Unpaid internships or working for free has sadly become a rite of passage for those wishing to break into advertising. A trend that is widespread in other sought after sectors - such as the arts, fashion and politics, - creative, design and media agencies are hopping on the bandwagon of choosing to attract new starters by providing them with experience in exchange for free labour.
This is a subject I feel close to as I also was an unpaid intern. Having worked in sales for over two years, I decided on a career change and went back to do a Masters in Advertising at TU Dublin. Before being offered my first role in an agency, I was asked to work for free for three months. Although I was disheartened by the prospect of not being paid, I accepted the opportunity in an effort to get my foot in the door of an industry I had always longed to work for.
I gained really useful experience during my internship. I was on the biggest account in the agency and got the opportunity to work and learn from very smart clients and colleagues. For my internship, I was required to work from Monday to Friday for no more than €50 a week to cover my travel and basic expenses - an offer that only a highly privileged section of society would be able to accept. The fact that I am from a middle class background places me into this bracket. My parents’ home is located in Dublin and thankfully they were able to let me live there rent free for the duration of my internship. They also gave me a loan to help keep me going because let’s face it, €50 a week in Dublin won’t get you very far.
However I recognise that all of these privileges are not universally available. This is because people from lower socio-economic backgrounds or who don’t have family living in the city are unable to enter into the creative sector on an unpaid internship, reinforcing class divisions and acting as a barrier to diversity. We already know that income and class background can adversely affect a young person’s chances in life before they’ve even got started. Unpaid internships only serve to widen the gap.
As a result the creative industry has an overly homogenised workforce, mainly consisting of middle class employees who can afford to work for free. This choice that agencies are making for short-term profit is something I am yet to fully comprehend. This is because working with people from different backgrounds brings new opinions and perspectives into the mix, enhancing creative output. Not to mention countless studies that have been conducted on how diversity improves a company's bottom line in the long run. Both of which I thought were some of the main goals of agencies in the first place?
It’s also important to consider that the audiences we are targeting with our ads represent society as a whole. They vary in terms of race, culture, ethnicity, religious beliefs, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, abilities, political views, and in a plethora of other ways. As advertisers it's our job to ensure that the ads we create resonate with them, an outcome that is undoubtedly harder to achieve when the individuals making the ads only represent a tiny segment of the people they are advertising to.
Looking at Ireland as a whole, employment law states that businesses who wish to hire unpaid interns should ensure that their internship is short (1-2 weeks), educational and should be of benefit to the intern. Yet in 2017, a study carried out amongst agency interns in Ireland found that over half of them are unpaid despite doing the same job as a paid employee. An issue that is undoubtedly still rife in the sector.
Industry representative bodies like IAPI, expect agencies to pay interns the legal minimum wage. However as a governing body they aren’t in a position to dictate this to their member agencies. Keith O’Connor, Talent Marketing Manager at IAPI has said; “Diversity within the sector is an ongoing issue and the barriers to joining the advertising industry are enormous. You need to have financial backing in your family to leave college and then take an unpaid internship, something that not everyone has access to.” In an effort to increase diversity in the industry, IAPI have partnered with organisations such as Open Door to support marginalised groups with industry mentoring, employment and training. They have successfully helped people from disadvantaged backgrounds to enter into the sector but recognise that this isn’t enough to change the industry as a whole. Agencies need to take accountability.
These barriers to entry aren’t exclusive to Ireland. In the UK, The Sutton Trust conducted research outlining that unpaid internships can cost an individual up to £804 a month in Manchester or a massive £926 a month in London. Oliver Sidwell, the co-founder of London based graduate career agency RMP Enterprise concluded that “parents are effectively paying their children to work for organisations, who are saving costs and increasing margins.” Again this puts graduates of lower income families at an automatic disadvantage and has caused major issues for social mobility not only in advertising but also in other sought after industries. In fact, in the recent All In Census conducted by the likes of the IPA & Kantar, it was found that privileged/ professional workers outnumber working class individuals two to one in the advertising industry in the UK. Unfortunately there has been no recent research conducted in Ireland that sheds a light on this, however I’d imagine it would show similar results given the same barriers to entry exist.
In order to safeguard advertising as an industry that fosters inclusion and diversity, agencies need to stop viewing unpaid labour as “the norm” or as “a necessity” for those without experience and instead treat their interns fairly. Otherwise they will continue to self-sabotage by throwing new talent and ideas away without even giving them a chance in the first place.