Home IMJ Features Something is Rotten in the State of Agency Land

Something is Rotten in the State of Agency Land

shutterstock_373308340cached.imagescaler.hbpl.co-1-20150421073647245The exploitation of interns throughout the advertising, marketing and PR sectors is rampant but it’s time to call a halt to it says Jane McDaid.

Ok I’ll come clean. In the past, I have, as an agency owner, exploited young people.

Some years ago we hired interns (most of whom had more impressive academic achievements than me) and allowed them work with us for free.  These energetic, optimistic interns worked a 40 hour week but were only given enough money to cover their bus fare and lunch – a couple of hundred euros. This was always with the ‘hope’ of a full-time contract which, given our agency was young and growing, was a frequent occurrence.  But it didn’t always work out that way.

Shame on me. It took me a few failed internships to realize that this is wrong. Very wrong.

They turned up and they gave it their all. They stuffed envelopes, undertook research, painstakingly put kits together and held umbrellas in the rain. But somehow, we felt it was a worthwhile experience for them.”  We accepted this as the norm. “It’s how the industry works. It’s how we got our jobs.” Or so we told ourselves.

Stop! It’s exploitation. Simple as that.

If a burger-bar hired people to flip burgers for free, with ‘pocket money’, we’d be up in arms. The indignation!  So why can it be acceptable to do this in agency land?

At Thinkhouse, and some other agencies in Ireland, interns are fully paid (over the national minimum wage rate). Our view is that, whether or not an internship leads to a full time job, we have a value exchange: they give their time and effort to our agency and we give them guidance and help them develop skills required for work at our agency.  Just because they are learning doesn’t excuse us from having to pay them – we’re all learning, every day right?

With reports by PRCA in the UK stating 70% of internships are unpaid, there is a groundswell of activity around unpaid internships and organisations like Intern Aware and Graduate Fog are making some impact.  In Ireland, right now, our interns have nowhere to turn. In Ireland, there are many of us who can make that change.

Agency Owners and Leaders

Most responsibility lies with us. By paying all interns the national minimum wage we may compromise on profit, resources or perceived agency size, but ultimately we can rest assured that we are managing our businesses in a way that is ethical.

We can relish the fact that we are the ones that are truly representative of ‘the next generation of agencies’ – fully diverse, ethically managed and more attractive to job.

Colleges and Lecturers

The onus is on lecturers too, to break the habit.  They must build confidence and esteem in their students. They need to reassure them that there are agencies out there that value them. Lecturers and Faculties must promote, and work with, the agencies that pay interns fairly encouraging the best talent, go to agencies that value them the most.


Graduates must be value their worth. I frequently guest-lecture at colleges and always ask the students who expects to have to work for free, or almost free, to break into agency-land?’ Shockingly, almost every time, there is a full show of hands.   I tell them that change starts with them.  I encourage them to strongly reject unpaid internships.


Finally – let’s face it – if pressure is coming from an agency’s client, it might have most impact of all.   Clients deserve to know the rights of their agency’s employees, the teams of people working on their brand, regardless of the level of experience they have. Clients should demand transparency around the agency’s internship standards.

In addition to fighting for ethical standards for interns, let’s fight for our industry’s creative prowess.  Some of the problems we face as an industry is a direct result of decades of the intern culture:

We’re starved of diversity

Only the privileged can afford to work for nothing. Those with support from their families (even if it’s just rent-free living) can afford to work unpaid meaning those from low-income backgrounds are mostly excluded.   This is something that should scare us – after all, diversity breeds creativity, innovation and excellence.

Nepotism is rife

Because internship programmes are very often ‘informal,’ agencies often source talent from a very small pool. This leaves those without family or friends in an agency, with little or no hope of breaking into the industry.

Let’s make this a great Industry to be part of. Let’s make it an industry we can be proud of, a diverse industry that breeds innovation and creative excellence. Tomorrow will thank us for it.

Jane McDaid is Founder of THINKHOUSE, the youth communications agency.

First published in Irish Marketing Journal (March/April 2016)© to order back issues please call 016611660


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