We’ve had enough of mental health. Talk about mental wealth instead.

Alastair Duncan
5 min readJun 12, 2020
Martin Creed at the Tate, 1999. Pic by Belinda Ewings from Unplash.

Years ago, when I was first put in charge of a biggish creative group, we wrote out posters about how we wanted to work and put them on the wall. One of them said

“We work all night so you don’t have to.”

It was borne out of resentment of ‘suits’ who had nice company cars and went home at 5 o’clock. Mostly it was a way of establishing belonging, a fellow feeling, amongst ourselves. We felt better by moaning. And more importantly, by exercising our sharp wit.

It also served as a reminder to the team that if they stayed in the pub all afternoon, that was fine too. As long as the work was great and got done. Creatives, you see, are strangely driven by deadlines.

But the one thing that mattered was that when the suits turned up in the morning to take the work away, there was no resentment. There was hope, optimism, and we trusted them to sell the work. Because if clients don’t buy it, it never gets made.

Of course the best client people weren’t actually at home doing nothing. They were preparing, rehearsing, researching. Some even returned to the office with pizza. In truth, we recognised that the bit they did was just as important as the bit we did. Not one over the other.

I’m telling this story this now because that finely tuned relationship balance has been upset for a lot of people.

And empathy for all sides of the equation is what makes successful creative businesses work. All my years in advertising have involved negotiating that balance.

This ‘balance in the force’ has been upset by Covid-19, obviously, but also by businesses in crisis. Agencies dependent on revenue flows with, say, 5 months of working capital, will be struggling. And they will need to make changes. Clients are holding back on projects and a lot of people are in trouble. Or will be soon.

So why is it so important to think about belonging and empathy?

As they sing in the Lego movie, every thing is awesome if you’re part of a team. But when you are in isolation, it’s not awesome. It’s a shock. Whether you’re on your own, in a studio flat, shared house or at home with your parents or a parent at home with children, your ability to be all things to everyone is compromised.

We should recognise that people are missing normality. They will be feeling a great sense of loss, of routine, structure, friendship, opportunity, and freedom. And how they are compensating for that will highly individualised to their own situations.

Tempering emotions aside, the learning for our work is that trust is the biggest driver of efficiency by far. In my view, it should be a line in the budget. As the world begins to judge businesses on integrated reporting and impact on the world, equally we should begin to judge them on their ability to foster belonging and empathy.

You may recognise that in your own lived experience. For example, are you working right now? Does you employer think you are? Have they installed an app on your laptop to check if you’re there? Do you even believe your own timesheets? Are you joining in the zoom motivation talks joyfully, or unsure about whether you will ever be going back to the office?

We all know that agency businesses tend to over invest in their own processes, which is why there are so many new start ups — fleet of foot, nimble teams that help you, in theory, avoid the sometimes slow and cumbersome processes of developing communication. This is fine, except you can only avoid process if you over-index significantly on trust.

A massive interruptive change is good time to test that.

We’re all doing and done with the virtual meet ups, zoom calls, one after the other. For a lot of people, it’s been great — deep work becomes possible. Focus is possible. But if you’re also balancing family commitments, not coping with the absence of human contact, or fearful for your health, we have a responsibility to remind each other that there is belonging, and there is empathy, available. Of course it’s all so personal now as we can see you living room, your plants and children’s toys.

For work to transcend these personal spaces, we can all do so much more.

Take time to notice each other.

There are plenty of examples of groups talking to each other in new ways, beyond the ‘check in’ moment. I hope never to hear the phrase ‘let’s take that offline’ again. But it’s vital to nurture relationships so they can be restored. Don’t assume they will be automatically back to normal when we return to offices. Take the time to notice how people are feeling, listen.

The best time to trust someone is immediately.

This is a great piece of advice that will bear fruit, eventually. Yes, I got a call this week from an old client. No pitch. No complicated process. It happens rarely, but it does save everyone a lot of time. Trust is indeed a huge driver of efficiency. But it’s also about kindness. Give people chances. They need it. We do come across rogues and psychopaths occasionally, but they are the outliers, not the norm.

Choose your words well.

Dr Jaser, Assistant Professor at the University of Sussex Business School specialising in organisational behaviour and leadership, said: “The common perception of leadership communication is based on ideas of leaders as heroes whose talks relies on ‘hard’ qualities such as charisma, strength, vision and their use of rhetoric. By comparison, ‘soft’ qualities like empathy in communication are often perceived as a weakness showing a lack of assertiveness.” However, this is being turned upside down in 2020. Listen to Boris Johnson telling people what he wants you to do. Then listen to Jacinda Arden explaining what we all need. People can tell if you are winging it.

Belonging is a sustainable value

I don’t know about you but I’m doing more calls with friends and colleagues I haven’t seen for ages than ever. The people who are doing their bit in their communities, the chat group from your street, the offers to pick up prescriptions for neighbours, the cooking for the NHS, have all renewed a lot of our faith in humanity. (If only we could say the same for our national leadership, hey). This observed behaviour is not only an expression of kindness.

It’s the manifestation of our human need to belong.

I always wondered why agencies never treated former staffers well. McKinsey and Goldman Sachs see their Alumni networks as the most valuable resource, future clients and future supporters. Agencies should really do the same. Airnbnb just did that, creating a job board and cv site for the layoffs.

Think about it.

What can you do to help in the recovery of your community? We’ve talked a lot about mental health. Now it’s time to enrich each other’s experiences. Start thinking about recovery as mental wealth.



Alastair Duncan

20+ years helping brands grow. I like Hackney and start ups. Agency of the year founder; Digital Hot 100; Cannes Lion winner etc etc.