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Idealog—in the ideas business

Creative serfs: inside the insidious world of internships

Magazine layout

Illustration by Adrian Clapperton 

Ideas are free—and ideas people can be bloody cheap too. looks behind the corporate façade and meets the creative interns getting by on company handouts and whatever’s left in the fridge.

Ten pm in the pockets of the creative economy. Patterns are being cut, ideas are getting hatched and pizza is being ordered. Nothing new there—if the love of creating like Jehovah doesn’t attract human desk magnets, the love of a good Audi usually will.

Except sometimes those paying the pizza guy are living on tips themselves. The Meatlovers can be claimed on expenses, but the hours worked—often all night—cannot.

This is the placement workforce: the hardest-working bunch of people the government inadvertently sponsors. Schooled in the commercial arts of advertising, design, film—anywhere supply outweighs demand—they are sometimes paid nothing, sometimes flicked a hundy at the end of their 80 hours.

New Zealand is a country where Do for the love of it will always get more airplay than Money, that’s what I want. But even the unassuming want to eat, and the ones getting paid in food vouchers wouldn’t mind flatting with someone other than mum and dad.

People who don’t get jobs are lacking in talent, personality or commitment … they have flawed characters

The problem lies not in the two-week try before you buy, but in the indefinite take before you turf. There’s no government allowance to cover an extended period of gainfully employed unemployment and, because the placement system is largely unregulated, there’s little to stop a trial period turning into an era.

And it does. “I could have been a doctor by now,” laments an advertising unfortunate who’s been on placements for six years. We advise him to give up—no salary is going to pay for that bitterness.

While six years is most likely indicative of a wrong career turn—maybe you should have been a doctor—six-month stints are more easily explained with … what? We tracked down those who know.

The good, the bad and the scarring

“To me it’s an absolutely ethical issue. The design industry should not under any circumstances exploit people.” —Peter Gilderdale, head of design, AUT

It’s hard to get everyone to agree on one thing, but most people Idealog talked to were united on this: internships are a good idea. And this: sometimes.

For film director and AUT Associate Professor Welby Ings, ‘sometimes’ means: “One, the intern is gifted and committed; and two, the organisation sets clear parameters and shows genuine interest in growing [the intern’s] ability.

“What’s not fine,” he continues, “is all of these companies using interns as a source of unpaid labour—when they just wheel them through one after the other.”

To me it’s an absolutely ethical issue. The design industry should not under any circumstances exploit people

Some interns, however, are fine with being on the placement conveyer belt—as long as their heads are a bit fuller on the way out. “I think you’re either not getting paid but you’re learning so much it’s just like studying, or you have a proper job,” says AXIS Adschool graduate Andrea Price.

The proper job. The dangling carrot. Industry educators think it should either be offered or removed from the radar as soon as skills have been noted. A couple of weeks should do it, says AUT head of design Peter Gilderdale. “Two weeks is long enough to find out if someone is right.”

While the advertising tutors think it’s more like three months, everyone preaches the virtues of a predestined judgement day.

“The agency might say ‘Okay we’ll make a decision at the end of the month’,” says AUT head of advertising Paul White. “Then they push it back. Sometimes after three months people get told, ‘Okay your placement starts today’.”

And what does 12 weeks of commercial creativity get invoiced at these days? “Most people start out on zero,” says White. “Then after about three months they get a survival allowance of $150 a week. I don’t know any other industry that asks somebody to work full-time for nothing,”

Mr White, meet the design industry. And then over here we have film and TV …

“In this industry it’s expected you’ll work for free for the first couple of years,” says South Seas film and television graduate Tom Radford, now the unpaid intern coordinator at Alt TV. “You’re told at film school you’ll spend at least a year just building contacts.”

Ketsana Traymany made a few contacts of her own when she graduated from Unitec in 2005 with a Bachelor of Graphic Design. She did the rounds of Auckland design agencies, but found them “already full of free workers”.

“Most of them said I’d have to show I was keen by working for free,” she says. “I wouldn’t, but it’s become accepted now because many people are desperate.”

But how did things get to a point of desperation? These days, if you get a job soon out of an advertising course “the planets have aligned”, says AXIS Adschool director David Bell.

“Employing junior creatives has become exceptionally rare,” he says. “It’s a buyer’s market.”

But buyer’s markets exist only when there is an abundance of produce—and in most other fields the buyers are begging right now. Are our education institutions sending too many creatives to the market?

Alt TV’s Radford thinks so. “South Seas took in 20 students ten years ago and now they take in 120,” he says. “When you come out there’s a glut of graduates. It’s a common complaint. A few of us mentioned it to the head of school last year and to a certain extent he agreed with us. But at the end of a day he’s running a business.”

What unpaid internships are saying is that it’s only after you’ve worked for free that you are worth anything

But South Seas head of school Gerben Cath doesn’t back his alumnus when Idealog contacts him. “We do not have any significant problems regarding graduates doing extended work for nothing,” he says.

Other course leaders insist that if there is a problem it’s with a student’s out-take, rather than a school’s intake. “People who don’t get jobs are lacking in talent, personality or commitment,” says Adschool’s Bell. “They have flawed characters.”

Long-time film producer Dan Salmon puts it more gently: “If you go on working for free for years in film, and nobody’s offered you paid work, you’re probably in the wrong business.”

The way it is

“Working for free has become part of the New Zealand culture in a big way.” —Welby Ings

However it was sparked, the placement system is now firmly plugged into New Zealand’s business grid. And it’s short-circuiting.

“When you have a lot of people working for free it lowers the skill level,” says Radford. “It’s very hard to retain people, so you’re constantly having to retrain people.”

Gilderdale, AUT’s head of design, believes free labour is also lowering the intrinsic value of qualifications. “What unpaid internships are saying is that the three or four years you just spent studying are worth nothing and it’s only after you’ve worked for free that you are worth anything. From an educator’s perspective, that stinks.”

Work & Income staff have been known to kick up a bit of a stink about the placement system too. But what’s someone working a 60-hour week for chocolate-covered peanuts to do? Trade sleep for another job at McDonald’s?

It screws with our salaries … it’s got to the point where you can’t really negotiate because someone else will do it for free

“I was getting a lot of pressure from my case worker ringing me at work all the time,” says one-time advertising intern Mark Irving. “It got to the point where it was like ‘Back off lady, I’m about to break!’”

“We were encouraged by the agency we were working at to go on the dole,” says fellow ad intern Price. “It was hard because WINZ was constantly ringing, trying to get me other work. I tried being honest with them at first, told them what I was doing, but that just meant I wasn’t going to be able to carry on with the internship.”

It seems that would depend on who you are talking to. If, for example, it was Bronwyn Saunders, chief media advisor for WINZ, Price may have been told she could carry on with the internship—but only up to the maximum WINZ work experience period of four weeks. Or one-sixth of what Bell and White say is the average advertising internship.

WINZ has one other major work experience criterion: “The person must not be in paid employment.” That means if your company’s finance department is generous and flicks you $200 at the end of the week—which might add up to around $3 an hour—there’s a good chance of being smacked on the hand for earning too much pocket money. Former intern Cameron Brown is one of the many people Idealog talked to who is still making repayments to WINZ after being “hit up” for earning money through placements. At least Brown did eventually land a job with his employer.

So ongoing WINZ assistance is out. And so are most paid part-time jobs. What then, should an intern do for a crust? “Well, agencies encourage interns to eat all the food in the cupboards,” says White.

And if those cupboards are bare, there’s always mum and dad. “The only way I could do it was to live at home,” says ex-ad intern Adrian Maidment. “It was hard. I mean, I was 30!”

“Starting out I was just young and eager—and living at home,” says actor Leisha Ward-Knox. “Now there are realities, bills that have to be paid. That’s when you lose that romanticism. I really need to get paid now. It’s important.”

There is always this promise of ‘a good networking opportunity’. But there are good networks and there are rubbish ones

It is important—and not just to those doing what Ings terms “sweatshop labour”. Blank invoices are also hurting salaried junior creatives.

Traymany, the Unitec graduate who wouldn’t work for nothing, did a couple of rounds of her industry before she was offered a job by a design agency—which she never heard from again. “I later found out someone had gone in the same week as me and offered to work for free,” she says.

Fellow graphic designer Shaila Awadha agrees unpaid placements are “definitely” harming the market for junior designers. “It screws with our salaries too,” she says. “It’s got to the point where you can’t really negotiate because someone else will do it for free.”

Oh come on—it can’t be that bad. Peter Spencer, who has run an advertising recruitment agency for a decade, is paid to know these things. We’ll ask him. “I can’t remember the last time we placed a junior creative,” he said. Even after he offered to do it for free.

Spencer put his concern about unpaid labour on the record this year at the CAANZ (Communication Agencies Association of New Zealand) AGM, saying: “Unless we can find a better and fairer way of treating graduates, they will steadily become fewer and less talented, as those who value themselves consider alternative careers.”

Great—saying such a thing at such an event sounds like a giant step for creative-kind. But Spencer fears his words went unheard. “My timing wasn’t good,” he admits. “The bar was already open.”

Where to from fear

“Companies should realise that by putting work in front of fresh eyes they could potentially bag that all important new account. That’s worth paying for.” —Rush Fay, junior graphic designer

Clearly Michael Jackson hasn’t looked at the man in the mirror as much as he claims to have done, but maybe we can. Come on, it won’t be as bad as it would be for him.

Earlier this year Bell, White, and Colenso creative director Richard Maddox sent out something for all CAANZ-affiliated ad agencies to reflect on. Their proposed Junior Placement Code of Conduct gently suggested parameters—four weeks minimum and three months maximum—and a hundred bucks or more a week “to avoid any hint of exploitation”.

Was it noticed? “They said ‘Thanks, we got it’,” says White.

Although the Code of Conduct went out on their letterhead, don’t look to CAANZ to regulate the industry it represents. CEO Mark Champion says: “I take the approach that each business will run that business the way they see fit.”

Bell is also hesitant about any sterner form of industry self-regulation. “Regulate? In theory it’s a good idea,” he says. “But the agencies could just say it’s now become too hard to have juniors around at all—so you’re killing the golden goose.

“Fewer people would get jobs. But,” he concedes, “those who got them would be taken more seriously—and be more secure.”

Working for free has become part of the New Zealand culture in a big way

Maybe more can be done if we wind the problem back even further … remember the days in the old school yard? “Schools should do a market survey to see if there are enough jobs out there before they start these courses up,” says a graduate on a six-month unpaid placement. “But they won’t, because they want the money.”

Of course they do. Who doesn’t? But what if students were a bit more selective about where they spent their dollars? A spot of Google-before-you-go-go?

“I think we all need to do a bit more research into schools and companies,” says AUT’s Ings. “Before people agree to go anywhere, they need to check it’s not just a vacuum.”

The thing to remember, he says, is that not all work experience is good. Sometimes it’s just work, and sometimes it’s an unrewarding experience. “There is always this promise of ‘a good networking opportunity’. But there are good networks and there are rubbish ones.”

“Graduates should be trying out agencies too,” says Bell. “You don’t marry the first person you sleep with—sleep around.”

But if you’re going to go a-brain-whoring, try to do it with a bit of self-respect. Magazine designer Meng Coach is a big believer in teaching design students the value of their skills. “A lesson my tutor taught me was that if you do work for free or at a discounted rate, always provide a full invoice so the company knows what it would have cost if you’d charged them.”

Good advice, but Gilderdale’s is even simpler: don’t do it. “If people refuse to [work for free] en masse it won’t survive. It only happens if they buckle under and agree to what is an untenable thing.”

Gilderdale’s money and mouth are clearly aligned. “I had a company from Tauranga call me up earlier this year wanting someone to work for free for three months,” he says. “I told them where to go.”

These companies [are] using interns as a source of unpaid labour … they just wheel them through one after the other

Hey, good idea. Have you thought of that, interns? Just tell your boss where to go. Say, the Department of Labour—it’ll see him right. “In short,” says the department’s acting Auckland manager, Annie Newman, “when companies in creative industries take on young graduates on a ‘trial’ or ‘temporary’ situation, they are obliged by law to pay them at least the minimum wage [$11.40 an hour].

“People who have worked in creative industries and believe they have not been paid correctly can contact the Department of Labour info line for further advice and guidance on …” Ahem. Thanks Annie, but no one who wants a job is going to do that.

Because people are scared, people are poor—and it’s not that bad anyway. You know … “not compared with England”. We heard various versions of this claim when researching this story, leading us to wonder: when did we become a country that follows other countries—and not even in the right direction? Our history books boast of leading the world in social change: the first to install an eight-hour working day, the first to bring in a social security act and the first where women could vote for more of the same.

And even if you’re not fussed which way your country’s moral compass is pointing, you should be concerned with the direction of your business—if for no other reason than if you don’t, it will cost you in the end. As recruiter Spencer says, unless we pay our potentially lucrative talent, we will lose them. In fact, we already are.

“The best writer of the whole year in 2005 got to the end of the year and said ‘Fuck this I’m not going to work for free’,” says White. “She never worked in the industry.”

Need one last reason to whip out the chequebook? Studies have shown brains are a lot more productive on salmon than pizza.

Should I stay or should I go?

GO if your bank manager insists you change your graduate account because you’re no more a graduate than him—and you still haven’t got your first job.

“People should move on after three months,” says AXIS Adschool director David Bell. “Maybe they’re thinking Well, a bird in the hand … but it’s usually a dead bird.”

GO if you were promised you’d be working with some big names and the closest thing to it turns out to be a new production assistant called Wolfeschlegelsteinhausen-bergerdorff.

“People will throw impressive names around and seduce graduates into projects that sound a lot greater than they are,” says AUT film professor Welby Ings. “In film, people are doing pitches all the time. They know how to talk something up.”

STAY if you’re doing work for big clients—when you’re making money for your company, you’re buying yourself a job. But be patient, it might take a while for the sale to go through.

“One of my graduates worked at an agency doing work for major clients,” says AUT head of advertising Paul White. “He got a job, but it took 18 months of working for $100 a week.”

STAY if you’ve been given a firm date to work to. “Come and do the job for three months is fair,” says White. “Uncertainty is not.”

Originally published in Idealog #12, page 52

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Perhaps there could be a solution in asking client companies to demand more transparency from their agency about how much unpaid labour it uses. After all they are the ones who get lumped with billable hours that probably include the hours the agency gets for free. In a sense it’s like we expect big brands to make sure their products don’t come from sweatshops. Except in this case they have a financial incentive too.

Great idea mate—would be very surprised if agencies owned up to having unpaid workers working on campaigns for big clients though. Still, it would be a good start for clients to demand the transparency you speak of

Most creative companies wouldn't have a problem paying people who add value. The question becomes how much responsibility an employer should take for getting people to that point.

The University of Burgundy (France) Technical Institute requires their students to complete a 3-month internship as part of the course requirements for their Diploma in Communications. The students continue receiving their study allowance while serving the internship, and I sign a contract to say I agree to their vision for the programme. My feedback goes towards their course assessment.

Perhaps it would make qualifications more valuable, not less by including a more substantial component of work experience.

Hi all from
It's about time this topic was lauded, these unpaid idealist are not just the up and coming internes new to the creative world I myself have spent the time I need to recuperate from a damaging heals injury researching a combination of transportation communication and electrification to develop an in wheel motor design.
Powered by solar only on board power and solar/wind turbine on and near highway accumulation, respectively to be use for small to medium size goods and passengers and their luggage for global use that will be praised by the now known Kyoto plan.
Having said that I am presently at the stage of constructing a proof of concept unit.
I have researched this unit to off-set global warming from fossil fueled vehicles.
I have based my knowledge from many years of participation in the commercial transportation industry, understanding it's requirements and present pitfalls that can be eliminated using the present century technology.
My dread is that I let more information out before a good contract and reimbursement for 20+ years of research is finalised.
At the very least sufficient to gain access to enough liquid capital to pay off my student loan.
Till next place

I think this reflects a tendency, in New Zealand, to exploit creative people generally. We would rather give people an award than pay them and make sure they are able to eat. This is relfected in the cliche that says creative persuits are “not real work” and yet they're used to sell everything else.

Crikey, those design companies sure are nasty and exploitative, aren't they? They just sit around, swilling expensive wine while their legion of unpaid workers sweat themselves stupid.

Oh, that's right… design companies are dropping like flies. Why? Because in NZ, we're put under RIDICULOUS cost limits by NZ client firms. We're under huge pressure to keep prices cheap in the face of client pressure, partly fueled by international competition (have you seen what these super-aggressive Indian web companies are offering?).
Why not cover this story? Its very, very hard to make profits in NZ in design. For a well-established few, its fine, but for most.. times are very, very tough.
Further, while all these teachers are pontificating on market salaries (just ask them to run a company instead of telling others how to do it), how about they stop focusing on simply the creative skills, and start teaching the employment skills that are also an important part of a good employee. A big part of an internship is simply showing (and showing) grads how to keep time on a job, how to follow simple instructions, how to be punctual and how agencies work, not to mention the actual importance of clients.

Simply put, design agencies work within a broader context, and that's often far from ideal. Most are good employers, most want to offer a fair deal, but most are also severely constrained by the expectations by clients that we want their work so much, that we'll do it for very low rates.

Pete ( Not my real name)

Hmm. I just read this about a year too late, I doubt this thread is still live. My two cents:

In Advertising, Auckland has too many schools ( three) turning out too many grads for too few jobs.

In the past ten years this oversupply of fresh, cheap ( free, often ) talent has been exploited by agencies. Juniors - when hired - have been kept on barely living wages, sometimes for years. Rewarded out of all proportion ( negatively) to their contribution to the agency's work and awards.

Concurrently, a cabal of Creative Directors at major agencies has had a policy of not poaching from each other, so this talent by and large stays put and stays cheap.

At a previous agency, I remember interns being paid in grocery vouchers and in one case, being given credit at a clothing store.

This wouldn't happen to a doctor, or a lawyer graduate, for all the long hours they may have to work.

I think it's perverse.

@Not-real-name-Pete: The voucher payment system is apparently a tax loophole of some sort.

It's the same in all creative industries. They've been sexed up in the media and what so ever creating all this bullshit demand for people to attend silly schools and degrees so they can be the next Margaux swilling ad exec/director/music producer/etc. etc. Problem is the industry's getting more and more fragmented, however this does create opportunities for smart forward thinking grads to go it alone!

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