In the last few weeks I’ve received more than a few emails from students asking if they should take unpaid internships for the summer. It’s a tough question. I’m inclined to suggest they refuse on principle — the practice is certainly unethical and may even be illegal – but if the only other option is to take an unrelated minimum wage position and the internship in question does, in fact, offer useful experience or the possibility of turning into a paying job, then perhaps it makes sense to accept it.
There are internships for credit, but in some cases those are worse. Not only does a student work for free, she has to pay tuition for the privilege of doing so. The real solution is for any company offering internships to pay and then figure out how to recover the costs.
At Mullen, we pay 28 interns every summer. We figure it’s a great way to identify future employees. But equally important we believe that the good will, positive word-of-mouth, and public relations that result from the program make the investment worthwhile even if we don’t hire anyone immediately.
It strikes me that most service companies – especially ad agencies, PR firms, and social media agencies – can even find a way to recover the costs if they need to. Figure that the average blended billing rate for a full time employee falls somewhere between $125 and $200 and hour and the average intern is getting $10 or $15 an hour and it becomes pretty obvious that simply billing an intern’s hours plus a little bit of overhead could be positioned as a bargain to most clients. It’s not that an intern can be expected to make anywhere near the contribution of an experienced employee (thought that’s not out of the question) but certainly there is billable work to which he or she can contribute.
If the average summer intern works 10 40-hour weeks and makes $10.00 an hour, the total compensation comes to a mere $4000. If any company in the creative industry isn’t clever enough to generate $5000 or $6,000 in revenues for each intern it hires, covering the costs by convincing clients that it’s an advantage to them — note that CP&B did something similar a few years ago — then they’re probably not a creative enough company to deserve the interest of interns — paid or unpaid — in the first place.
What are your thoughts. Would you work for free? Would you ask someone to?
The Atlantic: An argument against
The Atlantic: An argument in favor
I suppose one could argue that given the current economy, the diminished value of most homes, miserably low interest rates and an unreliable stock market, the American Dream is on life support at best.
Add to that the high price of college education, the lack of jobs awaiting recent graduates, and the nagging sense that health care will probably eat up all of our retirement savings forcing those same grads to nix any expectation that an inheritance might help them dig out of their debt, and the old version of the dream — home ownership, two cars in the garage, a better economic situation than the previous generation, lives on only in TV shows and movies from the 1950s. And, perhaps, in Silicon Valley.
Then again, that could be too pessimistic a perspective. After all, hope dies last.
Maybe there’s no longer a collective American Dream. But perhaps there are thousands of individual ones to replace it. Maybe they’re simpler. Less materialistic. Perhaps they’re about downsizing, having more control, working for oneself, consuming less, giving more. It would certainly be useful to know.
A planner goes on the road
Which is why I am so excited for (and jealous of ) my friend Heidi Hackemer, planner extraordinaire (until today at Droga5 and previously at BBH NY) who is about to embark on a mostly solo cross country trip in her pick-up truck to find out. She plans on meeting and interviewing folks she’d never run into in a Manhattan restaurant or art gallery in quest of an answer.
She has a route — west from Florida to California then north to Alaska; a plan — she’ll stop in diners at lunch, sit at the counter and open a road atlas, “works every time” she informs me; and a slew of social media connections willing to help from afar with tips and suggestions for where to go and who to seek out.
After that it’s just Heidi, a digital video camera, her iPhone, her charm and her curiosity.
As Heidi says, “I hope to understand this country in ways that living in my NYC bubble makes difficult.”
We should probably all do a little bit of what Heidi’s doing: get out of our bubble; seek reactions from people different from us; observe someone else’s world from her perspective.
Heeding advice from Jerry Della Femina
It was probably 20 plus years ago when Jerry Della Femina, quoted in a WSJ legends ad, warned us about becoming isolated.
“Young creative people start out hungry. They’re off the street; they know how to think, And their work is great. Then they get successful. They make more money, spend time in restaurants they never dreamed of, fly back and forth between New York and Los Angeles. Pretty soon, the real world isn’t people. It’s just a bunch of lights off the right side of the plane. You have to stay in touch if you’re going to write advertising that works.”
He concludes with this suggestion:
“Ride a subway. Stand up on a bus. Buy a hot dog on the corner. Stay in touch.”
Twitter and Facebook and Instagram may all work pretty well, but Heidi’s approach, following in the footsteps of Alexis De Toqueville or Studs Terkel, past chroniclers who made similar journeys, seems a far better way to heed Jerry’s advice.
I’ll be following Heidi’s journey closely. Sadly, it will be via her blog and Twitter feed, rather than from the road. Perhaps you should do the same.
And now, an added bonus for reading this far:
Excerpt from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, written in 1840
In America I saw the freest and most enlightened men placed in the happiest condition that exists in the world; it seemed to me that a sort of cloud habitually covered their features; they appeared to me grave and almost sad even in their pleasures.
The principal reason for this is that the first do not think of the evils they endure, whereas the others dream constantly of the goods they do not have.
It is a strange thing to see with what sort of feverish ardor Americans pursue well-being and how they show themselves constantly tormented by a vague fear of not having chosen the shortest route that can lead to it.
The inhabitant of the United States attaches himself to the goods of this world as if he were assured of not dying, and he rushes so precipitately to grasp those that pass within his reach that one would say he fears at each instant he will cease to live before he has enjoyed them. He grasps them all but without clutching them, and he soon allows them to escape from his hands so as to run after new enjoyments.
Anyone who’s been watching MadMen Season 5 can’t help but notice the deterioration of Don Draper’s creative skills. He hasn’t had a good idea in a year. The brilliance once demonstrated in the Kodak Carousel pitch have blurred into distant memory. And as he sits in his office noting that the agency’s latest reprints (remember reprints, with varnished borders?) all prominently feature the name of the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s newest star, writer Michael Ginsberg, not even a stiff drink can ease his anxiety.
This week Don resorted to the all too common practice of expressing his fear, insecurity and jealousy by trying to compete with his very own staff. Sadly, most all of us who grew up in the ad business have seen this movie. Creative director can’t stand having the spotlight shine on someone else, even when it’s someone he hired and mentored. So he becomes not just the boss, but the rival as well.
First Don pathetically tries to beat the idea with one of his own, a practice that might be among the most demoralizing management tactics ever conceived, not to mention absurdly unfair. How can you be the contestant and the judge and ever expect a fair outcome? And who in his right mind would openly criticize the boss’s idea unless it came with a resignation letter? In this episode, the subordinates agree that the agency will present two ideas and the client will get to pick a winner. Of course when Don conveniently leaves Ginsberg’s work in the cab and presents only his own, there isn’t much of a choice. You can guess the outcome and the effect on morale.
In a business where the best idea – not the person who had it – is supposed to win, competition is essential. It keeps everyone sharp, pushes teams to put in the extra effort, and eventually weeds out the weaker players. But that’s when competition remains among peers and the creative director stays objective.
If you want to learn anything from MadMen this season, focus on Mathew Weiner’s story arcs, character development and attention to detail. All three features can make for great advertising. As for Don, the only lesson he’s sharing with us is how not to be a very good creative director.
Related Links: MadMen through the Boomer Lens
Any day now, Professor Tracy Tuten’s new book, Advertisers at Work should be released. Tracy conducted interviews with a host of professionals in the business, among them Mike Hughes, president of the Martin Agency; Luke Sullivan, chair of the advertising department at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD); Susan Credle, chief creative officer of Leo Burnett; and, surprise, me.
Thought I would post some of my long interview (in which I shared way too much, fortunately none of it damning) here.
To Tracy’s credit, she did ask some good questions and got me to tell some old stories ranging from how I got into the business, the journey from reporter to creative director to innovation chief to teacher, and even what I see in the future for agencies like Mullen.
A few soundbites.
On how Mullen built an agency in the middle of nowhere with a handful of people who had little agency experience.
We successfully created a culture that was inherently entrepreneurial, that embraced change on an ongoing basis, and that was rooted first and foremost in creativity. Those qualities served us well as the world changed around us.
We were big believers in rights and responsibilities, so we actually give people more rights and decision-making authority than they might get at the same age or with the same title in a lot of companies, as long as they were willing to embrace the responsibility that went with it.
As a result we attracted a certain kind of person. We never, ever attracted people who wanted to be tenders or simply maintain the status quo. We tended to do a really good job of attracting people who wanted to take over, who wanted to build things, who wanted to make stuff, who wanted to assume that level of responsibility. That kind of person perpetuates our culture today. I think you could make an argument that the most valuable asset our agency has is this culture.
On the future and change
Many people believe that traditional media will become less important in the future than it’s been in the past. But when you look at the actual numbers in terms of where dollars are spent, there’s a tremendous amount still spent on traditional media, tv especially, and no real sign of it diminishing.
Another question is whether clients in the future be more inclined to want integrated agencies that do everything well? Or will they want best of breed, specialist agencies that do social or digital or something else?
Mullen may be at odds with the majority of people who think the specialists are still the way to go. But we believe that you can’t be best of breed if you’re not completely, totally integrated; you need hyper-bundled services because everything is interdependent. How can you have traditional advertising and not provide social media, digital, platforms, apps, and mobile. They all have to work together seamlessly.
When you ask where Mullen will be in the next four or five years, we’ll still be in advertising. We’ll still be an advertising agency. We will still be rooted in creative ideas. But we will apply those ideas to more new places and platforms — to mobile and social and community. The way in which we [create] will be informed by technologists and developers and programmers, not just writers and art directors.
I am also a big believer that the future creative person will come from areas other than the world of writers, art directors, and the traditional craftspeople who’ve defined our product in the past. Just look at the biggest creative forces of the last three or four years. Who are they? They’re Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey and Steve Jobs. Programmers and nerds have changed media and content more so than communicators.
On rituals that inspire creativity
The only ritual I have is to seek collisions. I recently read — it might have even been a Steve Jobs’s quote –that when you ask creative people how they do what they do, many times they can’t actually explain or give a reason or rationale. He argues that what creative people inherently do is combine things in different ways in order to create small explosions or yield something that is an unexpected result of two things. The create collisions.
Also, if you read Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, you get the same lesson. Johnson demonstrates that cities are more creative than suburbs. [And he explains] why New York is more creative than Paris. It’s because Paris pushes the congestion of the new city out to the ring and they try to preserve the history of the old city, and as a result they have fewer people, less diversity and lack the collision of ideas and thinking that is evident in a city like Shanghai.
You see the same thing in a way in companies like Pixar and IDEO and other creative companies that now work in purposely congested environments. My ritual is to mash up things that don’t belong together, that come from different places. It might be literature and advertising, or physical space and theater, or sources of content from different disciplines, or even just the people that you try to interact with and engage. I prefer to hang out with developers, journalists, even venture capitalists than with traditional advertising people.
On what’s next for me
There are three things that I’m interested in. I would love to do more work with start-ups, something I am getting a taste of with Springpad. I’m still interested in changing this industry or helping it stay caught up and relevant. And I have become really excited about teaching, which has been a result of doing an executive-in-residence at University of Oregon, co-running the BDW workshops, lecturing in a bunch of classes, and teaching a full semester at Boston University. Teaching is something I am really drawn to.
I am flattered that Tracy included me in her new book. You can find the rest of my rambling interview in this PDF. Enjoy.
We all know that the road from the world of print and broadcast to a new place where digital, social and mobile reign, is littered with once prominent agencies and individuals who got left behind. Those of us who are still around have managed, in one way or another, to transform ourselves. We’ve learned new skills. Hired different kinds of talent. Changed how we work. Re-structured our work spaces. And learned to live in beta, knowing that whatever we have working today probably won’t be good enough six months or a year from now.
Inside ad agencies, we continue to see disruption. People, roles and skills change constantly. Planners become digital strategists. PR people master social media. Creative teams scramble to understand APIs and HTML5. And account folks, at the minimum, learn the timing, resources and costs of creating digital content. The changes have spawned an entire re-education industry. The 4As runs transformation sessions. BDW fills up workshops. Hyper Island charges a fortune for its digital therapy. Google and Facebook spend a small fortune educating agencies on how to best use their platforms.
But I’m guessing this is still just the beginning. The emergence of new social networks, platforms for collaboration, and the importance of reaching and acquiring users without relying on paid media and traditional advertising will call for us to learn even more. Throwing up a Facebook page, tweeting about our new product, or targeting influential bloggers won’t be good enough.
If you need evidence, check out the argument put forth in this enlightening post by Andrew Chen, a Silicon Valley blogger, entrepreneur and angel investor.
Chen suggests that the future head of marketing will have to be what’s called a growth hacker. The term is new, but gaining traction in Silicon Valley where most new companies are all about generating users for a digital product or service. His argument is that marketers now need the technical chops to integrate platforms, leverage their existing communities, and invent new ways to generate reach and visibility, using tactics and techniques foreign to most traditional marketers.
The case study he describes shows how Airbnb wrote a script to scrape Craigslist and interact with its forms thus leveraging Craigslist’s huge user base despite the ad platform having no API. (Note this is mostly over my head, so you’re better off getting the explanation from Chen.) After reverse engineering Airbnb’s “Post to Craigslist,” Chen writes:
No traditional marketer would have figured this out
Let’s be honest, a traditional marketer would not even be close to imagining the integration above – there’s too many technical details needed for it to happen. As a result, it could only have come out of the mind of an engineer tasked with the problem of acquiring more users from Craigslist. Who knows how much value Airbnb is getting from this integration, but in my book, it’s damn impressive. It taps into a low-competition, huge-volume marketing channel, and builds a marketing function deeply into the product. Best of all, it’s a win-win for everyone involved – both the people renting out their places by tapping into pre-built demand, and for renters, who see much nicer listings with better photos and descriptions.
While Chen is referring specifically to the need of startups, looking for users on its way to being the next Instagram, one could argue that all brands will be making, and all agencies marketing, digital products — apps, experiences, communities, digital services.
What will this mean for the future account manager? Or strategist? Or creative team? Your guess is as good as mine. But I can virtually guarantee you that one thing is certain. Whatever we’ve managed to learn in the last few years won’t be enough to get us through the next few.
Shout out to my student Maurice Rahmey for turning me onto Andrew Chen’s post.