After my recent blog post on the plummeting value of creativity, it was suggested that I take a look at another bastion of undervalued creativity – the intern.
These hapless youngsters usually arrive at agencies across the planet, wearing their dreams, aspirations and ambitions on their sleeves in much the same way as the proverbial small town, 1950’s style, girl next door does when she goes on her first date with the star rugby player at high school. She’s as full of hope as they all are, but we can be pretty sure that the rugby player has only one thing on his mind, and it’s not a white picket fence. The agency owners have more or less the same thing in mind, metaphorically speaking.
Too harsh and cynical? Not harsh or cynical enough as far as I’m concerned. Over the years, I’ve worked at enough companies to know that many see interns as little more than an endless pool of unpaid labour, to be put to work and then worked hard doing anything and everything that’ll help them “gain experience”. If by some odd chance, the intern is a fit for the agency, has some skills, and is willing to work their body and mind into the ground, then they may get to stay on or return later in a full-time role.
Of course the agency is happy regardless, they didn’t pay for the work or to train the new employee, and in the worst-case scenario, they just get a new intern or two next year.
I met a guy on an overseas trip back in 2011 that loved interns. He ran a smallish advertising agency, and when he needed extra hands at the pumps, he’d reach out to the local university to get what he needed, with no intention whatsoever of ever offering anything approximating a full time role. I’d suggest that this isn’t atypical behaviour, which makes me think that an internship can be a harrowing, worthless way for a young person to enter the workplace. Sure it can sometimes work out well for all concerned but obviously I’m not convinced.
Let’s take a closer look at internships in advertising and marketing. Interns often work for less than nothing so they can get “experience" but usually, they learn nothing except how to go buy cigarettes for the creative director, or how to slave late under massive time pressure doing distinctly average work just to get across the finish line for a rushed project.
The real hassle is that interns learn how to undervalue their creative worth by working for nothing. Gee, doesn’t that sound a lot like any ad agency pitching for a new account? I wonder how that bad behaviour became so entrenched?
Back to the value of creativity – if you can get a logo designed for less than the price of a kebab, or retain the services of a (hopefully) creative and enthusiastic intern for free, just what exactly are we saying about the value of creativity?
When did creative ideas become so undervalued across the board, let alone utterly worthless based on age and a lack of experience? Surely there has to be some value attached to the work of an intern, particularly if they’ve got real talent?
Many interns arrive at an ad agency with better eyes and minds than the slobs that have been there for a decade churning out the same dross, so why isn’t their talent and hunger valued more highly? Because age and experience bow to neither man nor beast, at least not in the entrenched hierarchy that is Adland.
Hell, Mozart was composing at five years of age, so let us assume that there are some youngsters who seriously know their stuff. I’m not saying that agencies should hire my nine year old nephew, even though he could probably do better work than some of the stuff that arrives in mailboxes around New Zealand every day, but the question has to be this: How is an industry based entirely on creative output valuing and boosting creativity in the youth?
Are internships in creative agencies just a way of ensuring that the status quo continues? Of course they are! That’s just the way it is. You don’t start an internship at a traditional company like Boeing, with its 165,000 employees and expect to emerge at the end of your three months having transformed the culture, vision, processes and products. What actually happens is that you get twisted and moulded to fit the machine.
The same thing happens at most advertising agencies. Interns are charmed by the big names, the glamorous clients and the spankingly impressive boardroom table. Soon enough they realise that the corner office can only be inhabited by someone just like the person currently in that seat. So they become just like every other cog and gear in that machine.
Many of the interns want exactly what their internship promises – a career being just like everyone else in the agency. They’re told early on that their creativity is only worth what the machine says it is worth i.e. very little. And they learn to just do the kind of work that the machine demands. Hello status quo. Hello same old boring advertising. Hello same old pat each other on the back advertising awards.
The ironic part is that the very people who run the machine are encouraging and driving the devaluation of real creativity. Think about that one for a while.
One can only hope that there are certain interns, who after a period of virtual slavery realise that there has to be more to life, who believe that their creativity and vision are worth more than someone else’s corner office. Let’s hope they stroll out of ye olde school agency with a James Dean-like glint in their eye and a whirlwind of ideas in their mind, looking for ways to disrupt, to change, and to forge their own damn corner offices on their own terms. Lord knows the advertising game needs a few more of them.