Will the placement system that for so long has been the rite of passage for many creatives be perpetually cast as the industry’s necessary evil? It’s not dissimilar to the not-entirely-welcome guest at a party who isn’t universally liked but doesn’t merit being chucked out. Not that questions about the system’s morality and continued survival aren’t being asked. As long ago as May 1999, Campaign asked: will introducing the minimum wage endanger creative placements?
The fact that similar issues are still being raised 16 years on tells its own story. The latest call for reform comes from the creatives Ben Harris and Stu Outhwaite, who are demanding a living wage for those on creative placements at IPA member agencies. What’s more, they argue, placements should be limited to three months and, if they last longer, a daily freelance rate of £100 should apply.
Few would argue against the merits of reforming a system that has been subjected to much abuse. But does the industry have the will to incorporate such reforms into a code of conduct – and abide by it?
Kate Stanners, chief creative officer, Saatchi & Saatchi
"I like the idea of a formal agreement about the way creative placements are treated, even though most of us have put these reforms into practice already. It’s different from when I started. We used to sneak back into the office to sleep and I reckoned I was better off on the dole than working. And there are still creative directors who believe that, because they had to do it, so should today’s placement teams. But the fact is that they need help, particularly in finding cheap accommodation. The lack of it is deterring many young women from joining the business."
Liz Harold, chairman, LizH
"A more formalised system that treats creative placements properly is definitely a step in the right direction. There are still agencies that are eager for new ideas without necessarily having to pay for them. However, I don’t think agencies abuse the system as they once did. That was when creative directors’ secretaries were plagued with calls from young teams wanting to show their portfolios who could be easily exploited. It’s better now because the number of college creative courses has been reduced, resulting in fewer but better placement teams. But the placement system has always been tough and you have to make sacrifices to succeed in it."
Dave Henderson, joint executive creative director, DLKW Lowe; head of the Executive Creative Directors Council
"I agree pretty much with what’s being suggested. It’s in line with what we already do at my agency. My concern is that some of the proposals are too rigid and wouldn’t allow agencies much flexibility. That said, I think we’re all aware of our responsibilities and none of us want to be seen as sweatshops that exploit cheap labour. It worries me, though, that the working-class people who were in creative departments when I joined have given way to middle-class kids with affluent parents able to help them through college. I wish I knew what could be done to change it."
Marc Lewis, dean, School of Communication Arts
"A placements charter that agencies sign up to is something we’ve been talking about for so long. And it’s clearly necessary because, although we don’t see any widespread abuse of the system (almost all the agencies we deal with pay the living wage), there remain a handful where we would never send our students. But I’m not sure the IPA would be best-placed to take the initiative on this because it has never had much to do with creatives. Also, limiting placements to three months could be too restrictive, particularly if a team is going abroad, where it might take time to adapt to a different culture."