Entry 289: Are Those Interns or Are They Living Here?

I recently attended a reunion of folks I used to work with at an ad agency called J. Walter Thompson. It was at a bar inside J. Walter Thompson, which the agency let us use for the occasion, which was maybe a bit awkward, since the reason most of us used to work at JWT was that we had been fired at one time or another.

And the first drink was on them!

You might be surprised to find an actual full bar (pictured here), complete with bartender and popcorn, jwt-bar[1]inside of a business establishment that isn’t a restaurant or, you know, a bar. However, let me remind you that this is an ad agency–one of the biggest in the world–and surely you didn’t think that TV commercials are created while sober.

This was the first time I’d been inside a real, major ad agency in over 20 years, and I’ll tell you what surprised me. It was 6pm on a Friday evening and no one was there working!

When I was starting out in advertising (at a different agency), we were there nights and weekends, and we didn’t even have a bar (although we did get lightheaded on the scent of the markers designers used before they had Macs). One of the hottest agencies at the time, speedry-magic-marker[1]Chiat Day, I think, used to have a saying: “If you don’t come in Saturday, don’t bother to come in Sunday.”

But we were young, and we were creative, and we were doing fabulous work for, um, Time-Life Books and The Columbia Record Club. So, okay, we didn’t have the real showcase accounts. But let me assure you: if you wanted 13 records for a dollar, you were familiar with our work!

My point is we were happy to toil around the clock. We were thrilled to order in Chinese clubfood and pull all-nighters, searching for the next big idea or, failing in that, something that would get past the creative director. We were in ADVERTISING! And now, here I was in an agency, relatively early on a Friday, and there was no hum of activity…no chain-smoking account executives…no copywriters seemingly pounding out glorious words on their IBM Selectrics (but secretly working on their screenplays)…no art directors mocking up ads in which the headlines said “your” instead of “you’re,” because, in 35 years, I’ve never known a designer who knew the difference.

What kind of slackers are we turning out these days?

In fact, when you hear about unappreciated people working long hours today, it’s not even about advertising agencies. It’s about associates at law firms, and interns at investment banks, and apparel assembly professionals in Vietnamese t-shirt factories.

25-Shadowbrook-Viennese-Table1[1]And even those companies are easing up on the overtime. According to an article in The New York Post (motto: “If we can’t use a pun in the headline, it’s not news”), Goldman Sachs is considering reducing the hours of its interns by “eliminating work on some weekends.” What’s that all about, Goldman Sachs? You start eliminating work on some weekends and, before you know it, those not-exactly-employees will be demanding that you eliminate work on all weekends! You can’t let these young whipper snappers get away with it. Eighty-hour work weeks are a rite of passage, like a bar mitzvah, only without the Viennese table. It’s not like staying at the office until midnight every day is going to kill them!

Oh, right.

It seems that, back in August, a London-based Bank of America intern named Moritz Erhardt was found dead in his apartment after working for three nights straight. And it is clearly BofA’s fault; he wouldn’t have been found dead in his apartment if they hadn’t let him go home.

So just because of one fatality, Goldman Sachs and other firms are willing to re-evaluate their intern programs? It’s like an army retreating because one soldier gets killed, or an investment bank ceasing its insanely greedy practices because one global economy gets slaughtered.

At financial institutions and law firms, it is understood that if you survive the first couple of years, vast riches will come your way.

I’m still not sure why we did it at an ad agency.

See you soon.

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