Is it Right to Make Agency Employees Work for Free?

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A co-worker and I were sitting on a plane the other day waiting to fly home. We happened to be on the exit row so it wasn't long before a flight attendant was standing next to us to ask if we were willing and able to help others off the plane should we survive a headlong dash into the ground at 800 miles per hour.

My co-worker, an always-cheerful young man, had pulled the exit information card from the seat pocket in front of him and eagerly awaited the flight attendant's instruction. The flight attendant suddenly began to scold this young man to shame. He looked like he'd been caught looking at girlie magazines by his mother.

After she left I asked my now shrunken co-worker what he had done to obtain such a tongue-lashing. “I smiled.” He answered. I howled, for this guy can't help but smile. He was probably born with a smile on his face.

This little episode reminds me of something that's going on in our business. We've been through the gauntlet and agencies have become a little too callused for their own good. What we must never forget is that young people never change. They come in with idealism and dreams. They are what keep our creativity fresh, so it is very important that we nurture them.

That's why I love life in a small agency. Like a kid, we are still dreaming. We still believe. The same young man who was assailed by the flight attendant has told me about his beleaguered friends working at large, “name” agencies. They're miserable, disenchanted and disappointed. Their ideas are being apprehended by those more powerful. They are being crushed under layers of agency hierarchy. They work for clients constructed from the same mold as their agency. And they didn't see it coming. No one warned them. I am on the advisory board of one of the ad schools. We have an annual meeting and one topic that constantly comes up is how agencies are expecting people to work for free. Graduates from the ad schools are told to get into the agency they basically have to become a slave. They don't even deserve minimum wage. This is unconsciounable. Have we agency owners lost our souls? How did this happen. I think I know. Things got tough for us, so we got tough on everyone else. Even our own young.

I once did a project for one of the world's leading brands that took over nine months, burning over 1500 hours of planning and creative time to produce one ad with a production budget of under $15,000. It goes without saying how good that ad was.

About halfway through the project I was on the phone with my client discussing the latest round of concepts we needed to redo to address yet another layer of her organization's concerns. She apologized for the circular way the project was going. After 1,000 hours of working together we'd become pretty comfortable with one another. I told her not to worry about how the job was going. “You're hamstrung,” I told her. “All of the people that have to see this before it actually is seen by the decision maker are hamstrung. None of you have the authority to say yes, you can only say no. How worthwhile would any of you feel if you never said anything? You say the only thing you can say.” “You're right,” my client answered. “I can't say yes.” She didn't sound angry that I had made this observation, she sounded resigned to it. She accepted it.

Why would anyone want to work like that? This woman was brilliant. She had a MBA. Everyone that worked with her had an MBA and yet they were relegated to being paper shufflers. What a waste.

I recently was talking with a senior level copywriter who was considering joining us. He asked why I was at this little agency in this out-of-the-way place. “Dinosaurs are buried under tons of layers.” I explained, “I don't want to be a dinosaur. I will not be a dinosaur. Layers kill good work. I don't want my good work to become extinct.” The guy didn't join us, he said that the large agency he was with was bad, but everyone knew their name and that would get him more money down the line.

From him I found yet another reason why I love small versus big. Money doesn't beat having good work in my book. I would just buy a bigger house, more expensive clothes and a car that people will despise me for driving. Who needs it?

Small removes most of the obstacles that “big” hoists upon a precious concept's young shoulders. Sure the budgets are small in small agencies, but big ideas don't need big budgets. They just need protection from the layers. That's why small agencies are the lifeblood of creativity in this industry. No great agency became great after they became big. So to all those out there who yearn to be free, remember: Small is freedom. Be brave enough to be free.
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