”
Torres warns, “No amount of internal agency policy-making will fix the creeping paranoia that another agency would be willing to work their employees for longer hours to win more business. The risk is very real that they will lose to agencies who won't impose such limitations.”
When competing agencies in the industry impose standards that they all abide by and that put workers' welfare above client demands, then the death of one too many young creative industry talents would not have been in vain.