Ed Couchman - The NABS Podcast
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A deep understanding of mental wellness with Ed Couchman

Ed Couchman is head of sales, UK & northern Europe, Spotify, and one of our industry’s most prolific senior leaders. He’s as well-known for his charity work as his professional life, including supporting NABS.

Ed knows first-hand what mental wellness looks like, and what happens when serious mental health challenges arise. He’s beautifully honest about how his family was affected by a mental health crisis and what he learned from the episode.

Hosted by Louise Scodie

Louise Scodie – NABS 00:00

Welcome to the NABS Podcast. NABS is the support organisation for those working in advertising, marketing and media. I’m your host, Louise Scoie. Each week I’ll be chatting with someone from our industry to find out how they support themselves and those around them through challenging times as well as day to day. And it’s all to help you support your own mental wellness. I can’t wait to start chatting.


This week, our guest is Ed Couchman, one of adland’s most prolific senior leaders. He’s currently head of sales UK and Northern Europe at Spotify. And before this held management roles at Snapchat, Facebook and Channel 4.


Ed is just as prolific in his charity work. He’s a trustee of the Media Trust, a national charity that uses the power of media to give charities a voice and change lives. He’s given his time to various charities that support people from underrepresented groups and drive forward social mobility. Ed’s also a popular member of the Stranger than Summer committee, Stranger than Summer being the annual fundraising gala for NABS that this year raised £120,000 pounds in essential funds to help advance our industry’s mental wellness.


Welcome, Ed, it’s super to have you on the NABS Podcast. How are you? And importantly, have you recovered from Stranger in Summer?


Ed Couchman 01:17

Good morning, Louise. It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you for your kind invitation. It’s a beautiful, sunny Monday morning. So all is right with the world. And I have to confess it did take me a couple of days to recover from Stranger than Summer this time, I’m a bit older, you know, those big nights out catch up with me. But certainly, it was such a great event. As always, it’s so lovely to see the industry come together. I honestly think it is one of the highlights of the sort of calendar for the whole media industry. So yeah, it’s a brilliant, brilliant night. And of course, for a great cause.


Louise Scodie – NABS 01:47

Our industry is very much about being sociable and getting together, having that long period of time where we were just at home and not able to do that. I mean, that’s something that would have impacted our mental wellness, how did it make you feel?


Ed Couchman 01:57

It’s a really good question, because it was mixed emotions and mixed feelings for me. I definitely, you know, didn’t miss getting the 7.18 commuter express each morning. And I definitely enjoyed being able to spend more time for my family and being a bit more present. But I think some of that wore off, the longer that we’re away from the office and away from our teams essentially. And you know, I definitely, when I reflect, get my energy from being with people, and being in the sort of spare room, the kitchen table, or the hallway everyday does get a little repetitive and it does get a little bit draining, there’s no two ways about that. So for me, our new hybrid way of working, you know, we have a couple of days in the office and we have a couple of days at home, is just perfect for me.


Louise Scodie – NABS 02:38

What else do you need for mental wellness? What does mental wellness look like for you?


Ed Couchman 02:42

I think you’ve touched on those important components of like, basically power, some work, some firms, some family, I would add one more important element. And that is taking time for yourself, which I know sounds incredibly selfish, but a little bit of self-care for helping sort of recharge your energy, recharging your sort of compassion, so you can then give out to others, I think it’s really important. And then whatever that might be is entirely you know, down to those individual passions and hobbies and interests of individuals, right. So could be reading the book, it could be walking the dog, it could be riding a bike, I whatever that might be, I do think some self-care and taking some time for yourself, whatever that might be, is really, really important.


Louise Scodie – NABS 03:27

I’m really interested in the notion of self-care, it’s become such a buzz phrase over the past few years and somehow associated with lighting a candle and some slippers and while that is also very lovely, that’s not necessarily the kind of self-care that you need to really bolster yourself and as you said, recharge yourself. Is it for you doing something active?


Ed Couchman 03:47

For me personally that’s right. But activity is not necessarily work working up a sweat, right? Sometimes that is that I do like doing a quick Peloton ride. And I actually just won this morning. So I’m very pleased myself, obviously just done that, just like I say that live on the podcast. But you can also be walking the dog. You know, I really struggle with mindfulness, I just basically I tend to fall asleep. But what I do is try to sort of slow down at different times; listening to other podcasts is a great way for doing that. So I’m a big fan of The Rest is Politics. But not everyone in my household likes listening to that. But that’s thing I just do on my own. I could be combining some stuff as well, it could be walking the dog and listening to that. But I think that’s sort of taking some time out to do things purposely. Just for you. I think that’s at the heart for my interpretation of self-care, essentially. And I just think it’s so valuable.


Louise Scodie – NABS 04:40

So if you are currently listening to this podcast while having a walk, dog or not, you are taking some essential time for yourself. So we’re really happy to be on that journey with you. I’m also really interested in something you said about recharging your compassion, because you’re really involved with NABS. We’re a charity and obviously you have your other charity where as well, you’re a great believer in mental wellness. So two questions here. What is it about recharging your compassion? That’s so necessary, is that what helps you to contribute? Not just to NABS but so many other charities? Like if you’re going to volunteer, do you need to do this recharging work? And also, where did your passion for mental health come from? Is that your own mental health journey that’s contributed to where we are today, having this chat.


Ed Couchman 05:30

Very thoughtful questions. It’s what I give my time for, a sense of wanting to give back, essentially, I think the industry has been wonderful to me, I’m very grateful. You know, I’ve had many opportunities and many successes and being part of some fabulous, fabulous teams. So a sense of giving back to the industry, that’s been so good to me, it’s very important. And that’s what really drives my motivations. That sense of sort of self-care will restore your compassion, I just think helps keep me going, if that makes sense. So like, a bad day, a bad moment, taking a time out for yourself, I think is important. And I do try and subscribe to this notion of sometimes slowing down to speed up that, you know, we work in an ever-faster paced industry and world and sometimes actually pausing for a moment to take a breath, take a beat, I think helps you speed up later in the day, week, month, quarter, whatever might be.


I think the second part of your question, though, really is one that sort of deserves sort of deeper reflection. And when I was sort of pausing, sort of collating my thoughts this morning, ready to talk to you, I thought it would be interesting to share my more personal story, actually. And if I sort of rewound to 2012, I think that’s really when my first deeper understanding of mental wellbeing really began.


And it wasn’t myself, but it’s with my wife, who in short had a complete breakdown and had to go into some residential care for a while, it was relatively short stays, around 10 to 12 days. But it’s a very poignant moment in in our lives and our relationship and our family’s life as well. And she was diagnosed with bipolar at that time, and she’s a high, what’s described as a high-achieving, high-forming bipolar. So she lives a very normal life in short, but it does take a large amount of willpower and medication as well to make sure that she can do everything that she wants to do in her life.


But I go back to that time, because actually, I was really, I was like, just a terrible husband, in short, that I didn’t actually fully understand it, I tried to ignore it. And you know, I had all these really terrible phrases of things like, but it’s a beautiful day outside, why aren’t you feeling well, or come on, pull your socks up, all those things that you really shouldn’t stay or do. And all those things that really are very, very unhelpful, essentially.


But it wasn’t until I sort of saw firsthand about those mental health struggles, and then the role that carers need to do to help support those people that love and the important role they play, that really started my sort of deeper understanding and acceptance, really, of sort of mental well-being. And you know, if I fast forward from 2012, to, you know, 11 years later, and so, Jo, my wife is high functioning, she has a very successful career, we have a very happy family life.


But we do have to make some sort of compromises. And we do have to make some changes in their life, to make sure that we don’t place too much stress on Jo, that triggers some of her sort of bipolar episodes. And, of course, it hasn’t been a smooth journey at all, there’s been many ups and downs on that, as both all four of us in our family sort of learn about bipolar and mental well-being to make sure that we’re accepting of that, and to make sure that we sort of make those changes or compromises to make sure that we are sort of a happy functioning family unit.


Essentially, it was that point of thinking I’m being really poor at this. And also, it took me a while to understand that as well, to have that moment of, in fact, it was a great book that I would recommend. It’s just a cartoon book. It’s called Black Dogs. And it has this wonderful sort of art illustrations graphic novel, it really helps you understand how someone suffering from mental health, depression or bipolar is thinking and feeling. And that really sort of opened my eyes. So that was my very first important step.


Louise Scodie – NABS 09:29

Well, I would just like to say firstly, thank you so much for being so vulnerable and truthful and sharing that story and it’s great to hear that Jo and all of you are in a good place now with the right kind of support. I think it really highlights that you need to go and get support and the support is out there. With NABS. If you or someone in your family or even someone in your team appears to be struggling in whatever way with their mental health, mental wellness, you can give us a call. And we’ll help to signpost if we don’t have the resources ourselves. But equally we can refer you to therapy, if that’s something that’s going to help.


And it also highlights for me the importance of looking after your own mental wellness, if you are a carer. And I think there’s possibly not enough awareness yet of that in our industry, would you agree? Because there are invariably lots of people in our industry who are in similar situations to you?


Ed Couchman 10:29

Yeah, I think it’s a really good point, Louise, that actually, I think it goes back to my point of that very first question about self-care that taking a moment and looking after yourself. So you can give to others that actually, if it’s all just one way, and all just sort of you giving, then you’re gonna get to a place where you’re just exhausted, you know, you may be a little resentful, you’re tired, you just don’t have the energy to do that. But by taking a moment for yourself, I then think you can give forever to give to others, essentially, yeah, I think it is really, really crucial.


Louise Scodie – NABS 10:55

There’s an old phrase, isn’t it? You can’t pour from an empty cup.


Ed Couchman 10:59

Yeah. And it’s, you know, are those some of those phrases are actually just really wise words, aren’t they?


Louise Scodie – NABS 11:04

From a working parent perspective, as well, I mean, when my cup is empty, then everything’s going to fall down. So I need to make sure that I do little things to talk myself up as well. It is amazing, even more amazing, now, having heard that story, that you still have the time and energy and headspace to devote to your charity work, and especially thinking about your work to support social mobility.


So you’ve done a lot of speaking to students from working class backgrounds, for example. Why is it so important to you, and especially when we’re looking at the situation, our own industry, we’ve had surveys such as NABS’ own Diversity in Focus survey and the recent audience census results, showing that the industry can be a really difficult place from people from those socio economic backgrounds. What is it that draws you to work to support this quarter of our industry?


Ed Couchman 11:57

I went to a comprehensive school in Solihull, just on the outskirts of Birmingham. I was the first member of my family to graduate from a university. And, you know, I’m grateful that I had a lot of support, actually, from my teachers, actually, particularly my comprehensive school teachers were really supportive of me. But I think what drives it is a sense of sort of fairness and equality, there is so much talent, actually, you know, if I recall my school days, a long time ago now, but you know, a lot of my schoolmates were highly talented individuals, but some of their aspirations or the role models around them just weren’t, didn’t have sort of career paths or career networks into the creative industries into banking, into finance, into architecture into medicine.


But no one you know, we lived in a very sort of working class area, there was a local manufacturing company, and most people went to work there, it’s actually over 80%. And over sort of 80%, I would say, of their parents, mostly fathers actually also worked in that same manufacturing plant. So the sort of career aspirations and career role models just weren’t there.


And I think that’s important part of the work that I wanted to do for speakers for schools, where essentially, you go to different schools up and down the country, actually, I normally volunteer to go back to schools in Birmingham, and just talk about the opportunities in technology or in the creative industries. And just to say that, actually, that there are jobs and roles out there for people like you. And you might not have thought about these, these jobs and roles, but they’re there for you. And I was once like you, although it was quite a humbling experience, actually, the very first time I did it.


So I was thinking I was I, you know, I look like just like you I was a kid from you know, this neighbourhood essentially. And not really fully appreciating that now, I look very different from that. And I am very different from that. And so I sort of walked in and basically got completely heckled for sort of 45 minutes. And the headmaster had to sort of come back in and get control of the room for me. Basically, they just asked me loads of really challenging questions.


But it was really a good moment for me to realise that actually, I thought I looked like those kids I was standing in front of because that’s where I come from. But now I look very different. And I think it’s important for me to realise that actually, that you know, now I am from privilege, essentially, even though I don’t always feel that but realise that I’m from privilege, and therefore sort of going back to help other people up the ladder is really important.


And then I think there’s sort of philosophical arguments about a sort of fairness and equality, sort of social cohesion, that unlocking that talent and potential and all the long-term benefits that social mobility provides. And without getting too political, I do think that as a country, we have a very, very long way to go and social mobility, and it does pain me that actually, I don’t feel that we’re moving forwards. And you know, whatever small difference that makes, then I like to kind of assess that speakers for schools. I’ve done some work for the Social Mobility Foundation in the past as well. And just try and make a tiny, tiny difference where I can.


Louise Scodie – NABS 15:13

How do you think the industry is measuring up, because obviously, you’re doing all of this great work, and there are other people in our industry like Brixton Finishing School and other grassroots organisations that are helping working class people into the industry.


Ed Couchman 15:27

So it’s an initiative called Common People led by Jeff Hallam, who set that up for people of a similar background. So I think there are efforts afoot. But you know, we’ve all seen some of the reports that NABS have done and the fantastic work from the Advertising Association on the All In census to show how much work is still to be done.


A quick aside, actually, and I think it chimes this point about feeling like you don’t fit in, my very first job was at an investment bank called Morgan Stanley, in the late 90s, you know, that sort of height of cool Britannia, and sort of lad culture. And I looked back at that, and realised I really didn’t fit in. And that’s the why I didn’t, that’s really why I didn’t stay.


So I was wearing the wrong shirt. I was wearing brown shoes, and I should have been wearing black shoes. I didn’t wear cufflinks. My Windsor knot wasn’t a winter tie, it was a schoolboy tie, all those social clues that tell people that you aren’t from that background. And, you know, if I think there’s some parallels now to the media industry, where it might not be about shoes and tie knots and cufflinks, but it’s about your trainers, or your brand of T-shirt, essentially, that these soft, subtle things where people basically make judgments. So I think it’s really important then as leaders that we try and create these more sort of inclusive teams where people can feel a sense of belonging, essentially.


So when they turn up to work, you know, they can see people that look like them, act like them, talk like them, and essentially try and make sure they’ve got a good friend at work, because I think when you look at all the research, most people stay in a job, because they’ve got a close friend in the team around them, essentially, I think that’s really important.


Louise Scodie – NABS 17:09

We’ve had Bruce Daisley on the podcast, and probably his number one tip is get yourself a best friend at work, because as you say, that makes the difference between you staying and going. So there’s so much to pick up on what you just said. Firstly, NABS does inclusive leader training designed to help managers do exactly that, create teams in which everybody feels as though they can belong. Secondly, as a leader yourself, what would be one or two things that managers can do to help create a more inclusive atmosphere? Is itreally the case that if you turn up with the wrong trainers, people are going to judge you? I mean, does that is it? Is it that stark in quarters of the industry?


Ed Couchman 17:51

Well, that’s a tough question. I really, really want to say no to that. But I hope I’m not being naive and Pollyannaesque. I really hope it’s not consciously, but I think subconsciously. Like, I’ve definitely, I’ve definitely heard comments about someone’s trainers. You know what I think I have?


Louise Scodie – NABS 18:12

So it’s about trying to get everyone away from that mindset, rather than saying, as maybe this would have been the approach a 20 years ago, listen, these are the trainers that you need to buy to fit in. So we’re not encouraging people to code switch or to be something that they’re not, but actually to create an atmosphere in which people can turn off as they are.


Ed Couchman 18:31

Yeah, and their true selves, right, whatever that trainer brand or trainer type might be.


Louise Scodie – NABS 18:36

So then to go back to the question, what do you do as a leader to help that to happen?


Ed Couchman 18:43

I think you have a role in making sure that you are attracting talent and recruiting talent from all sorts of backgrounds. You know, so making sure that you have diverse long lists of talent and shortlists. Most of the tech companies I have worked for in the past or have like what are called interview loops or panel. So you have four or five people sort of assessing a candidate, ensuring that those four or five people are from a pretty diverse look and feel and skill set, you know, so you might have an introvert as well as an extrovert, you might have someone who’s more analytical and data-driven, as well as maybe someone who’s more visual. And obviously, people’s sort of backgrounds are also different. So that that means then that someone who’s come into the building feels like there’s someone like me here, I think that’s important.


Louise Scodie – NABS 19:35

And I’d also add that NABS have got a variety of free classes, essentially, that can help people with their confidence-building and growth mindset. And these are things that can help people to feel as though they can succeed at work as well. So do have a look at what we’ve got to offer and encourage people to sign up to those as well as supporting people to do so.


Thinking really broadly about mental wellness, what can you do to support the mental wellness of your teams? And what do you do to encourage people? Clearly, you’re someone that talks very openly about your own experience of mental wellness and dealing with mental health and your family. And I think leading from the top and being honest from the top is a really big part of this when people feel that it’s okay to talk about these things, and actually to do something about it. But what else do you think that we can do?


Ed Couchman 20:30

There’s a number of things that we can do as leaders or with the team again, apologies, I sort of jumped from very practical to maybe more philosophical. One thing personally, I love so this kind of just being from the heart is going for walking one to ones.


We’re quite fortunate at Spotify, actually, we’re opposite a small park. And you can do a couple of laps of a park in a half hour or 45 minutes, I personally feel you can have a much richer, deeper, meaningful conversation with your team when you’re out away from your desk in the fresh air. And walking. I think there’s also something really quite tangible that you walk side-by-side. And obviously, most meetings, your you sit facing each other and have that eye contact. And I think there’s something very disarming around walking side-by-side, where it feels less sort of confrontational in some ways. And therefore you can have a bit more of a sort of meaty conversation and deal with some pretty thorny issues, but it just feels like you’re doing it in a much more sort of calm measured manner, actually. So I really subscribe to that, I don’t do every walk every one to one, but I’d make sure that I do at least every other week as a walking. So that’s a first thing.


I think secondly, we talked about the ERG groups, I think they’re important as they’re giving them money to be able to do things, I think you can incorporate participation in ERG groups into people’s performance reviews and acknowledge the time they’re giving to not just the business, but to the culture of a team, essentially. And try and make sure people are getting recognition for that time they give, because let’s be honest, I know it might be during the working day. But I do believe that most people then will probably catch up on some of that work later that evening. So they’re actually doing kind of extra things. So I think giving them recognition.


We recently had an employee survey. And one of the things that struck me loud and clear was the team just want to have fun at times they, they’d like spending time with each other. They worked really hard, and then given them permission to have some fun. So we have a great committee at Spotify called Good Vibes. And they’re organising a range of activities, like a sports day, games, board games. So I think the other thing that’s important is not just making them always alcohol or in the pub-based or evening-based, right?


Just evenings can exclude some working parents or people that maybe have to look after their parents or carers, if it’s alcohol based, and you’re going to exclude people as well. And intentionally. So therefore, like creating some more inclusive type environment, so like board games, or sports, might be a really good way to bring people together with the best of intentions.


Louise Scodie – NABS 23:27

It’s one of the reasons why people came to work in this particular industry in the first place. It does have that reputation as being fun where people can get together. And now that we’re in a hybrid world where we can go into the office a bit. It’s possible, but I think we need a bit of help and encouragement because a lot of us have lost our way. When you’re stuck at home for two years. Should you forget how to socialise right. So it’s great to hear that Spotify have got something structured to encourage people to get back together.


Louise Scodie – NABS 23:53

And the other is all from the ground up. Actually like I think as a leader, he right you do have a responsibility to set the tonality in the environment. But I think having some stuff ground up so social committee, whatever might be the G groups or ground up as well. I think that’s really important to make sure the team have a voice and a sense of belonging. It’s not all tops down, actually. But it is a muscle. You’re right about this coming together. And I think almost you can lose things by accident if you don’t make sure you put some effort into them. So ensuring that you put some effort into having some fun and having some good times I think is really, really crucial.


Louise Scodie – NABS 24:27

And what’s one thing that we could all do to support our mental wellness this week?


Ed Couchman 24:33

Can I do two things? One, take a moment for yourself. But as we look at that self-care, do something that you really want to do: read a book, listen to music, listen to a podcast, do an exercise class, do nothing. So have a have an app. Love an app. The second one, I think this is just ask someone if they’re okay. And it’s that question and we all know this question. It’s okay. Not to be okay. But really pausing to ask someone looking them in the eye and go, hey, is everything okay? And I think that’d be very, very valuable.


Louise Scodie – NABS 25:08

That’s really good. And then if you don’t quite know what to do with that answer, call NABS. Because we can help you direct that person to somewhere that they can find some help. Now, we’re here for preventative work, and also crisis work. So you can come to us and get topped up along the way, we’d love you to do that. But also, there’s that crisis point as well, people call us and they really are in urgent need of help. What would be a big tip you can give to help people before they get to that crisis point, so we can try and avert that if necessary.


Ed Couchman 25:42

There’s two things. I think the first is trying to have some level of self-awareness about how you’re thinking and feeling and a sort of gauge to yourself of that, am I feeling level five stress, level nine stress. So I think pausing and trying to have some self-reflection, I think, is really important.


I think then my second piece of advice will be making sure you have a really good sort of social network of friends, you know, in the industry, outside the industry, friends, family, whatever. So that might be, essentially you have that social network, so that you can rely on other people to help you when you need it, or will just kind of know you. So they might be able to say, hey, you’re not quite yourself at the moment, you know, what’s going on, what’s happening. But I think the combination of the self-awareness and having a really good social network are two really key things that hopefully between those two things will support you before you get to that breaking point.


Louise Scodie – NABS 26:38

Definitely. And also, we know from studies, that community helps to bolster your mental wellness in generally. So hopefully, if you are keeping in touch with people, whether it’s through work or play, or both, then you’re less likely to suffer a challenge. Or if you are, as you say, at least it’s going to get spotted, and then you can get help sooner rather than later. What is one lesson you’ve learned on how to support yourself?


Ed Couchman 27:12

One thing that stands out for me is actually focusing and being grateful for the things you do have, and not focusing and being frustrated for the things you don’t have. And I think when you do just stop, and self-reflect on all the wonderful things that you have in your life, actually, they can be very fulfilling and very rewarding, you know, you feel a deeper sense of gratitude, so much of people’s time and unclick myself in this my time still, you focus on the one thing you don’t have not on the nine wonderful things that you do have, I think trying to, you know, and I don’t journal and journalling is a big thing with gen xers and millennials, you know, you write your daily gratitude.


Louise Scodie – NABS 27:53

You don’t have a regular gratitude practice, you don’t have something structured?


Ed Couchman 27:57

I don’t, I don’t. But I think you know, when I do that sort of self-reflection of my scale of stress, you know, what I would try and do at some point is to say that sort of slowing down to speed up, and then sort of thing, actually, all these things are going right, right now. It’s just this one thing that isn’t going right. Let me unpack that. Let me think of a plan of how to tackle that. But really just a pause and go look, all these other things are going really right, the whole world, the sky is not falling down here. It’s okay. And then just sort of, sort of get a sense of balance from that.


Louise Scodie – NABS 28:30

You can get some much-needed perspective, can’t you?


Ed Couchman 28:33

Yeah, because really, that’s what you need at that moment in time, because things are out of perspective, and out of kilter. And the problem with challenges that feel overwhelming, that you can’t tackle them. But having a perspective, I think is the exact key word.


Louise Scodie – NABS 28:47

it’s really great to end our chat on a practical tip, because we’ve just had practical tips throughout, take some time for yourself. If you or someone that you are related to or friendly with is having a mental health challenge, then reach out to us or reach out to someone at work, who can help. Make sure that you’re keeping in touch with your community and go for a walk, whether you have a dog or not, maybe borrow somebody else’s dog, listen to a podcast, preferably this one, and hopefully that will help us feel okay and support this week. Ed, it’s been an absolute joy and a pleasure. Thank you for all of the work that you do to support people across our industry. It’s been really wonderful to talk to you today.


Ed Couchman 29:31

Thank you, Louise, and thank you so much for such thought provoking questions. It’s been a real pleasure.


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