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‘We all have mental health, it’s on a continuum’: MediaCom CEO Josh Krichefski on trying to change the stigma

The CEO tells Andy Martin how mental health should be at the forefront of company thinking on employee productivity

Josh Krichefski

Josh Krichefski was torn between anthropology and advertising. In the end he decided not to become an anthropologist because he thought he would be “skint and lonely”. And advertising was cool. But he still has the air of a rogue anthropologist among Mad Men as CEO at MediaCom UK. “It’s all about not being ethnocentric”, says Krichefski. “Or egocentric. Trying to understand the other’s point of view.”

His first idea, aged 10, was to become a fireman. Later, “I would have loved to have been an actor”, but his older brother got there first, starring as the moody “ology boy” in a Maureen Lippman ad for BT. But he says he has a special gift as a public speaker. “I have an ability to show my faults on stage without embarrassment. That resonates with people.”

After graduating with a degree in social anthropology from Sussex University, and working for a number of different agencies and setting up a company of his own, he joined MediaCom in 2014, rated the number one media agency in the UK. They devised the “Time to talk” campaign for Mind, the mental health charity. At 43, Krichefski is open and plain-speaking about his own mental health issues. He is subject to anxiety and insomnia, and not only because he is a self-professed “long-suffering Arsenal fan.”

“So much is expected of us these days,” he says in his office in Holborn. “When we’re not working, we’re thinking about work. We’re always contactable. We’re always on.” He had difficulty switching off. He realised that if he felt like that, then others would be feeling the same way, so he decided to put the emphasis on well-being among the 1100-strong MediaCom team in this country. One of his first moves was to ban work-related email after 7pm and at weekends. And he brought in more flexible working. “If you want to leave at 4 and pick up the kids, that’s fine with me.”

Working in advertising, which exists to promote glossy, positive images, people are liable to feel overwhelmed by the need not just to look good but to embody supreme confidence and competence. They’re all supposed to be fit, healthy, happy over-achievers. And cool with it. There is, in effect, a tyranny of coolness. Krichefski initiated a whole program around mental health. Staff were invited to write “My Mental Health Story” and to circulate it to their colleagues. “It changed the culture overnight,” he says. No one was any longer under the delusion that everyone else was having a great time all the time.

“If I ask someone how they are, I don’t want them saying ‘I’m fine.’” Krichefski takes the view that it’s OK not to be OK. It’s cool to be uncool. “We all have ‘mental health’, it’s on a continuum. I have a responsibility to de-stigmatise the issue.”

He tried out various techniques, such as meditation, for overcoming his own habit of thinking too much about everything. But there was one therapy in particular that struck a chord with him. According to the principles of “Mind/thought/consciousness”, we think consciously with the front of our heads, but the back of our heads connects us up to everyone else in what Jung called the “collective unconscious” or, in this system, “Mind”. “I try to think about the back of my head,” says Krichefski. “I get away from ego, I see myself as small and insignificant.” His idea is that the less you focus on your own ego, the better you are at doing your job, including being CEO.

Another of his approaches to life he summarises as “trying to be the opposite.” He is concerned in particular with our habit of trying to live up to some kind of stereotype image of what we ought to be. “Men think they have to be James Bond. Strong, unbreakable, not needing anybody, not showing their feelings. I believe in the opposite of all of that.” A leader has to be able to show weakness. “That empowers people, because it feels real.”

MediaCom was bound to have a mantra: People first, better results. “You have to have it that way around,” says Krichefski. “If you put their interests first, they will deliver for you.” There is a business case to be made for wellness. He really wants the results, but not at the expense of people’s health. “Don’t get me wrong, I have high expectations. But you don’t have to be firing on all cylinders all the time. You don’t have to be uber.”

Krichefski takes his role as spokesman for mental health very seriously. The other night he was off to the House of Commons to debate the motion, “Client behaviour is putting at risk the mental health of agency employees.” He was on the “against” side of the argument: it’s not their fault, it’s ours. With this in view, he has created a system of “Mental Health Allies” – 50 of them in the London office alone – who wear green lanyards identifying them and encouraging people to open up conversations with them, whether about mental health or whatever concerns they may have.

“We have to accept that we’re a constellation of misfits,” he says. “Without wanting to sound too much like a hippy – imagine if the whole world was like that. Wouldn’t it be a better place?”

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