Pride and privilege. How we're robbing the future of the creative industry.
I was recently asked to introduce a discussion on internships for an event in Melbourne. The question? Is the approach to internships in the creative industry opportunity, or exploitation?
I have a number of issues with the way that we use internships in the creative industry. Hands up, I've never had to do one myself. I've been one of the lucky ones. I've found jobs through people I know, been given opportunities that have paid me fairly, and then taken full advantage of leaps of faith that have come my way.
Since starting Never Not Creative (a community with the goal of addressing the issues facing the creative industry), I have been made fully aware of the exploitation / piss-taking which is the stereotypical treatment of internships in the creative industry.
I've heard stories of internships dragging out (unpaid) for one more month (after 4 months) as the management of an agency still can't decide on offering the intern a position. I've heard of an intern who would only get paid if their ideas were actually 'bought' by a client, and many stories of "We're really busy at the moment, we should get some interns in." And a recent one "we'll need them to work for 1 month free as a trial".
You may have heard something similar. You may have experienced similar. You may have done something similar. Even if you're the third one – keep reading. Unfortunately, the unpaid internship has become so common and accepted that you may have thought everyone is doing it, so there's no harm. This isn't a witch hunt – yet.
Let's have an internship amnesty. A chance to be enlightened and move from the side of the room that's part of the problem, to the side of the room that's part of the solution.
Here are the 4 issues plaguing internships that have contributed to where we are today.
We're an industry that are experts at creating and constructing stories. Stories that inspire and motivate. Stories that persuade and convince. But also sometimes, stories that are ever so clever at stretching the truth to make us and our audience feel better about ourselves.
As students embark on leaving university, or others consider career changes, we've been taught to do "whatever it takes" to get our "foot in the door". I know people who have offered to work for free for 3 months. I know others who have competed vigorously to get that one spot on a top agency's program.
Many people in our industry have completed internships under similar circumstances. Their stories are celebrated. They share with others "on their way up" as the perfect example of how to "make it" and let's face it, who doesn't love an underdog story?
The problem with the underdog story is that it's singular, not plural. These stories are inspiring and push us to achieve more. But for every one success, there are many more that fall by the wayside. Cast aside into a statistic of not quite good enough. While undertaking these internships, the interns will name-drop agencies and creatives with friends. "I've just come from a meeting with –––", "I'm showing my portfolio to –––" It's a bit like those professional footballers who had apprenticeships with Manchester United or Barcelona. They'll tell you about the glory days of playing next to (now) household names, albeit over the lunch break of their recruiting, financial services or marketing job. Nothing wrong with those of course. Except that this wasn't their first choice profession – although they did get paid.
The University of Glasgow conducted a survey with participants in “unpaid work experience” from the UK’s creative industries. They found that the majority of participants believed that in doing unpaid work, they would acquire access to “information channels and the ‘right people’ who would promise them a job”.
Working your butt off next to the best in the business is an opportunity that you can't let go to waste. You're writing your own story. You're in charge of your own destiny. And if you make it, you'll have something you'd be proud to tell your kids and grandkids about.
But as you wear this badge of pride. What's the cost? What did it cost you? What did it cost those who came after you? What does it cost our industry and our reputation?
At what point are we wearing, not a badge of pride, but instead – a badge of lies?
Let's explore that further.
While I'm often amazed at the possessions, labels and apartments of students in Sydney in particular, there are many students out there who don't share the same privileges.
For those who can afford it, there seems to be nothing wrong with chasing the opportunity of a lifetime, while a parent, guardian or government pays the bill. In fact, you were probably told to. I know that years ago, ahead of my recent enlightenment, I would also encourage it. "Get in there, show them what you can do!" would be my advice to anyone who would listen.
Back then, I didn't realise I was talking to those that had, at the expense of those who did not. In fact, those who did not, would rarely cross my path. As a Manager or Director at one of those sought after agency names, the CV's or portfolios of those who couldn't afford it wouldn't come close to settling on my desk.
I recently recorded an interview for the Never Not Creative podcast with Adam Thorn. Adam is a journalist at Mumbrella, and his exposé of internships in the media industry struck a chord with me. Of course I'd heard of the exploitation, but I hadn't fully appreciated the effect that the role of privilege may have on the future of an industry. At least, not from this perspective. Adam has written about the genuine fears he holds about the resulting elitism we're seeing in the industry as the result of unpaid internships.
You have to ask yourself. Will the creative industry suffer a similar fate? I mean, I'm sure we're well aware of what an elitist view of the news can do to our society. Through the privileged blinkered spectacles of the media moguls, we've already witnessed quite shocking perspectives on what's news, what isn't and what is straight-up fiction.
What happens to the creative industry? Is it already happening?
For a profession that prides itself on "human-centred-design", empathy and design thinking, ruling entire groups of people out of "getting a foot in the door" just doesn't seem very us. Does it?
When you look at rising property prices (even Australia's mini course-correction) in major cities and hubs of design across the world, can you imagine living in a city without an income? That's precisely what we're asking of students.
For example, Western Sydney University has put together a rough calculation for students who live in Sydney. The minimum annual living expense? $20,290, but more likely you'll want to budget for $25,000. So, we're looking at $2,000/mth to cover living expenses. If you're in your 20's have you got a lazy $2k in cash under the mattress? Lucky you.
And there it is. It's the lucky ones who get the opportunity. The unlucky ones move away. From our cities, our industry, even maybe our country. What a waste. Especially when they likely fought so hard to make it to University or Design school in the first place.
Which brings us to pay. I'll be honest. I have heard, first-hand, the phrase,
"We're really busy, let's see if we can get some interns in."
The implied assumption behind this phrase is that we need short-term, low cost workers. When you're saying this, your intention isn't to provide a structured program of learning or onboarding into your business. It's to back-fill the number of hours that you've most likely promised to a variety of clients – hours that are charged back to the client at a rate anywhere between $100 and $500 an hour.
Now before you start cursing me... I know this isn't necessarily the practice of the majority. I hope it isn't at least. But there are certainly enough anecdotes out there to confirm that it's much closer to the norm than it should be.
If you've heard this or said this in your business, or you've heard it as an intern, run. a. mile. (Ok it's hard to run away from yourself, but at the very least, take yourself outside, take a deep breath and have a good long look at yourself). The business you're in is going to struggle at best, and at worst, not be around for too long.
Interns are not going to save a business. We can all agree that they don't have the experience or developed skills yet to do that. Free labour isn't going to save a business. If you're so busy and so cash-strapped that you can't afford to pay more staff, then it might be time to re-evaluate. If you're remotely close to this situation, I beg you – stay away from the interns!
I can't say for sure, but I don't think the creative industry has plunged to the depths of say, journalism – yet. The National Union of Journalists (UK) report that more than 80% of new entrants into journalism undertake internships, and around 92% of these are unpaid.
Maybe I'm dramatising the situation, but not paying people who are doing work (or at the very least not paying minimum wage), would be tantamount to public outcry if the industry was say, fashion, and the companies involved were say, Nike and Adidas. In fact, I think many of us would be first in the queue to boycott these brands. Then how come, we're not as outraged by the intern situation?
Is it because we had to do it? Is it because we know these people will probably get paid well enough in the end? Is it because the reward warrants the risk? Or is it just this. Like many things in our industry, it's always been this way.
Are there other ways to reward interns? Yeah sure. Pay for their travel card, give them free lunches, tea and coffee. No.
Covering expenses is not how you pay other employees or services that you purchase. I'm sure even the cleaner will tell you to bugger off if that's your offer. In fact, the cleaner doesn't come round and give you a free clean to get "their foot in the door". So why should someone who's just been educated for a year, or probably 3 to do something that your business specialises in. No offence intended to cleaners here.
Lawyers, management consultants, accountants, all come out of university and in many cases go straight into graduate programs. Just like us, they offer professional services. The difference? At their entry level, foot in the door opportunities are paid. Paid and structured to accelerate the careers of people fresh out of university. Of course, the privilege issue is probably still an issue here. It just started before University and is a slightly different issue. The point is, we're a professional service. We want to create a professional industry. It's in our interests to nurture and educate people who can help grow our businesses and our industry.
So why are we teaching them to give their time and skills away for free?
I also have to come clean. About 5 years ago, we ran a different type of intern program at our agency. We didn't want to run a program that was exploitative. We wanted to give back. We created something called an incubator. The structure was as follows:
12 weeks (2-3 days a week)
A required part of a student's University course
Projects that were for pro bono clients (and one for ourselves)
Direct access to agency founders throughout the incubator and a transparent understanding of how our business worked.
A note. This was at the very beginning of our life as a new agency. 8 students participated in our experiment. We didn't pay ourselves for the first 6 months, while they were with us.
We were proud of the program. It was well structured. The students had access to us (the founders) every day they were in. We believed it was a better experience than they would have received if they'd have gone somewhere else and worked on mood boards and research. On returning to their course, we were told that there was a distinct difference in their demeanour and behaviour. They became natural leaders within their groups.
This was amazing feedback for us. But. We didn't pay them. In fact, afterwards, we found out that they had to pay extra to receive the credit for their course. We'd left them better than we had found them (and better than other intern programs I'd seen). But – had we taught them the most valuable lesson? That they themselves are valuable and that should always be rewarded.
Credit for their course vs being paid a wage? The law says that it may not need to be a paid internship if it's part of their educational course and therefore a vocational placement. Yet it also says that if the intern is doing the job of a person who would normally be paid, then they too should be paid.
We didn't, because we couldn't. Our motives were altruistic. There are elements of the incubator that I'd absolutely do again. But, I also have to say I'd only do it if we could afford to pay them. Either way. I think we have to do the right thing, and pay our interns. Last year in my current business, we did just that.
You've got to take a look at the issue of unpaid internships and ask a serious question about one of the first lessons we teach people about their career in the creative industry.
Age 20. The advice. "Work for free to get your foot in the door".
Age 40. New exciting client comes along. "Work for free to get your foot in the door."
It's insane. I've written about free pitching before. I'm not the only one. But many businesses are still doing it. Many clients are still asking for it. Why? Because we haven't stopped teaching our future selves that it's unacceptable. That our time is worth something. That our ideas (even at the start of our careers) are worth something.
We have to take a look at our education systems and start to teach the value of creativity. There are already some good examples of such teaching out there. Notably, The Foundry in Tasmania and Swinburne University in Melbourne.
Just recently, I've worked with The Foundry to help design students develop a commercial mindset in their work. How to manage projects, how to manage clients, how to make sure they get paid. These skills should (absolutely) be mandatory in preparing people for the commercial realities of the creative industry.
Swinburne University strongly supports paid internships. Indeed, it's refreshing to see an academic institution come out and engage in the debate. Maybe in 20 years time, we'll come back and look at graduates from these 2 institutions and see that the value they derive from their clients is twice that of other graduates. (Google calendar reminder to conduct study in 20 years time).
By teaching people their worth at the beginning of their career, the greater the likelihood they'll be worth more at the end of it. I'm sorry. I wish I had a study backing that last statement up, I don't. Intuitively, it makes sense though right?!
There are already exciting things happening in the space of internships.
Interns Australia are successfully lobbying political parties. In NSW, Australia, they have received a commitment by the NSW Labour Party that if they win the next state election they will abolish unpaid internships.
They've also created a National Fair Internships Pledge for employers to sign up to.
In the UK, Intern Mag, is a fantastic resource with stories, conversations and advice for interns. Their recently launched podcast includes interviews with experts in the space and is a great listen to fast-track your understanding of the principles behind paid work.
At Never Not Creative, we're looking to collaborate with our community (and the above organisations) along with any interested industry bodies to create a standardised internship program.
The goals, structure and development of the program will be open-source. To begin with, anyone can contribute by opening the Google Doc and suggesting your ideas and opinions. You may ask questions, you may write what parts of a program should look like. It's completely up to you.
Over the next few months, we'll run events, and engage in conversation with business owners, students and educators. The goal? How to create a structure and solution that gives our future creatives the best possible start in the industry – and most importantly, not just those who can afford it.
At the end of the collaboration, we'll produce a resource that anyone and everyone can use – free of charge.
Employers can use the document to structure their own program.
Interns can use the document to approach employers with all the hard work done for them.
I know that many of us in this industry are inherently good. It's just that sometimes, this stuff can be too hard.
Perhaps with the right nudge, and most of the work done for us (by us), we can make a successful paid internship the new standard at the beginning of everyone's career.