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It's doubtful the overtime increase will change advertising

If you keep up with U.S. government policy especially when it comes to economics, you may have heard that the Fair Labor Standards Act might crack down on companies making their employees work long stupid hours by requiring overtime pay, or a minimum salary of $50,440. Please note that this is merely a proposal but it hasn't stopped advertising agencies (and ad trades) from freaking out about it. It is a potential big deal. After all, ad agencies depend on the young and gullible to break their backs on the reg for a pittance, all for the privilege of working at an agency with its own beers on tap.

And while articles are already being written about the cataclysmic change this could have on Advertising As We Know It, it is important to remember that this proposal was first floated back in 2014, and it still hasn't happened, and with Obama's final term coming to an end soon, the chances of it happening are hazy. The implications of such a measure have far-reaching effects, across all employment sectors; I'd be amazed if this happened overnight.

Still, all this renewed panic does serve to highlight what is fundamentally wrong with advertising, as much as it does sweeping proposals of this nature. Here in L.A., there are plenty of shops notorious for paying laughable wages to entry-level positions, be it the receptionist or a junior accountant or junior art director. But, if those same laughable wages were paid in a different city like St Louis, or Austin, or Atlanta or Philadelphia or indeed anywhere that isn't New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle, those wages aren't laughable, but doable. So it's already a strange issue mandating what I can only guess is a wage meant for a working-class family with children as opposed to a twenty-four year old single copywriter. Outside a few major cities, 50k isn't poverty level for a single twenty-something.

But even if that law falls into place, the laughable part is actually the handwringing on the part of CEO's who have no idea what to do about it. According to an article written in Campaign "The question now is not whether to prepare, but how. Some may just bite the bullet and raise all employees above the $50,400 threshold. Other options include shifting overtime work to more senior employees not eligible for overtime or increasing reliance on freelancers and technology. In a paradoxical twist, some may actually lower entry-level salaries so those employees ultimately cost the same, and make the same amount of money, after the overtime rules are in effect."

Not sure if the person who wrote the article works in advertising, but I don't know anyone in advertising who doesn't work overtime hours. It's not just for juniors. So the idea you can shift it to one group is a fallacy. The article also interviewed several executive insiders who are trying to figure out how to have their cake and Teslas in their assigned space, too. Some are suggesting not raising the minimum salary, but only paying overtime, while others are considering lowering the overall salaries, like Sharon Napier, chief executive of Partners + Napier.

Napier, to her chagrin, sees no option but to lower salaries. That way her agency would end up paying junior staffers the same once the overtime is taken into account, "but their base compensation — which they have to live on and use to pay rent and buy meals — could be $5,000 to $7,000 less," she said.

No option, indeed. Beyond my initial "Good luck with that," response, I would also like to point out a few elephants in the room that ad agencies have been steadfastly refusing to acknowledge let alone address. The first is the accepted-as-fact idea that working overtime has to be the norm. Raise your hand if you heard some chirpy "work hard, play hard," mantra before. Or "Hey, it's advertising, if we wanted a regular job we would take one." My point is that, advertising agencies have by and large made working overtime the norm. Unless you work for an agency that is in constant pitch mode because they need the money, the majority of overtime is caused by a lack of efficiency. Plain and simple.

Let me list some possible scenarios that are caused by inefficiency. Raise your hand if any of these have happened to you:

A strategist didn't bother to write the brief, so you are now three weeks behind, playing catch up.
The internal presentation meeting got pushed to six because your GCD decided to go for a run/get a haircut/see a movie.
An account person who has vital information from the client just plain didn't show up to a meeting.
The creatives didn't come up with an idea and demanded more time because the strategist took three months to write a bullshit brief and then expected an integrated campaign in one week.
The meeting got pushed because the previous unrelated back-to-back meeting was delayed a half hour because no one showed up.
What should have been an hour-long meeting to discuss feedback turned into a four hour meeting because of collaboration, which is another way of saying each person gets a chance to put their balls on the table until everyone gives up and comes to a concession no one is happy with but no one can argue.
The founder of the agency decided he absolutely needed to weigh in on the work the night before the client meeting, from his award show boondoggle in Shanghai, and you're in San Francisco and he has a bad phone connection but he'll look at it as soon as he gets to his hotel three hours later. Once he does, he decides all the work is wrong and only he has the idea all creatives must chase, which then pushes the client meeting.
The client meeting has been pushed three times now because every last department head hasn't had time to "sign off," on the work because fifteen people must sign off on it and they are never in the same room at the same time, and it is easier to sell work to the client than internally.

I can't speak for any other ad news site, but I am someone who has worked consistently in advertising for some seventeen years at eight different agencies in three different countries. I have seen all of the above and more. My conclusion is upper management in all departments are one hundred percent to blame for inefficiency, one hundred percent of the time. It sure isn't the fault of a creative team that isn't allowed to present their own work to the client because the client "doesn't like a lot of people in the room." The heads of state have effectively made sure the worker bees have no responsibility. The fault is yours and yours alone.

While I am not foolish enough to believe that a utopian efficiency will ever come to fruition and solve the issue, I at least know the importance of trying. And of course it's the one issue no one wants to tackle because it actually takes effort. It takes effort to say to someone "This meeting is important and we only have a half hour so please put your phones and computers away." It takes effort to say "the creative teams need our feedback by three, so let's focus and come to a clear consensus before then." It takes effort to write a brief with a month turn around instead of four months. It takes effort to not make the issue someone else's problem. Until an agency makes an attempt to change that issue I will have no sympathy for their whining about having to pay juniors more. We solve problems for a living. It can always get better.

The second way the industry could get better is by valuing every employee. Not just paying lip service to it. Not just promoting the very top, or in one department only, but in actually giving props, and cash, to all who deserve it. There's a notion that a lot of the so-called executives would totes give out raises if they could but just can't afford it. Which would be easier to believe if they didn't spend money on new hires but pass up loyal employees come raise time.

By the way in all of the quotes from top-level executives, not one suggested skipping a yearly raise. Or even taking a pay cut. God forbid if you're making a half a million dollars you round down by ten percent which comes to 50,000. Of course not. You crawled and stabbed and failed your way to the top. Why would you give anything up?

And then there's the ad agency itself that values the perception of culture to the point of excess. How many people have been to a holiday party that cost a few hundred thousand dollars? Or had the pleasure of being treated to an agency-only concert from a well-known band or hip hop star that cost the same same amount of money to make an appearance at your barbecue, as the holiday party cost? If you work for a mega agency there's a good chance it's happened yearly. If on one hand a lot of time is wasted due to inefficiency and poor time management due to unprofessional behavior, then on the other hand a lot of money is wasted in "culture building," as a stand in for real employee relations. It's a perfect nasty storm of b.s..

And before anyone suggests it's the culture building that matters, my rejoinder is: why are there still articles bemoaning the fact that people are leaving advertising for other jobs? Why is it I am personally seeing the burnout rate of people leaving the advertising industry at a much lower median age than I did when I started seventeen years ago? It's because A. Inefficiency suggests a lack of respect from management and B. A lack of compensation for all the incredibly long hours put in for management who doesn't respect you. There are only so many mandatory fun times and team-building off-sites you can have before it all seems terribly hollow.

Put another way, you can have a dozen of the freshest microbrews on tap in your agency but if you work so much and are so beaten down you're self-medicating with said beer, instead of mingling with your "cool, awesome peers," then it isn't culture. It's a joke. Culture can't be fabricated. And no twenty page internal agency deck will make people adhere to something that isn't true. I've worked at some shops that believe in the cult of personality so much they remind me of what happens when North Korea demands its starving population sing songs to Dear Leader: People participate out of fear, not love.

Culture happens when you have the right mix of creative people, pay them well, and let them do their jobs. And again, that ecosystem takes time to build, and it also requires the willingness of all parties to show respect. Not just to people above them but to people below them, too. Otherwise the end result is you feel like an overworked cog in a hamster wheel you'd rather not be part of, while a marching band plays a pep rally song you don't believe.

I would not be surprised if the problem ends up solving itself. By doing nothing, or coming up with even more boneheaded solutions to the issue rather than solving the real problems, advertising will drive the best and brightest junior level employees out of the industry. Presto. No more issue.

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Anonymous Adgrunt's picture
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Dabitch's picture

One of the quotes in that Campaign article stood out to me:

That Napier has two young daughters working junior positions at ad agencies in Manhattan makes this issue particularly sensitive for her. "I speak out of two sides of my mouth on this," she said, shrugging. "I’m a mom of two young kids in the industry, and the CEO of an agency." As CEO, she says she simply cannot afford to bring everyone into compliance. Yet as a mom, "I want my kids to stay in this industry, but I would like to not have to pay for their rent."

First off, they can live at home since Mom lives in the same city. Not all of us grew up where the ad agencies are. When I was starting out in Manhattan, the best agencies offered me unpaid placements, or college credit sort of deals. That has to be gone. I took my first 'real' ad job at an agency that paid a salary. A tiny one, but it was pay. Pay that barely stretched past the rent, but rent was paid. Like you point out, 50 grand a year is not half-bad in other cities, but ad agencies tend to collect where housing costs a small fortune. You can only share with neurotic roommates for so long before you get fed up with that. The housing prices crisis isn't just affecting people in advertising, it affects everyone who have lower salaries, and especially those who actually keep a community going: teachers, firemen, policemen, nurses.

kidsleepy's picture

I'm speaking strictly about conglomerate owned agencies here, but when the head of MDC resigns and is forced to pay back 20 million dollars due to an investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission into it's shall we say, creative accounting, it's a little hard to believe they don't "have the money." Fairly certain twenty million would take care of a couple of raises....

Greg Branch's picture

Not only will agencies not do away with the inefficiency, many have convinced themselves it's an asset. I've seen many agencies who have repackaged their unfathomable disorganization and proudly present it as "great customer service."