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Elle Bullen - What to do when the world goes to shit.

12 October 2020

Elle Bullen

Creative Partner and Co-Founder, SDWM Melbourne
Bullen has built a career on bold and impactful thinking. She is one of the few women to win the Gold Siren for radio advertising, has headed up AWARD School Victoria, and been recognised as Australian Creative of the Year at the B&T Women in Media Awards. She’s taken out the Cannes Grand Prix for Good for her work on Scope ‘See the Person’, as well as collecting metal at creative and effectiveness award shows worldwide for the invention of 7-Eleven ‘BYO Cup Day’.
After a decade at multinationals Bullen kickstarted her own agency alongside three other founding partners. She managed to grow and give birth to a child and an agency within the same year, battle breast cancer while pregnant with her 2nd child, and run an agency that has recently been with awarded idea of the year at the MADC Awards, AdNews State campaign of the year and earned finalists for the AdNews & Mumbrella’s Emerging Agency of the Year.

What to do when the world goes to shit.

Advice from Elle Bullen, Creative Founder at Australian independent agency Sick Dog Wolf Man.
You may have noticed this is not a great year. A put it in a bag, light it on fire and leave it on the doorstep of someone you don’t like kind of year. A tsunami of redundancies, cancelled briefs, financial fuckery, isolation, political turmoil and global upheaval that none of us can fully outrun.
It’s a lot. I get it. I had the unwelcome advantage of my own dumpster fire of a year in 2019 to get me used to the idea.
In my case, the agro breast cancer while six months pregnant, trying to raise a toddler and a growing ad agency kind. Not much fun. But lucky for me, at this point, life goes on.
So here we are shitsville. Population: All of us.
Maybe you’ve lost your job. Maybe you’ve lost clients. Maybe iso has you slowly losing your mind. And with the weight of all that’s happening, the confusion of this upending of priorities and normalcy, it’s hard to know where you stand. What to do next. How to feel.
I certainly don’t have the solutions to all the world’s problems, but what I do have is some experience in the unpredictable art of carrying on. Of moving forward and learning to live with the unknown. And that much I can share.
This is what the last 18 months has taught me...
Firstly, be selfish. If you can’t spend your days putting your mind to work in the job that once consumed most of your waking hours, use it for yourself.  Creative ideas are our currency, but until now most of us haven’t had time or opportunity to spend any of it on ourselves.  We’re in the middle of a shit-storm and you could bunker down and wait it out, or you could make like Helen Hunt in Twister and knock up some wind chimes that’ll save the day, or at least earn you some cash on etsy. Who knows, the insta account of the weird stuff you’ve cooked up from your almost empty fridge might end up being what lands you your next job.
Know that some things are beyond your control. You can spend forever asking yourself why the fan has chosen to fling so much shit in your general direction, wondering if things might have been different, what you could have done differently. After a while, it doesn’t help. So instead of stewing on it, ask yourself if there’s anything you can do to change it. If there is, do it. If there isn’t, case closed. Bury it with all those houseplants you’ve killed in isolation and move on.
Find some positives. Like now you can eat instant noodles again without caring that they’re a delicious crap-filled carb fest, because hey, they’re budget friendly. For me, it’s been seeing way more of my kids, an opportunity that if things hadn’t have changed for the worse I would never have had.
Don’t be the dick that buys all the toilet paper. Sure, looking out for number one is important right now. But so is looking out for each other. In fact, sometimes focusing on someone else’s problems can be a welcome break from your own. When I was full steam on the chemo train nobody wanted to burden me with any of their own troubles, but the truth is I much preferred feeling sorry for them than sitting around feeling sorry for myself. Call someone. Message them. Have a communal whinge. Buy them some TP. You might both feel better for it.
Try playing a round of a little game of “It could be worse”.  As in, “It could be worse, I could be binge watching VHS tapes, fast forwarding through piracy warnings and previews then slowly, painfully rewinding each one before inevitably copping a fine for not returning them to Blockbuster on time instead of enjoying the delights of Netflix on demand all day”. Perspective is everything.
Go easy on yourself. Returning to work, be it after a baby, a redundancy or for whatever reason, isn’t always as easy as showing up. I found trying to be a shit hot creative one day a week while recovering from radiation burn with a baby on my lap and a house that would give Marie Kondo a heart attack a rough ride.  At times it felt like despite giving more than ever, I only managed to hit mediocre on everything. So I’m learning to ask for help, and to let some things slide. Like cleaning. Good riddance, never liked it anyway. Yes, basic levels of personal hygiene are maintained so please don’t call child services, but at the end of the day something had to give. So I gladly accept my new title as Queen of Filth. Onwards and upwards.
Lastly, don’t underestimate how tough you are. Because besides creating a world where playing ping pong at work whenever you get the hankering is a-ok, this industry has also primed us better than most for these turdful, turbulent times. We endure creative reviews that shred our ideas and pride. Watch our idea babies get flogged in research before returning to the drawing board time and time again. Work back ‘til the wee hours of tomorrow just to crack that idea. And that’s just in precedent times. Resilience has been part of our job description since day one. Sure, you need it on Schwarzenegger level steroids now, but those skills that got you through the day to day pre-pandemic, might be what lifts you out when it ends.
A long time ago on a high school English exam about something not important enough to remember, an impressed teacher wrote the following…  “A+. I couldn’t think of any words for how great this is, so I made some up… Sick Dog Wolf Man.”
Four simple, strange words for when there are no words. For when something is better than the best. Which is exactly what we strive for in everything we do.