Short Changed

Quick, name a successful ad agency formed since 1960 (when Bernbach, Ogilvy and Burnett led the creative revolution) that hasn’t had a creative’s name on the door.

Can’t think of any? Neither can I. That’s because the advertising business is about delivering creative to our clients—creative solutions to their business problems, creative solutions to servicing their business and creative solutions to delivering their message.

So why, in a business whose lifeblood is all about creativity, do we continue to discount the pay of the creative person entering the business?

The creatives who are entering the business today are better prepared and better schooled than any generation before them. They understand strategy, and they’re able to solve problems in ways most veterans cannot, because they have grown up with and understand media better.

Yet today’s entry-level creatives continue to be undervalued and do not command the salaries that, say, an MBA is offered.


Until the past decade, agencies had in-house training programs to teach young creatives; they believed the “on-the-job training” was an added value. There was also a risk in hiring and training those employees, so a lower salary was an accepted part of the process. But over the years, due to cost-cutting at agencies, those training programs have disappeared. This has forced aspiring creatives to look elsewhere for their education.

A little over a decade ago, portfolio schools and graduate programs began to do what the agencies used to—teach young people the business and help develop their craft. Creative students absorbed the cost of this education in hopes of getting a better-paying job. But the entry-level creative salary has not kept up with this new paradigm shift in education. In fact, it has remained static for the past eight years, not even keeping pace with inflation.

If that weren’t bad enough, now there’s a new phenomenon: Agencies are asking these graduates who have paid a great price to get their creative education to take “intern” jobs for six months to “see if they work out.” And these “internships” usually call for the graduate to relocate to a new city on their own dollar and to begin practicing their trade without the benefit of any healthcare.

When I was at Ogilvy, I started a program called Young Guns. We hired teams of salaried creatives and gave them a year’s immersion in the shop before assigning them to groups within the agency. This was not done to test them but to allow them time to understand how the agency worked.

But now agencies find it easier to take entry-level creatives “on trial,” committing to them only after they have proven themselves. Now, I understand that this is a safer path than taking a risk on some young talent, but then, to be fair and equitable, shouldn’t everyone entering an agency have to “intern”?

Yet a graduating MBA can command a good $25,000 more in salary without being asked to enter as an “intern.” Just the opposite, some agencies have established programs to help lure MBAs out of Harvard and other business schools in hopes of attracting them into a business they may not have ever considered or studied.

Now, I don’t have an MBA, so I’m sure that I’m missing something, but from what I’ve read and experienced, clients want and are asking for fresh, new, creative thinkers from their agencies.

Maybe that’s because some of the more recent lasting successful agency/client relationships —Jobs & Clow, Knight & Wieden, Kohnstamm & Hayden, Busch & Scarpelli, Martin & Bogusky —have involved “creatives.”

David Ogilvy said it best: “Our business needs massive transfusions of talent. And talent, I believe, is most likely to be found among nonconformists, dissenters and rebels.” Fifty years later, it’s still true.

We applaud clients who take risks. Isn’t it time our business took a risk and hired those rebels, without an internship, and invested in its future?