Q&A - With Cossette's Creative Lead on their multi-winning spot for nabs
Nicole Ellerton shares the inspiration behind the 7X category-winning entry "This Job Can Break You."
September 11, 2023
Nicole Ellerton, group creative director at Cossette Toronto shares her and her team's inspiration while effecting positive change in their seven-time multiple category-winning video "This job can break you" for nabs.
This is an industry historically known for working long hours. Do you feel that this campaign was fuelled from the COVID-19 pandemic when the industry turned to remote work?
Like many others, our industry was hit hard by the pandemic. We were in uncharted territory in so many ways. There was so much uncertainty swirling around that it was impossible to know what to expect day-to-day. Our industry is not known for job security at the best of times, so when you toss in a global pandemic and a shell-shocked economy, it really becomes scary. Not to mention we were all sent home to figure out how to make things work remotely and somehow continue to uphold high standards of creativity and innovation; there wasn’t a playbook to rely on. In a way, I think there was comfort in the fact this was a global phenomenon and with that came some camaraderie knowing we weren’t alone.
However, on an individual level, we couldn’t avoid feeling isolated. Isolated from our co-workers, our production partners, and maybe most notably our collective, creative energy that often invigorates us to push those intense hours and timelines. But that was all gone. We were hanging out in our living rooms, basements and at our kitchen tables doom-scrolling social media while trying to operate like “normal”. It was intense. For a lot of us, staying in the game was hard. And maybe that wasn't even the healthiest goal. Nothing was normal, we were fundamentally shifting everything all at once.
Some of the changes I’ve heard come into practice include flexible work days, no meeting Mondays, responsible unlimited sick days and mandatory vacation fulfillment and I think all of these are great, especially in combination. In addition, I hope mentorship can start to include how to time manage and set boundaries and when to ask for help if needed. I know some agencies are well on their way to this, but I hope it becomes industry standard for them to invest in mental health training for all of its employees. I’ve always considered our industry to be pretty resilient but the pandemic tested a lot of us to the brink. Impressively, we were pretty quick to figure out how to work remotely but the stress and the hours didn’t reduce, they actually blew up. With little else to do but work and worry, people didn’t know how to reset. We literally didn’t have the freedom to move away from our work, so it was with us constantly. And it didn’t take long for cracks to start showing. A lot of us weren’t okay. I think this is when things started to come to a head.
Our partners at nabs approached us for help. They too were feeling the enormity of the pressure put on our industry as the number of people reaching out for support was at a record high.
Since we were all living it, it wasn’t a hard brief to take. We were all invested from the very first conversation and it was incredibly personal and felt a little cathartic to rally and have an honest conversation about the state we were in as an industry.
How was the “This job can break you” campaign received by the industry? Clients?
The campaign certainly hit a nerve. The timing was everything, and it felt like the work landed when people were really ready to be open about the struggle. The pandemic had also brought mental health issues into the mainstream so perhaps that helped take away some of the stigma around talking about it.
Before COVID-19 hit, we’d make excuses for our industry’s grind as if it showed how dedicated we were to the craft and pursuit of creativity – we wore it like a badge of honour. But the acceptance of what we’d allow ourselves to be stressed out about during the pandemic fundamentally shifted. Our priorities became super clear. The risk of mortality has a way of putting things into sharp perspective, so when we didn’t see a release from the grind (almost the opposite), it made a lot of us angry. I think that’s why we saw a lot of people leave the industry or take a break. It was no longer worth it.
The campaign seemed to open the door to more honest conversations about how we were all doing. What we really thought about the hours, the stresses and the pressure of our industry. Everyone had a story to share, it was universal.
What we heard most was how people appreciated the honest nature of the campaign. From the language we used in the lyrics, to the relatability of the isolation and desperation the hero character is feeling, to the trivial nature of the work that was causing so much turmoil (an ad for saltine crackers). We showed the personal strain of that stress through her failing personal relationships and even substance abuse. We didn’t shy away from any of it. And I think that level of honesty was hard to ignore. It was almost like an intervention, but for ourselves.
As for how our industry’s clients reacted to the campaign, that’s a little harder to measure. Clients are people, too, and I’m sure on a personal level there were a lot who were also burnt out during the pandemic and could relate to the message. But if the question is if that realization translated to any adjustments to work flow and timelines? Well, that’s very dependent on each Client’s culture at their own companies and industries. It all trickles down.
My own experience has been that during the pandemic my relationships with clients became stronger because we were able to get more personal, simply because we were doing business from our living rooms instead of the boardroom. And that’s been a welcome change. We were just more “human” about our interactions. I hope that will continue as time progresses because it has broken down some walls and cultivated more respectful expectations.
I think ultimately, Agencies have an important role to play in the relationships we have with our clients. We have to advocate for ourselves and our people. It’s not unlike any other personal relationship we would have in our lives. We get the one we deserve. We have to set boundaries and put policies into practice. And there’s an education involved, about how great work comes about and how we’re collectively responsible for nurturing a supportive, inspiring culture and fostering each other’s passions while simultaneously protecting the balance that keeps us invigorated to push our boundaries.
Did the campaign affect changes in the industry's work/life balance?
That’s a big question! I don’t think we set out to change the industry, but we wanted to help pour the foundation for change to happen. Bringing more regular, open conversations about mental health and burnout into the narrative is an encouraging step forward and excellent start. As for any real policy changes, I think that depends on who you ask and where they work. I believe we’re all responsible for keeping the dialogue open and remaining accountable to how each of us contributes to that “balance”. In leadership, it means checking in and making sure your teams are being supported. It also includes setting a good example by exhibiting healthy habits of your own to set expectations, ie: schedule-send emails to the morning instead of at midnight. If we’ve learned nothing else after being home for three years, it would be that work flows differently for different people and there are always work-arounds. Let’s not lose the resourcefulness we learned being remote, and let’s not forget the compassion we had for other people’s situations.
Can you elaborate on how the concept came together? How was the initial pitch received?
Nabs is a great partner and they knew better than anyone just how burnt-out our industry was, even before the pandemic. So the trick was getting an industry to care about itself. In a lot of ways, we’re our own worst enemy and certainly the most critical audience! There were a lot of good ideas we were considering, but in the end it came down to being honest. We didn’t want to make a joke about it, we also didn’t want it to be a tear-jerker. So tone was very important. Most of us love our jobs, but it’s a job that inherently requires a certain level of ambition to do well and be successful, and that can be hard to balance when you’re also trying to be a good friend, good partner, parent, or daughter/son on top of it. Which, by the way, picking a female lead was a very deliberate choice. The disproportionate way that women were more negatively affected by the pandemic and remote work has been well documented, but female representation and equal pay (amongst others) have been issues in our industry for decades.
Once we had our story, we needed to bring it to life in a memorable way and that’s when my partner Jacob (Greer) had the idea to make it a song. We were tossing around the idea that when you’re so overworked and sleep deprived you can get a bit delirious, so it seemed perfect to have her work come to life and stage an intervention. From here we worked with our talented partners to design “Crumbles”, our saltine cracker, and ideate how we were going to serve up all this truth in a way that was entertaining while not being “funny” and handling it with enough sensitivity so we didn’t create any additional stigma around mental health.
What are your thoughts / suggestions / recommendations on how the industry can improve on the demands of its fast paced and demanding deadlines?
My biggest fear is that with a return to more normal practices we’ll forget about all the good, human compassion we learned during the thick of the pandemic. That we’ll stop checking in and fall back into old bad habits.
We may be more comfortable living and dealing with COVID-19, but our world is still crazy right now. Our economy is still in flux, our climate is in crisis and there’s no end to the troubling news cycle - so we have a lot to be preoccupied with. Compassion and understanding are still very much needed. On top of that, technology is continuing to accelerate our work in ways that will only add more demand and pressure, so we will have to continue to find ways of protecting ourselves.
Some of the changes I’ve heard come into practice include flexible work days, no meeting Mondays, responsible unlimited sick days and mandatory vacation fulfillment and I think all of these are great, especially in combination. In addition, I hope mentorship can start to include how to time manage and set boundaries and when to ask for help if needed. I know some agencies are well on their way to this, but I hope it becomes industry standard for them to invest in mental health training for all of its employees. I’d also love to see creative sabbaticals implemented where employees could take mini-breaks for creative exploration, education and inspiration.
What advice would you give someone entering the industry?
Our industry is incredible. Every day brings something different and new to our jobs, be it a new product or technology or the ways we need to react to culture and the world around us to solve problems and make things. It’s challenging by nature because doing things that have never been done before takes a certain level of grit and determination.
But hard work doesn’t have to mean distressing work. Finding people and partners who are driven and like-minded about your passions is incredibly rewarding. And our business is full of wonderfully talented people that you get to surround yourself with and learn from. And there is a lot of fun to be had! You should expect to put in the time it takes to learn your craft and know that finding solutions doesn’t always happen between 9am-5pm on Monday to Friday, but it means you have to create your own spaces to protect your time and speak up when you’re feeling pinched. Try to surround yourself with mentors who emulate healthy habits and don’t be afraid to ask others how they manage their time. We learn so much from each other when we share our experiences. I can’t tell you how many women come to me and ask how I handle being a mom while also doing my job in this industry. Part of me is heartbroken that they have to ask since there’s obviously still a stigma, but on the other hand I’m motivated to be a part of that change and show that it’s entirely possible to do both and actually make it your superpower (Hello! Moms really know how to time manage and get sh*t done!)
I think maybe the best advice I’d give is to simply remember it is still a job; don’t make it your life. And don’t be afraid to change your agency if the fit isn’t there, you will change as you grow in the business and you needn’t feel stuck at any point. There I go with the relationship analogies! But seriously, you deserve to be in love with what you do, so don’t compromise. And for goodness sake, try to have fun!
Agency: Cossette Communication
Global Chief Creative Officer: Peter Ignazi
Executive Creative Directors: Craig McIntosh, Jaimes Zentil
Creative Directors: Jacob Greer, Nicole Ellerton
Art Director: Nicole Ellerton
Copywriter: Jacob Greer
Producer: Sarah Moen
Sr. Strategy Director: Geraldine Tixier
Group Business Director: Asmait Hailu
SVP, General Manager: Kathy McGuire
Production House: Skin & Bones
Animation & Online: Tantrum Studio
Casting: Jigsaw Casting
Offline Edit: Outsider Editorial
Audio House: Pirate Toronto
Fantastic advice. Thank you Nicole for participating in our Q&A!