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  • Mags Houston

Disrupting the Pathway: How I went from a career in advertising to drug research

For Christmas 2019, my best friend gave me a “one line a day” diary, which I have filled out every day without fail now for 1 year, 1 month and 1 week.

Here’s my entry from 6th January 2020:

“I was shaking with anxiety today, feeling so much imposter’s syndrome. But I made sure I got to yoga and then had dinner with friends before coming from to do more work… [hashtag] priorities…?”

Here’s my entry from 6th January this year (2021):

“Did life-coaching group 8-9am, then settled into work. At lunchtime I ran 5.5km round Victoria Park, then I had meetings in the afternoon, did an online yoga class and attended a webinar on drug policy.”

These two entries, one year apart, illustrate for me the change I’ve been through over the past year. A year ago I was working near London Bridge for a large advertising agency. I was long-overdue a promotion, almost never had a lunch break (in fact, in my first 6 months working there, I didn’t leave the building once during the day) and, as my diary entry mentions, I was suffering from serious imposter’s syndrome. I was surrounded by Oxford and Cambridge grads who I would compare myself to daily, and I never felt good enough no matter how many late nights I ended up the last one left in the office.

Working in advertising had been a dream of mine since university. I had managed to get into one of Manchester’s top ad agencies soon after graduating, and in the decade that followed, I would work at other established agencies, gradually climbing the ranks. It was meant to be like it is portrayed in Mad Men: fun, creative, intelligent work that never gets boring. I would need to become an expert in whatever my client was at that time. That could be anything from a supermarket, to a shower gel, or an alcohol brand. I always had to be one step ahead of my client, and it was my job to make sure the campaign ran smoothly because it would be my fault if it didn’t.

As Account Handlers - or “suits” as we’re known in the industry - we are the ones pedalling frantically underneath the surface, yet rarely receiving praise or recognition when the campaign goes well, because by that point you’re onto the next one. It would be the Creatives who would get to go to the awards do’s, and we would genuinely celebrate if one of the team received a “thank you” email from a client because it would happen so rarely.

Four years ago, I spoke at Sunday Assembly Manchester when, to welcome in the new year, the theme was “A Brave New World”. I spoke about my plan to leave my job working on a well-known supermarket brand at an ad agency where I had started to feel like another cog in a big machine. Three months later, I packed a suitcase and set off for seven months of volunteering and travelling solo around Asia. It was the first time I had broken the trajectory it felt like my entire school career, university education and parental expectation had set out for me. For the first time, I wasn’t doing exactly what someone else in my industry had done before me, or what people around me thought I should do. That year was the beginning of a shift in me towards seeking out a greater sense of purpose in my life and a reorganising of my priorities. Yet I found myself back in advertising when I returned to the UK, this time in the “big smoke” of London, thinking that the buzz and challenge of the city might stir something new in me. But that feeling - that I was pouring my energy into an industry driving consumerism through what is essentially emotional manipulation, and putting money in the pockets of already rich people - eventually returned.

It would take a pandemic and adapting to life in lockdown to give me that final push I needed to realise I didn’t have to continue this well-trodden path. A three-week stay with my parents in Scotland ended up lasting for four months. It amuses me now to remember (and my “one line a day” diary confirms this) that I had spent most of my spare time the month before Coronavirus hit researching retreats to escape the daily routine of anxiety I was living.

I found out on the first evening at my parents’ house that I had narrowly missed out on a job I’d applied for with a drug policy charity that I had long-since admired and supported. It was unsurprisingly disappointing news to receive. But imagining myself in that alternate reality had sparked something in me. I returned to London in July having spent more time in my own company than ever before, attending webinars from my bedroom and getting used to working from home for the first time. It was then that I received the news that my client was leaving the agency, and I would either be made redundant or moved to my client’s new agency which, let’s just say, didn’t appeal one bit. You see, in the ad industry, competition between individuals might be an unspoken truth, but rivalry between agencies has always been unashamedly par for the course, like an unwritten rule within advertising.

As the reality set in of possibly having to move to yet another stressful environment, of unreasonable deadlines, working for little or no thanks for a client so big it had long-since lost its original purpose, the penny finally dropped. I realised I had a choice: I could continue up the escalator that was causing me daily anxiety, or I could make my own path off in a new direction, one that felt meaningful and uniquely mine.

So what did I do next? I thought about the things that excited me most in life, where my knowledge and passion might actually be turned into something of value. For me, the core things were yoga, Bollywood dancing, craft beer and drug research for mental health. I decided to focus my efforts on the growing number of start-ups and not-for-profits in the drug research space. And then I began hustling. I created a colour-coded spreadsheet of companies and contacts, got some funky purple business cards printed and, most importantly, believed that I could be a mighty warrior, to manifest what I knew I was capable and deserving of.

What’s happened since I still pinch myself about daily, because I can’t believe it’s my life. I now split my week between helping to increase access to medical cannabis for patients living in the UK, I curate events around mental health treatment, psychedelic drug research and drug policy reform, and I volunteer as Marketing Director for a charity called Heroic Hearts that provides psychedelic drug treatment to veterans living with severe PTSD. For the first time in my life I feel valued in my work and I feel like I’m actually making a difference to someone else’s life. Every day I am surprised by people’s kindness and realness - it’s like waking up from The Matrix and realising you’re in a world where, instead of cost-per-clicks and viewing figures, the currencies are connection and compassion. And that’s a world I want to live in.

At my very first advertising agency, the company slogan was “Disruption” - because, somewhat ironically, we (and everyone else in the industry) were trying to create work that might disrupt the status quo. And that’s exactly what psychedelic drugs do - they work on the brain by disrupting our neural pathways, helping us see things in a new way. Perhaps I should have been a copywriter.

It’s important to acknowledge that we all move at different speeds, and that not everyone gets this chance in life to make such a choice, to go in a completely new direction like I have. But I hope my story might inspire you to consider what you’re passionate about and what future you might be capable of manifesting for yourself. Perhaps you could start by asking what your hypothetical “one line a day” diary might say this time next year?

Mags is hosting an online panel discussion, ‘From Corporate to Conscious Career’, with The Psychedelic Society on 2nd March. More information and tickets available here:

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