Non-Drinkers Are Struggling in an Agency World That Relies on Alcohol

Americans are drinking less and looking for alternative ways to celebrate and bond

Illustration of multicolored drinks in different types of glasses.
Boozy holiday parties and happy hours can exclude those who abstain from alcohol from bonding with their colleagues. Adweek

Ad Week – When Taleah Mona-Lusky got sober, she was told by people in both her professional and personal circles that she should also leave her career
in advertising behind. In an industry that celebrates winning a new client with rounds of shots and encourages drinking as a bonding activity, it
was difficult for them to understand how she would stay afloat.

“Work can be a trigger, and the ‘work hard play hard’ mentality is outdated,” said Mona-Lusky, the president of full-service creative agency
Swift, adding that her office offers options for both drinkers and non-drinkers, such as beer and kombucha on tap. “There need to be options
and we need to have conversations about how to use drugs and alcohol safely.”

Members of the advertising industry often use alcohol to rejoice, but curating both a social and professional culture that revolves around
drinking often leaves those in recovery—as well as those who simply wish to abstain from drinking—in the dark. Many employees have used the
pandemic to reevaluate their relationships with alcohol, and as they return to the office and feel pressure to participate in happy hours,
companies are under pressure to figure out how to craft more inclusive environments.

Cutting out booze is becoming more common in the U.S. According to data from Nielsen, non-alcoholic wine brand Surely has seen a 33%
increase in sales within the last year, and data from Morning Consult found that the share of those who drink at least once a week declined
across all beverage categories from October 2021 to March 2022, with beer dropping six points from 25% to 19%

Consumers with an annual household income of $100,000 or more are 10 points less likely to say they drink alcohol than they were last fall.
The CDC has also published new guidelines as of 2020 that have lessened the level of recommended drinking: Men are advised to have two
drinks or less in a day, and women one drink or less.

According to alcohol and addiction expert Dr. Joseph Volpicelli, society is inclined to characterize drinkers into two groups—those who struggle
with addiction and those who don’t—but the reality is not so black and white.

“There’s a huge gray area in which people might be drinking excessively and not realize they are suffering some consequences,” he said. “These
people are likely to be better off by moderating their drinking or stopping altogether.”

Volpicelli added that when any type of drinker uses alcohol to cope with either trauma or anxiety, this coping mechanism only compounds
mental health suffering. This cycle can contribute to feelings of stress and burnout that have been especially common throughout the ad
industry during the pandemic.

“Your anxiety doesn’t just come back to the level it was when you started drinking, but it actually gets worse,” he said. “It’s like borrowing
money from the bank and then having to pay interest.”

Making people comfortable

Mona-Lusky wishes there was more space for open conversations about sobriety across the ad industry, as she knows many going through a
similar journey that they don’t feel comfortable discussing. She also stressed that folks in sobriety are hesitant to take advantage of resources
like FMLA due to the shame associated with addiction.

“I’ve been sober for five years, and it’s taken me that long to feel comfortable enough to really talk about it,” she said. “I want to talk about it
because there aren’t many people who are.”

Dodging questions about sobriety was one of the hardest parts of the journey for Mona-Lusky, who encourages peers to be more cognizant of
how their comments can contribute to suffering. She asserts that people shouldn’t probe when someone abstains from drinking at a social
event and avoid asking how long someone has been sober, as the answer could be a day.

“We like to put people in boxes, but there are lots of ways to identify as a sober person other than ‘alcoholic’ and ‘addict,’” she said, adding that
“not drinking is the least interesting thing about me.”

A former member of an ad agency, who chose to remain anonymous, says that landing her first job in advertising was regarded with prestige,
as there was a popular sentiment that “if you could make it in advertising, then you have really made it.” This high status came with a toxic
work culture, according to the source.

“Your normal coping mechanisms go out the window,” she said. “You have no time to go to the gym and are working 12- to 13-hour days. It’s a
mental vacuum for anyone prone to alcoholism.”

When she didn’t reach her usual three to four drinks per day, the source would suffer from cold sweats, shaking and panic attacks. She was
able to get sober by reducing her cravings through Vivitrol, an injectable medicine that combats alcohol dependence by blocking opioid
receptors in the brain. AA meetings, biweekly therapy and working through the trauma that led her to dependence has also supported the
source’s sobriety.

Creating alternatives

When deciding to go sober, the source was worried about how this decision would impact her social circles. When working at the agency, she
remembers having “no other option” than to drink at work events. Despite pressure from friends, she set strong boundaries and regarded her
sobriety as a “badge of pride” instead of a point of shame.

Ziad Ahmed founded Gen Z-focused agency JUV Consulting when he was 16. While it was not only illegal for him and many of his employees
to drink, they also were barred from taking calls from alcohol brands.

As a Muslim American founder who abstains from drinking for religious reasons, as well as a believer in creating a culture of “empowering
young people,” Amhed has no interest in putting alcohol at the forefront of social activities. Instead of meeting up at bars for happy hour, the
JUV team created a book club, organizes lunch and learns for holidays like Juneteenth and celebrated Pride by visiting historical LGBTQ+ sites
throughout New York City.

“It is important that there are spaces where you can bond with your teammates and not feel pressured to drink,” he said. “We certainly don’t
want JUV Consulting to look anything like the scenes in Wolf on Wall Street. We want to be the opposite of that in every conceivable way.”
Tracy Tobin, the chief people officer at marketing consultancy company Adswerve, is also focused on bringing people together in ways that
don’t revolve around alcohol, including volunteer events and extracurricular activities outside of work.

“Though alcohol will likely always be a factor, the ad industry can do more to make sure that it’s not at the core of building a company culture
of employee connectivity,” she said.

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