Zulu Alpha Kilo has long been an astute critic of questionable industry practices, and now it’s shining a light on a new target—unpaid internships.
The agency has teamed up with the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) on a six-part video series that humorously imagines scenarios where an intern tries to buy things in the real world by trading non-monetary items she’s “earned” at her agency job.
It doesn’t go well.
“Many industries, not just advertising, have normalized unpaid internships and it’s not good for employers or future employees,” says Tim Gordon, chief creative officer and Partner of Zulu Alpha Kilo New York, which working with the agency’s Toronto office on the campaign for the U.S. market. “We hope this helps spread the word that if you are running a business or in a hiring position, you should advocate for and help ensure all internship positions are paid.”
The video series is the result of a process that actually began pre-pandemic, in December 2019, when Zulu Alpha Kilo welcomed a class of paid interns from Humber College. The students were given a brief to create a campaign encouraging businesses to pay student interns—which eventually led to this work.
Zak Mroueh, Zulu Alpha Kilo’s founder, reviewed the concepts. “They came up with dozens of ideas, but one idea from Brooke Charlinski and Joel Gerrity was a clear winner,” said Mroueh. He ended up directing all six videos through the agency’s in-house production arm, Zulubot.
Earlier this year, NACE released a position statement calling for all internships to be paid—after reviewing data from NACE’s own research.
“We’ve found that paid internships provide college students with an important avenue to their first job,” said Shawn VanDerziel, NACE executive director. “In our most recent study, we found that paid interns averaged 1.4 job offers while unpaid interns averaged less than one. We’ve also found that paid interns get higher starting salaries than unpaid interns in their initial jobs.”
NACE’s current research shows that some 41% of internships are unpaid. “Students who engage in unpaid internships must forgo an income—that’s a hardship for many students,” said VanDerziel. “All work deserves to be paid.”
Zulu Alpha Kilo has championed paid work for years, even introducing an “Employeeship” program in 2017 that allows graduates to forgo an internship altogether—and instead participate in a paid full-day creative bootcamp, with the top performers are hired immediately.
One of the Humber College students who arrived at Zulu Alpha Kilo in 2019, Laura Biggar, later joined the agency full time as a copywriter—and brought this final campaign to life. “I can’t believe this idea started as a scribble on a page nearly four years ago,” she said. “It’s been so rewarding to see it finally executed and shared with the world.”
There is more info on the subject at NACE’s website. Zulu Alpha Kilo is also organizing a contest of sorts, where anyone who’s ever been an unpaid intern will have a chance to win the objects featured in the videos—such as the half-eaten bagel to the reference letter. A QR code will convert the items into $250 cash.
“It’s the beginning of a new school year when companies and students are in the early stages of planning for internships in the months ahead—it’s time we retire the idea of unpaid internships once and for all,” added Mroueh.
The project is somewhat reminiscent of another Zulu Alpha Kilo project from years ago—“Say No to Spec,” a 2015 video that showed how the ad industry’s practice of doing spec work for free wouldn’t fly in any other business.