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. The series is intended to remove the stigma around mental health where it exists, and to provide help where it’s needed through relatable stories and strategies. Here Jordan Friesen, Principal Consultant at Mindset Mental Health Strategy, talks to Ania Russocki, General Manager at Pigeon Brands, and an ICA Board Member. Russocki passes on the strategies that have helped her to face some profound life experiences and mental health issues during a 30-year career in advertising and marketing.
Ania Russocki wasn’t supposed to work in advertising. The daughter of an eminent architect (her mother was among the first women in Canada to run her own practice in the field) Russocki was encouraged to believe that there were only three serious professions to follow – law, medicine or dentistry.
After working in law firms that felt restrictive and exclusive she was steered into advertising in 1991 by a neighbour in the business, subsequently spent two years in Poland at Saatchi & Saatchi, before joining agencies both in New York City and Toronto. Successful spells as a marketer at both Rogers Wireless and University of Toronto followed before a hiatus to spend time raising her family. Russocki was tempted back into agency life in the summer of 2020 with an offer from brand and design agency Pigeon Brands to become its General Manager.
Along the way, Russocki was also exposed to life-changing experiences, notably the death of her mother (aged just 44) from a heart attack, job loss and, later, a divorce. “I’ve had a few pandemics in my life,” she notes wryly.
But how did she react to this adversity? “When I was young, and in the business, I hid a lot of myself, I hid a lot of family struggles, of personal struggles, and I knew it was wrong, and I was unhappy for a long period of time. I want to state very clearly that I don’t assume in terms of my mental health that anyone has the same challenges, and that there is a spectrum, and what I will talk about is nowhere near the level of pain and suffering that some people face. But I hope that for the people, men or women, that work in advertising, that my ability to share my personal story, my vulnerability, will let others know that it’s OK to do so. Working in an Agency is a lot about selling to clients which requires both the art of storytelling and performance, and that can often lead to people covering their true selves up. What I have learned is that authenticity is one of the most persuasive traits in storytelling.”
Russocki has found ongoing therapy over 25-to-30 years helpful, and says this is a process that has progressed through a number of stages as her needs changed, from healing pain through to building and learning: “The next 10 years after healing… what was interesting was a sense of compassion for oneself and the journey of learning how to love oneself. I suck at it, the whole concept was drilled into me ‘stop pitying yourself’ but in fact the whole idea of loving yourself, putting yourself first, comes with understanding and forgiveness.”
She explains how these later stages of therapy helped build resilience through “taking responsibility and defining a future path for myself”. Russocki adds: “She [the therapist] said we don’t even know which things happen to us in childhood are traumatic, and then unconsciously seek out those same behaviours because they’re comfortable to us.” She goes on to explain that if we aren’t consciously making choices based on our values, or what feels right for ourselves, we can default into behaviours that are familiar and often unhelpful.
In terms of successful strategies, she also mentions a quote from a Harvard Business Review article, “manage your energy not your time”. Does this mean a move towards structuring your day based on a different set of energies? Russocki says: “My first question of anyone reporting into me is not ‘have you done this?’ but ‘how are doing? Tell me about where you are today.’ Because that’s the first check in. In an ideal world, every morning I’d sit down and write a few words about how I feel and, based on how I feel, what do I need today? And based on what I need what are the actions I’m going to take in order to act on what I need?”
Russocki says that having a support network, in the shape of friends and family together with a mentor at work, is also an important factor in building resilience. And she returns to the importance of hearing the “inner voice” or discovering a sense of “inner compass”, an important point given that research shows a clear sense of personal values and direction makes us more resilient: “We all have that and, sometimes in life, you become unaware of it, or don’t hear it. Actually, what we talk about in coaching is the inner critic – someone else’s voice… When I’ve fallen down or succumbed to doing things that caused me not to be resilient it was doing this and not listening to my inner voice, my inner compass.”
Ignoring that critic is a great way forward in terms of resiliency. Russocki says: “Ask yourself the question ‘what gives you energy and what takes it away?’. And identify early the activities, the people, and the situations that fall into those categories.”
Ultimately, try to take off some of the pressure and learn to be kind to yourself: “Some of the greatest source of stress is the pressure we put on ourselves. So, just ask the question, ‘are you being kind to yourself?’ or ‘how can you turn around a situation to be kind in the circumstances?’ I wish I had learned that earlier – it’s possibly one of the hardest things to do.”
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.
Pigeon Brands 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.