Embracing life’s imperfections improves mental well-being

Many people within the agency and marketing sectors are facing a tough time due to the ongoing pandemic. To provide support, the ICA is interviewing a range of people at all levels within the industry who have overcome mental health challenges and built resiliency. This series seeks to remove the stigma around mental health where it exists, and to provide help where it’s needed through relatable stories and strategies.

In this interview Jordan Friesen, Principal Consultant at Mindset Mental Health Strategy, talks to Cat Wiles, chief strategy officer for Cossette in Toronto, about her own experience of mental health issues and her determination to encourage the industry to implement better programs and structures to help its people build resiliency.

Cat Wiles is open about having faced the “black dog” of mental health issues, but she’s also very clear in terms of providing insight and practical advice for leaders in the industry if they’re serious about addressing this in their workplace.

Before arriving in Toronto to work for Cossette in 2019, Wiles honed her skills at agencies in London, including VCCP, where she was Head of Planning. It was while in London that she experienced her most recent, and significant, mental health episode following the birth of her second son some four-and-a-half years ago. Wiles says there were “several triggers”, and that six weeks after his birth “bang, my fuse went”.

She adds: “In my darkest moments I realized I’d completely lost myself. I didn’t have a sense of who I was anymore. I felt like I didn’t have any real meaning in my life – despite having a newborn and a gorgeous six-and-a-half-year-old son. Depression is like a thief that comes in and robs you of your identity, making it feel impossible to access who you were and pull that back.”

Help came in the form of therapy – Wiles talks about “really investing in myself” through a psychiatrist, and a CBT psychologist. She says a couple of years of talk therapy had a very positive effect: “It’s given me the skills, tools and techniques to better weather the storm, but most importantly the objectivity to understand my own illness and what’s happening.”

A big theme turned out to be perfectionism. As Wiles puts it: “There’s so much pressure in society on women to be perfect. It’s a phenomenon that affects women far more than men. Not just in terms of how you look, but also how you show up – ‘don’t be aggressive, be a mother hen, be empathetic, be bold – but not too bold’.

She says: “I realized that my pursuit of perfect was getting in the way of me growing – I was spending way too much time and energy trying to be someone I wasn’t. That’s one of the deep ironies of mental health.” Wiles speaks about spending years trying to operate like the stereotypical, lone wolf planner: “But I don’t think like that or do my best work when I work like that. I’m an extrovert and get my best ideas from sharing and collaborating. It wasn’t until I broke that I realized I couldn’t keep on trying to be someone I’m not. And that it’s ok to approach things differently to everyone else. My confidence has grown from letting go of perfect.”

To illustrate the point about putting herself back together, Wiles holds up a Japanese Kintsugi bowl – a gift from a friend (Kintsugi is an art form involving piecing back together broken pieces of pottery with gold as a metaphor for the benefits of embracing life’s imperfections): “I’m really proud of my scars and they make me a more compassionate person. I think I’ve got more empathy and that makes me better at my job. I’m a better leader having gone through this. My lived experience means I’m able to spot the signs and help others who are starting to struggle with their mental wellbeing.”

A Kintsugi bowl

Which brings us neatly to the broader issue of leadership on mental health issues in the industry. Wiles believes that there’s an issue with too much talk and insufficient action and is determined to work to help change that. She says: “Agencies are a breeding ground for perfectionists, and from my lived experience that’s not great. We’re a breeding ground for it because we attract people who are competitive and highly intelligent.”

“It’s important for people to be resilient, to be able to push through fear, and continue when others have given up or stopped. But in our industry there isn’t any limit to how much you can push yourself, many people see ‘going harder and faster’ as a badge of honour. This is why it’s so important that agencies recognize their part in making sure that there are safeguards in place to prevent their people from burning out. They need to move beyond lip service.”

Back in London she helped the APG build a program to tackle the challenges around mental wellbeing in the industry. The organisation conducted research about how advertising planners were feeling and “the results were damning”. Out of this, Wiles and her colleagues engaged senior strategy leaders about “The Right to Disconnect” in a bid to improve wellbeing for Planners across London.

But what do agencies in Canada need to do now to tackle mental wellbeing and resiliency? Wiles is a big advocate of Mental Health First Aid training: “We’ve got the whole leadership team at Cossette in Toronto booked in to be trained to be Mental Health First Aiders. They are learning how to understand it and how to talk about it in a way that helps our people. I think of it as having a toolbox that you can draw from, but you only get good at it by learning more and practising it.”

She adds: “All leadership teams need to be trained in this. It’s a systemic problem within both our industry and society, so we should all be leaning in. It can’t just be a case of ‘we’ve got a couple of Mental Health First Aiders trained in HR and you can go and see them’. This is not a side issue. People across each department and the leadership team must be trained. But honestly, this is only step one.”

Then, more fundamentally, Wiles calls for cultural and systemic change: “We need to think more actively about the cultures we’re creating. There’s a different way, a better way, and a lot comes down to not just tackling the symptom which is the stress, the anxiety, the mental health challenges, but looking at the system that’s created this. You need to really start by looking within and asking the right questions: ‘does my organisation have a meeting culture? Has it got meetings about meetings? Are we doing more ‘busy’ work than meaningful work? It’s so important to really interrogate that because until you do, you’re only dealing with a visible symptom instead of big, systemic issues within the agency. And honestly it is not sustainable.”

Wiles talks about changing some of the fundamentals of how the industry machine works – citing, for instance, McKinsey’s analysis of why work places would be better off monitoring the damaging effects of presenteeism rather than absenteeism on productivity: “We need to lead more fearlessly, challenge more of the sacred cows, and not be afraid to tear things down and start again. If we can’t do it after a pandemic, it’s never going to happen.”

This is a powerful point because, when it comes to creating healthy working environments, we need to get to the root causes, which are often systems and structures that lead to people’s stress and anxiety. In a similar way to a Kintsugi bowl, many people’s lives have broken and fallen apart in the wake of the pandemic. But it’s inspiring to think that, like Cat Wiles, we can choose how to piece things back together in a way that, as she puts it, “changes and transforms into something far more beautiful.”


Jordan Friesen is a registered Occupational Therapist and Principal Consultant at Mindset Mental Health Strategy. He uses his skills as a consultant to assist organizations who want to take progressive action to support the mental health of their workforce as a competitive advantage and business imperative for the future of work.

Cossette is a member of the Institute of Communication Agencies. Report on Marketing is where leading Canadian agencies showcase their insights, cutting-edge research and client successes. The Report on Marketing provides a valuable source of thought leadership for Canadian marketers to draw inspiration from. Find more articles like this at the Report on Marketing.

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