A seat at the table series: being sober and working in media

On November 14, 2022 a seat at the table series, being sober in media, sober

IAB Australia has partnered with The Women in Programmatic Network (TWIPN) to launch the Seat at the Table Series.  The series will dive into the personal experiences of those from the local advertising community, and give these role models a seat at the table to share their story. Each month we'll feature a different topic and guest speaker. This month we are featuring Jessica Barrett, Lead Associate Trading Director from The Trade Desk, who will be opening up to us about being sober and working in media.

Q. To get started, we’d love for the readers to get to know a bit about you and how you got to where you are today. How did you land in ad tech/programmatic? 

I started my career in New York as an ad trafficker at an ad network called quadrantONE in 2011. This was my first introduction to programmatic, as we were Admeld’s biggest client before Google bought it and turned it into AdX. Once the company folded, I moved on to a small programmatic ad tech start-up called Legolas Media. The company rebranded to ‘Upfront Digital Media,’ as a lot of people couldn’t pronounce ‘Legolas’ (apparently there aren't enough Lord of the Rings fans working in media).

After a short stint there (read: more layoffs), I joined the Financial Times (FT) and held various roles over seven years. I relocated to London and had the chance to learn from and work with other teams, like product and B2C marketing. Leading the FT’s global programmatic business gave me the opportunity to visit other FT offices and meet with clients throughout Europe and Asia.

After ~10 years working on the publisher side of the industry, it was time for a change. I moved to Melbourne towards the end of 2020 and joined the Trade Desk to help launch the Melbourne trading team. I’ve been loving it ever since.

Q. What has been the biggest learning of your career, and how did it shape you as a person today? 

I learned how important taking care of your mental health is. It seems obvious in retrospect, but there was a time when I worked non-stop. I didn’t realise how stressed I was until I moved to Melbourne and joined a company that prioritised employee well-being and put effort into building a positive work culture.

A former colleague once told me, “We’re not saving lives here.” I try to remind myself of that when things get stressful at work. Work/life balance can be difficult (Juliette Stead’s interview was extremely relatable). It’s important to put boundaries in place at work and remind yourself to chill out in tough or stressful situations. You can be successful without working 24/7.

Q. Shifting our attention to the topic we’ll unpack at ‘The Table’ today: you’ve been sober for almost 2 years in December (congratulations!). Has working in this industry made it challenging to maintain your sobriety? And how has being sober affected your day-to-day and your career progression? 

I’ve struggled with alcohol since I was a teenager, and have gone through numerous sober periods ranging from a few weeks to a few months. There’s an expectation that you’ll drink to excess when you’re young. Generally speaking, it’s socially acceptable for a twenty-something year old to get shitfaced. In advertising, it’s socially acceptable for everybody to get shitfaced.

There have definitely been some challenging times. I remember going to to the pub after work with colleagues during a sober period. I’d get questions like, “why are you here if you’re not drinking?” or my favourite, “are you pregnant?” No, hon, I’m just an alcoholic with a penchant for eating bagels. A former colleague once told me that she kept ordering Prosecco at the company holiday party and dumping it down the toilet so no one would ask if she was pregnant. I’ve heard so many stories like this, and it boggles my mind. Why is the onus on women to go through these obstacles to avoid inappropriate, invasive questioning?

Q. Media has a reputation for being a hard-partying industry. Socialising, networking, events and gifts often revolve around alcohol. How has being sober affected the way in which you are able to develop relationships and socialise with your colleagues, customers and industry friends? 

Sobriety has helped improve my relationships overall. Healthy habits keep my stress levels in check, and therapy helped resolve the underlying problems causing excessive stress. I remember conversations after a night out now, and don’t wake up the next morning with hangxiety. I’ve met other sober advertising folks through a group called SPILL. It’s immensely helpful to know that there are other people in the industry in a similar boat.

Q. What can we do as an industry, and more specifically as organisations and individuals/colleagues, to understand, accommodate and support our sober colleagues? 

While I’m comfortable talking about substance abuse, others might not be. Don’t pry unless your colleague has indicated that they’re open to discussing their experience. Under no circumstances ask if someone is pregnant. There are plenty of reasons why someone might choose not to drink, so try not to make assumptions. If hosting or organising an event, you can support sober guests by including interesting non-alcoholic drinks. Skip the orange juice and soda, as no one wants to drink that on a night out (unless your event is a blood drive or a children’s birthday party).

My colleagues at The Trade Desk have been incredibly supportive. As one of the leaders in the Melbourne team, I am in a privileged position to help grow and influence the culture in our office. We’ve made a concerted effort this year to diversify our events to be more inclusive. Things like juice bars, coffee carts, and pilates classes have made their way into our social events. We still go out to the bars, but nobody cares about what’s in your glass. It helps that a lot of bars and restaurants now stock fancy mocktails and non-alcoholic beers.

Q. For those of us out there who don’t want to partake, for any given reason, what is your advice for saying no to a drink? 

‘No’ is a complete sentence, full stop. You don’t owe anyone an explanation. It can be uncomfortable at first, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes.

Q. What advice would you give to someone looking to become sober?

If you struggle with substance abuse: you’re not alone. Everybody’s experience is different, so don’t get discouraged if quitting cold turkey, therapy, AA etc. doesn’t work the first time. Reach out to people you trust for support. They’ll act as cheerleaders when you have no love for yourself, and help you with finding the right treatment.

If my experience is relatable and you’d like to discuss further, please feel free to reach out for a chat. You can also reach out to the organisations listed below.

Q. To close, we’d love it if you could share some earned wisdom with our readers. What’s one piece of advice you’d like to share today?

Don’t underestimate the importance of a positive, supportive work environment. Your mental health will thank you for it. It doesn’t matter what your role is, or the level of seniority you hold; everyone is capable of adding to a company’s culture.

If you, or someone you know is struggling, please reach out to these the organisations listed below:

  • National Alcohol and Other Drugs Hotline: 1800 250 015 (available 24/7). 
  • Family Drug Support (FDS): 1300 368 186 (available 24/7). 
  • Stimulant Treatment Line: 9361 8088 or 1800 101 188 (outside Sydney) (available 24/7). 
  • Opioid Treatment Line (OTL): 1800 642 428 (Monday to Friday: 9:30am to 5:00pm). 
  • Counselling Online (24/7). Online counselling and support for people with a dependence. counsellingonline.org.au
  • Alcoholics Anonymous Australia 1300 222 222 or visit aa.org.au
  • Narcotics Anonymous Australia 1300 652 820 or visit na.org.au
  • Quitline: 13 78 48 or visit quitnow.gov.au
  • Mensline Australia: 1300 78 99 78 (24hrs)
  • Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800
  • Sobriety App - I am Sober is an addiction buddy useful for quitting any activity or substance.