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January 17, 2011
The End of Bad Contracts (or, Money Tips for Creatives)
Like pro athletes, advertising creatives are notoriously bad when it comes to figuring out money, especially when it pertains to their employment contracts. Unlike pro athletes, however, we don’t have agents and managers to help us. Honestly, most creative people never even took a math course in college—if they went to college. Or, like me, they took “dummy math” with the athletes!
In addition, I doubt many so-called ad schools cover the nuts and bolts of employment agreements in their curriculum. Maybe they should. With most ad jobs existing in holding companies, these things can get pretty complicated. (They have to in order to be lucrative.) Unfortunately, the typical ad practice isn’t going to provide enlightenment. Why should they? It might cost them money. Frankly, nothing pleases agency bean counters more than an incoming creative who states: “I just want to do good work.”
Given the economy and tough times in Adland, I’m assuming the average creative hire is, indeed, just happy to be there. Don’t get me wrong: gratitude is a desirable virtue, but not when it impedes your ability to garner the best contract possible. With that in mind, here are a few tips.
The first thing one needs to be aware of is that salary is just one aspect of your potential contract. Granted, it’s an important aspect, but it ain’t what made the fat cats fat. True wealth comes from equity. And while most companies aren’t offering stock or options (particularly to newbies), that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Ask. Then ask again. If you’re a hot commodity or have other offers you just might score. If you’ve been at a firm some time and are successful, then continue to pursue equity. Ask, “What will it take for me to get equity?” Fact: Stock beats a raise in almost every equation. It’s amazing how many creative people (even the great ones) never think about this stuff until late in their careers, if ever. Equally amazing is the star creative who only focuses on salary. It’s a ghetto move. There’s a reason companies are reluctant to give out stock. Cash is far cheaper.
Somewhat easier to negotiate are incentives or bonus agreements. Here you’re asking the company to pay only if you achieve certain targets. Said another way, you’re betting on yourself. For example, you could base incentives on awards won or new business obtained. Frame it as a win/win, which it is.
Easiest of all to procure are various perks, like parking, transportation allowances, education stipends, extra vacation days, etc. If you phrase your interrogative properly, a prospective employer shouldn’t blanch. Things like Second City (presentation skills) and Hyper Island (digital training) are invaluable and worth every penny. Ask your company to pay those pennies.
Yes, most kids starting out (especially now) are, indeed, just happy to be there. But if you’ve been “there” several years and are successful, maybe it’s time to ask what’s behind door number two.
Part of the dilemma is that, deep down, we creatives consider contracts and money a “hassle.” Worrying about that stuff gets in the way of “doing good work.” We think, “Just pay me a good wage and get out of my way.” With this attitude, we are screwing ourselves. And what’s more, most of us don’t even know what we’re missing!
But there is help for us, even we often avoid it. Leery creatives tend to view lawyers and headhunters with trepidation, thinking them an unnecessary expense, or worse, sharks. That is not a prudent valuation of their worth. A good go-between allows you, the prospective employee, to remain clear of potentially difficult conversations that need to take place in order for you to get the best possible deal. For mid-level or senior creatives, such advocacy can be a huge advantage. Actually, it helps both parties. You get an aggressive negotiator. They get a learned one. It’s fallacy to perceive them as costly distraction when they are often the opposite. In a perfect world the company comes at you with all the goodies, but this is an imperfect world, especially in Adland, especially now.
Finally, don’t forget about severance. In our ignorance (or is it arrogance?), creatives like to think they are incapable of failure. “Just give me the damn brief!” But bad things happen to good people. More likely the agency simply changes from the one that hired you. Your boss quits or gets axed; where does that leave you? If it happens higher up it might be a “change of control.” In either event protective measures may exist for you.
Reality check: I know many jobs posted on Linkedin are “as is.” But if you’re talking to a company about a leadership position in their creative department, it probably wasn’t from a job posting.
This proves to be a good segue for the obvious: To receive attention, we must be deserving of it. You need to be good and able to prove it. If there isn’t evidence on the table, or enough of it, then you’ll need to demonstrate your potential upside to the company. How one does this is topic for another post. Suffice to say, none of the information above is relevant for amateurs, journeymen, or sons-of-bitches. Well, maybe the last group gets lucky once in a while.

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Chairman of Euro RSCG Worldwide Chicago, Steffan Postaer is responsible for its overall creative leadership and quality of the creative product. He’s received several prestigious awards, including a Kelly Award, Best of Show, Gold and Silver awards at the One Show, the Addys and a Cannes Gold Lion. Steffan has a novel about god and advertising and posts regularly on his blog, Gods of Advertising. Follow him on Twitter.

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