No More Placements

I think the placement system is damaging the entire ad industry.

For those of you who haven’t yet been through it, the placement system is a kind of creative internship whereby a junior/unproven creative team is paid a very small salary for the privilege of being given the chance to gain experience on the job while simultaneously enriching an ad agency and its clients. 

I know that the extent of the compensation varies from agency to agency, and that some are not guilty of what I’m about to describe, but in broad strokes young people, usually those with very little money, are paid very little money and given no formal employment benefits to audition for a job in advertising for an unspecified period of time.

That makes sense, doesn’t it? You’ve got to try the goods before making the purchase. You should be allowed to feel the depth of the nap and examine the stitching, otherwise you might buy something substandard, and that would be a disaster, wouldn’t it?

And there really aren’t enough jobs to go around, so the placement system is a chance for creatives to get some experience in an agency that can’t really afford them. That makes it kind a win-win: cheap work for the agency/client and a valuable shot at a foot in the door for the team. So where’s the downside?

Well, it’s right there, running through the entire industry like Blackpool through a stick of rock. First off is the self-selecting element, whereby the cost of living within commuting distance of an ad agency, making that commute and eating some food is almost always more substantial than a placement team’s remuneration. So where does the extra money come from? It’s either savings, a second job or the Royal Bank Of Mum And Dad. Obviously, most people in their early 20s don’t have any savings, and a second job is a pretty hard thing to manage in the 5-9 (that’s am to pm) slog of a junior creative team, which leaves us with the parents.

What kind of parents can support their kids in such an endeavour? Those with a decent amount of spare cash or a home in London with space for another adult (full disclosure: my dad was one of those people). Who does that exclude? The less well off and anyone living outside the M25. That’s a lot of people. 

All of this is compounded by the fact that the housing in many major cities has become increasingly expensive. So the system might have worked in the 70s and 80s, when a crappy flat in Paddington was within the housing benefit grasp of a working class kid from Wolverhampton, but there’s almost nothing that fits the bill in the same way today.

You might have heard the word ‘diversity’ pretty much everywhere recently, and how it’s a good thing for all sorts of reasons. In advertising, increased diversity gives the industry a greater ability to talk to more of the population in a way that they might find insightful and persuasive. If the industry is populated mainly by rich people from London that diversity is reduced, and the ads get worse. If you were a client, would you like worse advertising? Probably not.

If agencies can’t speak effectively to a broad and deep range of socioeconomic, racial and cultural sectors, clients will find someone who can. (If I were saying this out loud this is the point where I would make a coughing noise that sounds like ‘Facebook’.) The ability of social media and Google to create witty headlines and arresting visuals might be limited, but they can find left-handed Glaswegians who like Color Me Badd with alarming accuracy. 

So the money goes elsewhere, the wages in advertising go down, and that simply increases the talent drain that’s sending would-be copywriters and art directors into the arms of tech, social media and video games. Again, that’s not just down to how placements are organised, but it’s the first stage of a process that makes people who are sitting on the fence fall into someone else’s garden.

So what can be done to improve things? A decent initiative is the Placement Poverty Pledge from the Young Creative Council. It asks agencies to promise a living wage to its placements, rising to a £100 per day freelance rate after three months. Many top agencies have signed up, and that makes it a definite step in the right direction. 

But I’d go a step further: the placement system was born in the days when people were queueing around the block for a chance of two underpaid weeks at D’arcy Masius Benton and Bowles. Those days are no longer with us, at least not with a queue packed with the same level of talent. So if agencies want to attract the next Walter Campbell or Rosie Arnold they have to offer something more appealing than whatever Facebook or Rockstar Games is putting on the table.

That could be anything from better snacks to the opportunity to create the kind of mind-blowing work that used to be routine but is now little more exception than rule. But how about we start with this: no placements, just jobs. Account people and planners don’t have to flog themselves to death on weekly contracts for tuppence, so why should creatives? Yes, the youngsters might not work out, but creatives get fired at all stages in their career. Why should the first few months be so special?

ECDs get to see a book of work and meet the team behind it. Millions of people get hired every day based on far less. So how about a creative job pledge? It’ll help with diversity, industry appeal and, ultimately, the standard of the work.