THE CAMPAIGN ESSAY: WHY YOUNG GUNS GO - Advertising is in danger of losing the best people in its graduate trainees thanks to agencies promising much, paying badly and offering little or no stimulation, a former graduate trainee writes

"I used to work in advertising is something I thought I'd never say. I thought I'd found my career for life, and it may have been trendy to do a couple of career changes before your thirties, but I had even joined an agency that had a tradition of retaining its staff. So if my fairygodmother had floated down and told me that I was never going to go to the D&AD Awards, and that by 2002 I would be writing an article about why I left, I would have laughed.

Of course we live in an arena of exceeding expectations and jobs, just like marriage, ain't for life anymore.

There's always something bigger, brighter, better around the corner. But I felt secure in my choice, confident advertising was for me. Not only that but while other friends worked simply to earn money I was passionate about my job, enthused when I talked about it to my friends back in Ireland.

I was an advocate for advertising. In the first few months I was the perfect product of an agency successfully selling itself to its new intake. I felt privileged, excited and happy to go to work everyday. I was part of an exclusive industry and a prestigious firm. Advertising made my friends jealous. They viewed it as a cutting-edge industry, a way to earn a respectable living but yet work in a creative business, to make a difference, have fun, get well paid for it.

The moral of the story? I, like many others I know, fell for the advertising about advertising. When agencies can't sell themselves, then they should start worrying, but they all know far too well that there's only so much you can do with a substandard product, and that one day, despite all the fancy packaging and clever campaigns, the product will let you down. How then can an industry so in tune with what makes other companies tick be so out of touch with the reality of what it's like to work in advertising as a graduate trainee these days? How can agency chiefs pat themselves on the back for surviving the 11 September downturn and not see that the future of their industry is drying up? Or rather leaving. In droves.

In 1999, I was joined by another six graduates at a top ten agency. We were, put simply, all mad about advertising. Now in 2002, only three still remain in the jobs in which they started. Two of us have gone down the path of celluloid, one into a government post, and another is carving out a career as a copywriter at a medium-sized agency. To argue that we were all in the wrong job to start with is a foolhardy fix.

Like many of the others who have left, initially I thought things couldn't get much better than what I would be doing. The problem is that although the graduate training programmes available in advertising are probably some of the best in the UK, the day-to-day reality for most graduate trainees is mundane, nothing like the career you thought you'd entered.

There can be little doubt that some graduates get a better deal than others, and an awful lot depends on the accounts allocated. But when faced with the bureaucracy that dominates many agencies, there is a real gap between superb training and the shortfall in contributions once you're actually on an account. Prior to joining I wouldn't have believed I'd be pouring coffee and taking notes alongside my peers at the start of my career, but many graduates are glorified secretaries.

Being told you are hired for your intelligence and only using it to read your tube novel on the way to work, is mightily frustrating.

The biggest problem is that in the leading communication industry it takes so long to change anything. Despite selling itself to graduates as dynamic and fast-moving, advertising is weighed down with red tape.

There is little staff empowerment and often the most exciting thing a graduate can get to work on is a pitch, as at least here they have an input.

Being told that you are being hired for your contribution and original thinking only to be left feeling that your mind is literally rotting on a client that has been churning out the same old work for years, is heartbreaking.

And although agencies must fill team quotas and be seen to be good value for money, this coupled with the need to keep a healthy share price for the global network, leads to a suffocating corporate culture that seems to stagnate and stupefy the big decision makers who in turn leave agencies with poor staff morale and little focus.

So if all of the above is an everyday fact of advertising today, you'd think there was one thing that would satisfy. Seeing your campaign on screen for the first time? Getting your name mentioned in the pages of Campaign? No, substantial financial remuneration. It's the age-old question of money. The "what I'm worth or "because I'm worth it factor". Except that graduates don't even get adequate salaries.

Generally a lot of people are underpaid in advertising. Many are overpaid too. But the average graduate trainee salary is not enough to live on in London. Everyone should know - and if they don't, they need to have a reality check, that most graduates come out of college with an average debt of £10,000. Everyone also knows that people outside the industry think we all get paid terribly well and find it astonishing when they discover that we can only afford to go to nice restaurants with clients because the agency pays, and that our lifestyles are borderline student (at best) for the first couple of years.

There seems to be a unique feeling that graduate trainees in advertising are doing some sort of public service and should be paid accordingly or that we're so lucky to be employed in the first place that negotiation of salary in the first year or two shouldn't come into it; frankly, the first time I asked for a pay rise I was bullied. Why expect so much and pay so badly? The new graduates coming into the industry are not just better equipped to deal with the industry, more skilled etc, but also more demanding and rightly so.

Why should someone work in advertising when there are so many career options available? Agencies may argue that they are still inundated with inquiries but the real question is are they getting the best graduates?

And if they do get great graduates, can they provide a working environment that will make them productive, happy and, most importantly, stay?

There were lots of reasons why I left. I got fed up with doing the same old stuff. I got bored waiting around for something interesting to do.

The problem was by the time I was leaving it was starting to get interesting.

However after waiting for nearly two years for that to happen, it was too little too late. Besides as the subsequent departure of my peers illustrates, nothing really changed. Working long hours on uncreative advertising, feeling undervalued and under-utilised and figuring out an agency spends more on cheese than they do on their graduates makes one feel "what's the point? There has to be more to life than this.

All this said, advertising still remains the most fun you can have in an office. There are definitely things I miss, and I don't think I will ever work in a company with as many truly interesting, intelligent and wonderful people again.

The decision to leave was not an easy one. In fact, I knew that the longer I stayed in the industry the more difficult it would be to leave. The point is that there are a lot of people who might never have even considered looking outside the industry if their needs had been met.

When I joined my graduate year used to joke about when we would run the agency and what great changes we'd make. We really had plans, not to mention ambition, and energy. Now those plans, ambition and energy are going into other careers (I live safe in the knowledge that my predecessors who also used to work in advertising are all doing pretty well for themselves).

Careers that, while lacking some of the stability that advertising provided, (a mediocre salary, for example) fulfil those needs that advertising should: true creative input, a genuine feel-good-factor about the work day-to-day, job satisfaction.

I realise that there will be those reading this article who continue to ignore the fact that the future of advertising is being disillusioned and lured from their initial career choice; that they may sneer and say that we didn't fit in or couldn't hack it. To accept that our expectations and career paths were not what we'd been sold in the dream of advertising is a more difficult pill to swallow.

To accept that advertising failed us and that it will continue to do so until the whole of the industry treats itself, its product, and its entire workforce with more respect and, ultimately demands more respect from its clients, is another thing altogether.

I believe that my peers who have remained in advertising could change the face of the industry, for the better, if they stay. Are agencies mature enough to admit that some of what's being said here might be valid or will they hide behind past glory and pretend that the status quo is as good as it gets?

- The 26-year-old writer was at a top ten agency for 18 months and is now at film school in Dublin.

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