Recently an ad student at well-known art and design school came up to me and said, “I just had some of my work produced for a real client at a national agency.” Here’s why this is a disturbing story.
The kid had done this work, and a lot of other work, for this agency as an unpaid intern. To add insult to injury, this kid’s TV spot was one of only two chosen, the other created by one of the agency’s writers, a paid staffer.
This student is not alone in his servitude. A recent article about the intern issue in the New York Times said “experts estimate … one-fourth to one-half [of all interns] are unpaid.” (Note: Internships at my agency, GSD&M, are paid. Tons? No. Paid? Yes.)
Peeeeople. Okay, I know we got two wars goin’ on and an earth to worry about, but isn’t this one of those things we can just fix – boom – like that? So, to agency people reading this I encourage you to e-mail this cranky little essay to the higher-ups in your agency with the appended note, “Man, I hope WE aren’t hiring any unpaid interns.”
Ooops, before you send that note, let’s rethink using the word “hiring.” Merriam-Webster defines it as “payment for the temporary use of something.” Agreed, these guilty agencies are in fact “temporarily using” interns but without that “payment” part, it ain’t “hiring,” folks. So until an agency can cough up a little money – I’m talkin’ even Taco-Bell money here – tell ‘em using word hire is flatly incorrect. Try “captured” instead. Or “tricked.” Or, my preference, “hosed.”
If we can agree on hosed, yay, we’ve made some progress. Now at least we’re being honest. Now the Adweek columnists can write, “Martini Yesman & Longlunch announce the hosing of three new unpaid interns.”
I can hear the blowback coming even now.
“Luke, you don’t understand. Our unpaid interns receive valuable on-the-job training.”
Oh, bite me. If you really believe that, how about you and me, we’ll go out to the street right now, flag down a cab, and see if he’ll take us to the airport in exchange for some valuable on-the-job training.
The New York Times article went on to say there are “six federal legal criteria that must be satisfied for internships to be unpaid. Among those criteria are that the internship should be similar to the training given in a vocational school or academic institution, that the intern does not displace regular paid workers, and that the employer ‘derives no immediate advantage’ from the intern’s activities — in other words, it’s largely a benevolent contribution to the intern.”
So how did we move from providing “benevolent contribution” to hosing interns? The usual villains are in play here of course, profit being the main one.
VCU Brandcenter President, Rick Boyko, wrote “over the years, cost cutting at agencies has made … training programs disappear. This has forced aspiring creatives to look elsewhere for their education. [So] portfolio schools and graduate programs began to do what the agencies used to – teach young people the business and help develop their craft. The cost of this education was absorbed by the creative student who hoped, in turn, of getting a better-paying job.”
But that ain’t happenin’. In fact, as the Times notes, the number of unpaid internships is mushrooming. Somehow the agencies hosing all these unpaid interns are able to look their victims in the eye, deny them wages, deny them health coverage, take their work and still say the interns got the better part of the deal.
Shame on you.
Shame’s one thing; the law’s the other. As Nancy J. Leppink of the Department of Labor warns, “there aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law.”
Okay, done with this essay. Time to have “Higgs,” my intern, get some valuable on-the-job training by spell-checking and posting this thing.
A-fucking-men. I used to do that, although they paid me. The full 400 euros a month where I needed to be on the dole and lie to them about “not being employed”.
The worst thing isn’t the fact that companies are greedy bastards. The worst thing is that most of adlands new blood just nods and accepts whatever leftovers it gets thrown on the ground. “It’s like this everywhere, so we better just accept it the way it is.” is what I hear. No one has the balls to stand up to these C.E. O’heartless pricks and ask them if they would even take a dump without being paid.
Luke- I’ve got mixed feelings on this- as a small shop owner. I think it’s different in the big leagues.
Interns take an extraordinary amount of my time to guide, train, teach and assist. What takes me an hour to do- might take them 8 or more (I had an intern who took 6 weeks to develop a menu). Should I pay them – and then bill them for my time? Nope. I try to provide opportunities to learn what the real world is like- and teach them the stuff that they aren’t getting in school (I won’t even review your book for an internship unless you’ve read “Ogilvy on Advertising” and “Hey Whipple”- no shizzle).
However- I do pay them when work gets produced and a client pays for it. At a rate that makes economic sense. For a small shop- just the cost of providing a computer- with a full set of software isn’t cheap (Adobe CS5 is $2500+)
We feed them- and we don’t make them do scut work- like mounting and cutting presentations. It’s all real projects – although they get more of the pro bono work than most.
The article in the NYT talks about legal rights-
My answer is- when the NCAA starts paying athletes- we can talk about my interns not getting paid. I’m not making $5 mill a year like a Div 1 coach- and using slaves to win my games- nope- I’m spending time teaching what they fail to teach at all these portfolio schools:
mostly that budgets and deadlines are real- and here is how to work within them.
(and I’m driving sales of your book).
You’re right, Luke. A cheap bastard is a cheap bastard– interns should be paid, and even better than Taco Bell money. How about Chili’s money? And if their work gets produced, Ruth’s Chris money.
I agree that you make a considerable investment to provide “interns” with the tools to learn/work. Realize this is a one time investment that pays off as you recruit each new successful intern. How many semesters/students do you use these materials before having to replace them. That is the true financial investment you are making per intern, not $2500.
You must also realize that interns are investing in you. Finally, I ask you to consider that in the current economy most students are working to pay their own bills. In my last semester of school, Fall 2009, I held TWO internships, took 5 courses and participated in a student run PR firm and pre-professional organization. I couldn’t even apply for unpaid internships because I had to pay my rent, even with loans. You severely limit your recruitment pool and may be getting the lesser quality interns by not compensating them.
As I said before, I understand business and the investment training an intern requires, but training a new employee requires investment too, and they ARE compensated.
Even if you can only offer a $500 stipend for a semester or pay-per-project completed, showing that your intern’s work and time have value will bring you a better overall return internally, with an opportunity to recruit and hire great talent as your firm grows.
Note on NCAA athletes, they are also compensated. Many of them receive scholarships which enable them to attend great schools for next to no cost.
I read this and can agree completely with what you’re saying. But coming from someone who’s jumping through hoops currently to get these internships, I can say that when you get to a certain point even the unpaid ones are worth fighting for and do provide value in the long run (although enough money for Taco Bell thrown in would be nice).
In this industry, you can’t get anywhere without experience (I’ve learned this through my own unsuccessful internship search this summer). So while getting paid would be absolutely the most ideal situation, there comes a point when just the mere fact that you’ve have experience working at an agency becomes worth that summer spent living on Ramen and working 24/7. Because it’ll get your foot in the door, get you connections, and allow you to walk away with experience that will give you the advantage over other potential job applicants.
In response to Vic’s comment, above: “the worst thing is that most of adlands new blood just nods and accepts whatever leftovers it gets thrown on the ground.” – It’s because we’ve been taught from the very beginning that competition is so fierce. Of course we’re going to take whatever’s thrown our way, because we’re also told from the very beginning that we need experience in order to succeed.
Agencies are getting away with not paying anything because there are so many other students like myself with the mindset that we have to have experience to get a job, so of course we’re all willing to work for free, because hopefully it’ll pay off in the end. And while I’d be great if more people thought like this article, coming from a business point of view I can completely understand why there are agencies willing to exploit all of us naive and eager students who really just want to succeed and stop living in our parents basement eventually.
Since when do you need a computer to come up with ideas?
@vik- I’d be hard pressed to find a person in Advertising these days that doesn’t have a computer at their desk.
Don’t know about how they do it in the EU- but here- we use them.
I was working at a digital agency for two weeks and didn’t have a computer. All I had was pen and paper. I came up with ideas and they got made.
So why do I need a computer to come up with ideas?
THANK YOU. It’s easy to point fingers at the big agencies but I’m sorry, I do not think that that small shops should get a pass on this.
David talks about how CS5 costs $2500 … so that means you expect your interns should already know how to use this complicated suite of software? And you buy this software brand new every time you get a new intern, and after they move on, you don’t retain the license that entitles your company to continue using it and you don’t get deep price breaks on upgrades? Citing a basic operating cost that has nothing to do with interns seems petty and small-minded, especially since CS# is a cost that your interns already had to bear just for the privilege of a callback from you.
I think the point of this post is that unpaid internships are offensive because creative interns bring something to an agency that is infinitely more valuable than “real world experience” — their ideas. Most of us have already paid a pretty hefty price of entry just to build a portfolio that proves we can come up with good ideas, only to face for-profit companies that want to begrudge us a short learning curve. The learning curve is a good reason to pay us less, expect us to work longer hours, or to offer paid internships or freelance as a trial before hiring. It certainly shouldn’t entitle agencies to use us for slave labor.
FWIW, the ad school I went to does not endorse unpaid internships.
I’m an ad student in Texas, and although if my computer went missing, I would probably just go ahead and off myself, many of my professors discouraged us from using computers until we actually, physically produced ads.
Also, I’m an account service intern at a medium to large agency (I’m not completely sure what its total yearly billings are) and there have been many days that I didn’t even touch my computer.
As an intern, beyond the pens and paper the company provided me and the card to get into the building, my agency did not spend any money on me. The computer I use is a leftover from when agencies could actually hire people, and it has Microsoft Office ’98. That’s about it.
I really think the key to a successful internship, for both the agency and the student, lies with the intern. If the student does not have the smarts and get-it-done-no-matter-what attitude that are needed in this business, I don’t think there’s an internship out there that’s going to make them good at this type of work.
I’ve paid most of my interns way more than $500 a semester-
And- as to the “investment” I’ve made in them- most have left town once they graduate- showing work that I helped them produce- to make salaries higher than I can pay.
So- I think their time was well spent.
I’m a little tired of running a training school- to cover what they don’t teach you at a portfolio school- or even a 4 year bachelors program.
I’d be Luke’s intern for free for 3 months in a heartbeat- because when I’m done- I’d have seen how a master works.
My first job in advertising was as a bag man- making $5 an hour for a guy who bought a new Mercedes every 2 years.
It’s called paying your dues.
Wow. This is clearly a hot topic. Hotter than I imagined. In spite of some of the smart rebuttals put up here today, I net out where I was. Work is work. Ain’t no two ways around that. Work is work and it should be paid. thanks everyone.
@Lindsey – I agree you need to have work to get work. This industry is terribly competitive. A great way to build your resume and distinguish yourself and your passion is to gain experience in campus organizations and with local non-profits who will happily allow you to volunteer and give you quite of free reign in creativity.
@David – My intention in responding was not to offend you and it seems I may have, so I apologize. I agree that learning from a master is important, however, there is a difference between a mentorship and an internship.
Overall, I think the value in any business relationship is the RELATIONSHIP first and foremost. The purpose of an internship is to make the connections from the classroom to the work place, not just with regard to deadline, but in consideration for agency objectives, client goals and understanding the processes by which all parties must work to achieve related goals. My best internships were the ones where I was allowed to try and fail, given feedback and allowed to correct my mistakes and understand why my work could be better. If the intern isn’t receptive or the supervisor doesn’t value the learning process of the intern no amount of money, software or time will make it of value for either party.
@Luke – It is nice to see the different sides of this hot-button topic. Especially, with the law cracking down on unpaid internships. I actually went to UT, and I know that Austin’s communications market is saturated with students who NEED internships to graduate and have a great deal of passion, so I understand the compelling argument for accepting unpaid internships. I had the pleasure of meeting with Eric Buchanan shortly before I graduated and believe GSD&M is reputable on more levels than just their creative output so I think you for your post.
Basic economics: The space in my office, the computer and software I provide, and my time and guidance all are opportunity costs.
Your opportunity to learn- and become competitively productive- comes at the cost of me NOT putting someone in that chair that can make me more money than I pay them.
That’s the most fundamental equation in employment: your job is to make me (or the client) more money than they pay you.
It’s printed on my business cards. “Our job is to make you more money than you pay us.”
Interns COST this company money. Why do I still take you in? Because I spent 11 months cold-calling agencies trying to get my foot in the door. People in our business were rude as hell- blew a ton of smoke up my arse- and generally wasted my time.
I give students the choice when I review books: Honest or nice. Most ask for honest- and then are amazed that no one had told them anything like that before (including their teachers). This may just be a mid-west thing.
Reality is- a lot less than half of you are going to end up in this business- and less than 1% of what most of us produce is really good (with the exception of Luke- who produces 100% goodness).
Most people in advertising have an opinion of overstated worth to the business equation- few hit genuine, out of the park, grand slam home runs with the solutions they bring to their clients- and none do it without a good partnership.
I’d still take three months shadowing Luke over 2 years at a portfolio school- and would feel all the richer for it.
David: You are WAY too nice about me. Do I need to send you some of my mediocre work, stuff that was just so – so? I’ve got a bunch, more than I’d like to admit.
I did an unpaid internship, sold two TV spots to the agency’s largest client, one radio spot to another client, and an integrated campaign to yet another client. I also participated in a new business pitch in which the agency won the account (we all know how much time pitches take).
I received no money, and even though I learned so so so so much and had awesome things for my book, it still felt like I was being taken advantage of. The reason is simple: I was doing things that people that work there were doing for money. Except I also had school to put up with, and a part-time job to pay the bills.
Yes it’s competitive in advertising, that is why we need someone to make agencies pay their interns. If your company is small and cannot afford interns, then don’t use them. If you expect interns to do real work (not just educational work), then you should expect to pay them.
David, I understand your predicament, but if your are using unpaid interns to do work for you that somehow benefit your company in any way, then you are breaking the law. And the law, as we all know, is the law.
I forgot to mention David, if you get authentically good interns, they will probably earn their pay, and make you even more money than you pay them. IF you get good interns…
Hey Luke- so does that mean you’ll send all the stuff with either lions or eagles in it?
We all have our bad days- but-then again, any bad day in advertising beats a good day in Wall Street Banking…. (as long as you leave the paycheck out of it).
I’ve met a few of your protege’s Luke, I like their work too.
You must have something going right as a copywriting Sensei.
@Rod- Actually- we do pay interns- by project, not an hourly.
Sort of like contract labor.
However, there are some things the Federal Government should stay out of- like this.
Again- if they start making sure college athletes get paid- then we can have the conversation about advertising interns.
Frankly- it’s disgusting how expensive education has become in this country- but, that’s another matter.
Ad interns are not athletes. Athletes get food, housing and college paid for. That’s over a $100,000 value over their college career. They also get tutors paid for by the school to help them manage their time and study adequately. Ad interns do not get agencies to pay for their studies, they don’t get tutors to help them manage their studies. Agencies don’t pay for housing either, and rarely pay for food. Seems to me like athletes have a pretty good deal going on, and it sure seems like they’re not playing for free. To me, comparing athletes to ad students is inane (yes, inane, not insane, although insane works too).
A better comparison would be modeling agencies. Decent modeling agencies pay for headshots, while sleazy modeling agencies don’t pay for any of that and take advantage of a poor hopeful soul. In the end, it’s a waste of time and money.
I’m not saying the Federal Government should do something about it, but someone mentioned how certain ad schools do not give credits for unpaid internships. That’s a first step.
Another solution is having advertising federations rate or certify agencies, sort of like Yelp. This can not only help bring some dignity to ad internships, but also help agencies improve their internship programs at the risk of losing talented interns to better-rated agencies.
The sad reality is that students will never put their foot down. So someone has to do it for them. As long as there’s students desperate to get their foot into the ad world, there will be agencies that take advantage of them, offering nothing but smoke and mirrors.
I’m satisfied as long as I’m constant learning something and I’m able to fire off a million and one questions. The way I see it I’m getting paid in knowledge and experience. I do this by being proactive (I hate using that word) and not sitting on my arse. As soon as I stop being able to do any of that, dios farkers!!
As a smart intern with great ideas, who is NOT getting paid…
I’d like to say – I totally agree with you Luke, INTERNS SHOULD BE PAID. The buskers on my way to work are richer than me.
I am interning for free. I am 21, just graduated. I worked 9am – 6pm or later 5 days per week, for the first 3 months.
1. My ideas have been used in many a pitch, have been put before our clients, and one has been used by the client.
2. There has been no mention of a chance of a job for me there.
3. I have no mentors, I am not being taught – I am simply ‘winging it’ and learning as I go along, writing longgg lists of my ideas and emailing them to my seniors, writing TVC scripts, coming up with ideas for print ads, writing copy, the works! And 99% of the time, with NO feedback
4. I am receiving no remuneration of any form, not even food. I pay for all my transport and meals, It’s expensive – I am essentially paying THEM. And I have not been sincerely thanked for my contributions.
5. I’ve dropped down to one day a week as I am studying in a prestigious portfolio school.
On principle I am considering leaving the unpaid internship, because struggling for so long financially, and without any praise, has made me resentful and has created a feeling of bad will for me regarding the agency. The incentive motivating me to get up at 6am, to work hard to a deadline – is my passion alone.
In this portfolio school I am going well and learning from a variety of top creatives. I am hoping to intern somewhere else where I will, at the very least, feel valued, get a sincere thank you for my contributions, some wisdom/training or some feedback on the work I am producing for free… And if I’m lucky, maybe $10 for some lunch.
Girl, you gotta get out there. No money? No training? And they’re using your work? Run.
Interns should definitely be paid.
However, if you’re an aspiring ad geek, I say take the unpaid internship if that’s all you can weasel your way into. If you play it right, it can be the start of your career. And if client ends up buying your work, stand up for yourself and demand to be paid.
Hey Luke! I know this is an old blog post, but the other night at the University of Missouri our journalism school graduation speaker, Bill Giest, made a joke about unpaid internships that essentially compared them to slavery. It caused quite an interesting discussion amongst the Mizzou community, considering how opinionated us journalism students can be, and reminded me of this blog.
Here’s the links to two of the blogs created- I just thought you may find them interesting to see how students reacted to the comparison- which are more about the potential racism of the statement, but interesting nonetheless.
Wow. Using the word “slavery” is fraught with danger. I also avoid using any comparisons to the Holocaust for the same reason.
Agencies should also take into consideration the fact that most schools require students to pay for their internship as if they where taking a regular class. When you are a student anything can help. They can help with rent, cell phone bill or health insurance
liked this blog!
I lost my job to an unpaid intern. I have two degrees from Virginia Tech, where I worked 3 jobs to pay for college so I couldn’t afford to be an unpaid intern, and the end result is me being told that others shall have my job because they can work for free.
I was a paralegal, not what I studied for, but I figured low enough on the totem pole where I can use my great work ethic and work my way up… end result, 3 unpaid law interns take my job, and when I report them to the Dept of Wage Law Compliance… I was told that as a third party I can’t report the crime, only the employer or employee can! Why would someone who can afford to work for free turn in the fact that they took my job!
Couldn’t agree with you more…
I am interested in the Events Planner Internship poiiostn but my question I guess is- if I was an intern does that mean I couldnt be an a vendor at a craft event? I am looking at all my options in this place where I am at on my journey in life.Please let me know also do I need to send a resume?ThanksSara Riddle
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