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March 9, 2005
The Young & The Desperate: Agencies Who Cheap Out and the Creatives Who Let Them

I don’t remember a whole lot about my first job in advertising, just that I spent most my time writing ads for injection molding machines, that my office got really cold in the winter, and that I made $15,000 a year.

It wasn’t a lot of money but it wasn’t bad either. It meant I got to have my own apartment. It meant instead of driving around in my really crappy Volkswagen, I could afford a slightly better crappy Volkswagen.

Most of all, though, it motivated me. That check I got every 2 weeks, miniscule though it might have been, said to me, “Well, would you look at that. You did it, kid. You’re in advertising and somebody must think you’re pretty good at it, too. Because look at this, they’re paying you to do it!”

But if what I’ve been hearing from ad school graduates lately is any indication, we’ve got a problem brewing in this business and we better solve it pretty soon or we’re all going to be the poorer for it. Agencies. Clients. All of us.

Imagine, for a moment, you’re a young person who’s just graduated from one of the prominent ad schools. VCU Adcenter, perhaps. Creative Circus. Miami Ad School. Or 12, the new Wieden + Kennedy school.

You’re smart as a whip. You’ve got talent oozing from your pores. One day, you may very well become worldwide creative director for the likes of BBDO or Y&R or Ogilvy&Mather. At the very least, every indication is that you are on the fast track to a brilliant career.

Then something weird happens.

You get a phone call. It’s from one of the agencies you’ve been talking with. A really hot shop, too. The kind of place you always said you’d kill to work at. It’s all going great. They love your book. They think you’d make a great addition to the team. They’re excited. You’re excited. And then they drop the bomb.

They. Want. You. To. Work. For. Nothing.

At least for a while. So they can see if it’s going to work out. So YOU can see if it’s going to work out. Not long. A month or two. Maybe three. Six on the outside. They’ll see how it goes. But they think you’re going to make a great addition to the team! It’s going to be great!

So what’s going on here? Well, I have a theory. It’s only a theory, but from what I know of the advertising business, I think it’s an accurate one.

To start with, the ad school grads themselves are partly to blame. And to them I would say just this. People, what are you doing to yourselves? I know you just spent a good chunk of your life learning a craft in a profession that at times can seem about as easy to break into as becoming an actor or publishing a novel, but take a deep breath and think about it. This is not the way to launch your career.

You know what it’s like? It’s like alcoholism. When you’re an alcoholic, the last thing you need is someone who makes it easy for you to drink. This is called an enabler. And that’s what you are, if you agree to go to work for somebody for nothing. They’re trying to get away with something and you’re enabling them.

So what about the advertising agencies? What is it about this business that makes some of us think we can get away with this?

To some extent, the Hollywood factor is to blame. For all its faults, advertising is still a pretty glamorous business. All those TV shoots in exotic places. All those award shows. All those offices with pool tables and pachinko machines and funky colors and Aeron chairs and cool audio/visual stuff. Yes, the hours are long and the politics incessant and twisted, but when you’re young, well, who cares?

But there’s another reason.

I once worked with this guy. Had a real problem with compartmentalizing. You know, keeping one problem separated from the next. If, for example, he couldn’t go out after the company softball game for beer and pizza because he was a single dad and he had to pick up his daughter after her cello lesson, this would really upset him. Seriously, it’s all I’d hear about for days. And the unspoken subtext was always the same: “Hey, if I don’t have the freedom to go out for beer and pizza, why should you guys?

Now imagine you’re an ad agency. You keep finding yourself in the same insane nightmare over and over. You know the one. That’s right, the new business pitch. You know it’s sucking you dry. You know every time you play this game, you’re pissing away untold hundreds of thousands of dollars. And yet, you play anyway.

So now here comes this kid all eager and raring to go. She’s good. Got a great portfolio. Seems like she’d walk through the gates of hell to work for you. So what do you do? Be fair with her? But why should you? Hey, you’re giving away the store, she’s only 23, let her give away something too. And so it goes.

But it’s fundamentally wrong.

In the end, the 23-year-old who seemed so hair-on-fire gung ho to kick ass for you is going to wake up to realize that she’s been taken for a ride. And guess what happens next? She’s going to start looking around. Going over the wall. And it won’t matter how much you offer her at that point because it will be too late.

Loyalty does have a price.

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Ernie Schenck is one of the world’s top freelance copywriters, and he’s won practically every creative award you can think of. Before becoming a creative army of one, Ernie was Creative Director at Leonard Monahan Saabye and a co-founder of Pagano, Schenck and Kay. He also is a regular contributor to Communication Arts magazine.
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