D&AD: Diary of a placement

Placements can mean low pay, hard graft and long hours. But there's also the opportunity to work on real briefs and shine. Two graduates tell Claire Billings what life is really like as a placement.

Life on a placement can be tough, but if you're serious about getting into the industry then it's a right of passage that many in advertising have endured.

On the downside, the pay is low and the expectations of creative directors and clients for mind-blowing work are high. But spending time at agencies, gaining an real insight into clients' demands and how to turn ideas into ads, is a valuable learning curve.

Sleeping on mates' floors, living off baked beans and working your arse off for pocket money is a hurdle at which some fall. If you're still convinced advertising is for you after months, or even years, of this then you've probably got what it takes to get on.

Certainly there remains a school of thought among senior creatives that surviving a placement is a real test of commitment and passion for the business. And heck, they probably suffered similar deprivations themselves on their way up...so why shouldn't those following in their footsteps be similarly toughened up?

Of course, there are some potential downsides to the whole idea of the placement system. There are some who blame the placement approach for the fact that so few women make it to the upper echelons of the creative profession. Women, so the critics have it, are less likely to put up with the sort of treatment and lifestyle endured by placement teams, and are more likely to bail out early on. The very nature of placements perpetuates the laddish culture that is still found in some creative departments, some say.

And while the days of placement teams working long hours in a stressful environment for no more than their bus fare are, thankfully, pretty much over, pay for placements is still extremely low. Now most agencies will pay a decent minimum to their placement teams, but the feeling still lingers that placements are sometimes exploited rather than rewarded for their hard work.

Still, there is no better opportunity to prove you've got what it takes to really make it at the coal face of the ad business than walking the walk for a few weeks. Placement teams will have access to some of the best creative brains in the business and get to learn from the inside what agency life is really like. The contacts and friendships that can be made during a placement stint are invaluable and the chance to beef up your portfolio and add real experience to your CV can put you well ahead of raw graduates when a job opportunity arises. And even in these straightened times, agencies fight tooth and nail for the best creative talent, so if you shine you'll be hired... sooner or later.

But what is life on a placement at a top agency really like? Are the legendary horror stories of deprivation and being underpaid and overworked really true? And even if they are, does the exposure to real clients with real briefs make up for everything? Is a placement team really given the chance to sell themselves and make a lasting impression on the people who might be in a position to hire them? Are they really worth all the effort?

Two fledgling creatives who have committed themselves to a life of long hours, poor pay and have learned how to become opportunists when it comes to free booze and lunches to save on their supermarket bill are Imran Patel and Dave Prater.

They graduated from Buckinghamshire College last summer and have already clocked up three weeks at Archibald Ingall Stretton, a month at Banks Hoggins O'Shea/FCB and three weeks at TBWA\London.

At the time of writing, they had spent four months in their most recent placement at Euro RSCG London and seemed to be impressing the executive creative director, Nick Hastings. A diary of two weeks in the life of their placement there proves how invaluable time spent on a placement scheme really can be.

IMRAN & DAVE'S DIARY

Some important people in advertising may have a quick flick through this daily diary of our placement experience, which puts us under pressure for the next two weeks to be hilarious and really busy. But we'll stick to being ourselves and tell it how it really is for the two of us. Here goes.

Monday 8.32am

Being the first day of the week, we're in early so we can chat about the weekend, and have a look at the work that lies ahead.

At the moment, we're doing two things. A tactical campaign for Jacob's Jacobites, and attempting to eat our body weight in wine gums, because we're working on a Maynards brief.

A plus side we find to working on briefs is sampling the products. We've been given bags of Jacobites and bags of wine gums, all we need now is an Evian brief to wash it all down, and that's lunch sorted.

We sit in the corridor, like most placements, which sounds worse than it is. We have a Mac each, a phone, and more pads and pens than we need, so if we suddenly get the boot we can take the lot with us.

4.30pm

A useful bit of advice we got from a previous placement was "you've got an agency full of brains around you. Use them". So, we're off to show a team our Jacobites lines.

4.32pm

Back to the drawing board.

7.36pm

At college, we were told to stick around until the important people had gone home, so we've got into the habit of doing just that. We're still learning too, so the work takes us longer than everyone else.

Tuesday morning

Three months into our placement we're pretty familiar with the faces in the agency. Everyone from the creatives to the planners say hello.

We're a bit more popular today because of the wine gum mountain on our desk. The atmosphere is upbeat, probably all the sugar.

Afternoon

We're going to see the creative director, Nick Hastings, with the Jacobites lines. This is the first placement where we've found the creative director really accessible. If we need to see him, we just book ourselves in, and then in we go.

He didn't think any of the lines were right but he laid out the work, talked through each idea, and pushed us into the areas he liked. This means we don't wander out of his office thinking, "Fuck! Now what?" This is really helpful for a placement team, as we need all the help we can get.

Wednesday

Start the day with an agency meeting. In a big agency, it lets you see what work gets done. This happens every fortnight and our aim is to get something of ours up there.

One of the most helpful things we find on this placement is our mentor team (Ed and Neil). They're a good team who we can pop in to see at anytime, whether it's to talk about briefs, our work or the possibility of time travel.

This time it's to show them some Maynards ideas. They pick out the ones they like and help us push them into better ideas.

We get called into Nick's office in the afternoon. The Independent is writing an article on selling fruit to kids. We've been given a pear.

A quick brainstorm and we're back in for a quick discussion. We made a few suggestions such as not calling the pear a pear. Brilliant!

Thursday 8.00am

We have a Maynards crit in an hour, so we get in extra early to write up a few scripts. Seeing the creative director with work is pretty nerve-racking. Usually we whittle our work down to three to four campaigns that we both like and then hope for the best.

Phew! The crit goes well. He liked the routes, but his favourite was an idea where we called the wine gums "a split second of squidgy..." (we'd like to tell you the rest of the line but if we did, we'd lose our kneecaps).

We have a look at the suggestions made by Nick and make some changes.

The work goes off to the client and we slope off to clean up the mess covering our desk.

We really enjoy the variety of stuff we get to do on this placement.

One day it's strip ads in TV guides, the next we're doing a TV commercial.

We get treated like any other team, which is great for us, because we get to show what we can do and get stuff for our book.

8.00pm

Go home.

Friday

Payday. Pay has ranged from £70 to £160 on our placements. Here we're at the higher end. It's pretty good because we're lucky enough to live in London, but for some of our friends over half, if not all, their pay goes just on rent.

On a brighter note, all the teams around us - with feet on desks, swinging back on their chairs - joke about how they got through it.

We get a visit from the Jacobites account team. So far so good. Our idea's on the table. Just one thing...

4.30pm

Have to think up more lines and it's in for Monday.

Monday

Jacobites review with Nick. He picks out a few lines and tells us to keep going.

Tuesday

Still going.

Wednesday

We finally have a pile of stuff Nick likes. It comes as a relief because he must've been getting sick of the sight of us. The Jacobites lines have taken us a while to do, but it's been a good exercise as it keeps pushing you to approach the product from different angles and you have to just keep on going.

1.00pm

The benefit of sitting in the corridor is that we can see one of the meeting rooms. These meetings are usually accompanied by a shed-load of sandwiches. When they're finished, if you're quick, you can out-run the flock of creatives and bag a free lunch.

We get the Jacobites lines to a stage Nick's happy with and off to the client they go.

There's a leaving do this evening. At least once a week there's usually something going on, whether it's a "leaving do", a "joining do" or a "just-for-the-sake-of-it do". It's a chance to get to know some people outside work, pop down to the bar and grab a few beers.

Thursday

Whenever we get a moment, we work on our book. In the office we have the luxury of a colour photocopier, internet and the teams around us, so we try to use these facilities as much as we can.

"Argooooooose" briefing. We've been given a 30-second TV ad for Argos.

The account people talk us through what the brief is about. The deadline is just under a week, which is good news.

Ten minutes later, we get a brief for the airline bmibaby. It's quite fun. They've just bought a load of buses and want us to make them more interesting. We're allowed to use as much of the bus as we like and do pretty much whatever we want to them. Sweet.

Friday

These two weeks have been a slice from our placement here. It's slightly different depending on where you are, but the aim is always to get a job.

So how do we go about doing that?

Well we've heard all kinds of stories about how people have got hired.

There's one about someone who "stalked the creative director until he gave in" and another who got hired "because he looked like he'd be good in a fight".

But at the end of the day, we're not sure exactly where Nick lives and neither of us are hard. So we'll just have to work like Trojans and hope for the best.

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