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 or 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.
That's my intern, "Higgs", second from left.