Why the creative industries might need to shape up their treatment of new talent

Dubious working conditions, a lack of feedback and little support for development: as the contest for talent intensifies, is it time for the creative industries to shape up their treatment of young employees? asks Kajsa Asplund in this extract from Intern magazine

Why the creative industries might need to shape up their treatment of new talent, from Intern magazine (illustration by Dan Howden)
Illustration by Dan Howden for Intern magazine

“We have 20 people waiting in line to do your job, for free.” This was one of the recurring statements at the office where Christine spent her first six months of work life. As a straight A student with an impressive résumé of creative side projects, she had been selected by one of Stockholm’s top creative agencies for a six-month paid internship.

This was supposed to be a dream position: many young people would have given their right arm for such a head start. But Christine was soon left feeling frustrated with a lack of support and managers who showed little interest in making her feel valued.

“It wasn’t that I had a problem rolling up my sleeves or anything,” she asserts. “I was fully aware that it was going to take hard work, late hours and a lot of engagement working at that agency. I felt I was really up for the task…. It’s just that I didn’t expect this lack of engagement from my bosses, this culture of being viewed as completely replaceable manpower.”

It wasn’t that I had a problem rolling up my sleeves…. It’s just that I didn’t expect this lack of engagement from my bosses, this culture of being viewed as completely replaceable manpower

Christine was constantly told that she “should be so grateful for being here,” considering how hard it was to get in, and on a paid position, no less.

“And I was grateful! At least at the outset. But constantly getting these statements thrown in my face rather made me think: ‘Why aren’t you grateful? I am a top student who’s already run several of my own projects and now I’m spending all my time and effort on making your business successful. Why aren’t you at least sending me some signal that you appreciate what I do and want to keep me here?'”

Once the internship was drawing to an end, Christine started looking for other options. As it turned out, her many creative competencies — design, teamwork, copywriting, and brand-building — were quite attractive to other businesses as well.

Before the internship ended, she had landed a well-paid job at a large retail company. Now, a year later, she has assumed leadership responsibility for her team. She feels she is still using the same kind of skills as she did at the agency and sees no reason for going back to the creative industry any time soon.

Why the creative industries might need to shape up their treatment of new employees. Illustration by Dan Howden for Intern magazine
Illustration by Dan Howden for Intern magazine

The new creative class

In the last decade, the search for, and retention of, ‘talent’ has become one of the top strategic priorities of companies in many different sectors.

Employees’ competencies and skills are becoming the single most important competitive advantage that companies have. Those who combine strong ‘hard skills’ like design, programming, illustration, and writing with excellent ‘soft skills’ such as teamwork, flexibility and problem-solving are hugely in demand.

Increasingly, more industries are now looking for the same types of people. From global corporations to prestigious consultancies and publishing houses, managers and HR are looking for those ambitious, versatile people who are adept at learning and figuring out rather than applying a specific expertise – people like Christine. And the creative industry is full of these talents. Young, ambitious people who are passionate about what they do, who can solve ill-defined tasks, who know what to do in order to optimise creative output.

Today, creative people exist in many sectors. In 2003, American academic Richard Florida coined the term ‘the creative class’, including not only people in classical creative businesses such as design and architecture, but also those who engage in creative problem-solving for a living. Since then, creativity researchers such as Keith Sawyer have asserted that there is no dramatic difference between being creative at artistic tasks and being creative in other types of jobs. So, if your passion is to be creative rather than artistic, there is ample opportunity to practise this skill in other industries.

Why the creative industries might need to shape up their treatment of new talent, from Intern magazine (illustration by Dan Howden)
Illustration by Dan Howden for Intern magazine

Passion without payback 

With the demand for creative thinkers – and the options available to them – increasing, passion without payback perhaps doesn’t go as far as it might once have done. And a growing body of research is showing that the youngest people in the job market have distinctly different work-related values than previous generations. Millennials, it appears, want different things from a job than their parents did – most of all, they want feedback, appreciation and development.

While the baby boomers and even Generation X were prepared to toil in silence for years in order to (hopefully) be rewarded later, millennials quickly get tired of waiting. If their manager doesn’t see them and validate them for what they do, they have no problem taking their competencies somewhere else. If there are no opportunities for progression in sight, these young talents might even move to another industry.

If feedback and development opportunities are the two key strategies to getting millennials to stay in a workplace, what does that tell us about the creative industry? First and foremost, that the often disengaged handling of interns and junior employees poses a serious problem to the sector’s talent management. This is an industry that is used to getting talent in abundance, one that has never really had to fight for good people. Now, however, that situation is changing.

Millennials, it appears, want different things from a job than their parents did – most of all, they want feedback, appreciation and development

So what should be done? As already mentioned, the most important measure to make young talent stay is to provide feedback and development. Managers should make sure they do not let interns’ and other junior employees’ work go unseen. The first step could be as simple as making a habit of remarking on one good thing about every piece of work handed over by an intern.

It is also time to shape up the training that employees in the creative sector receive. It is time for creative firms to get, well, creative. If courses and structured training are deemed too expensive, can you draw on internal competency? Can you team up with a partner firm to arrange evening seminars once a week? Or even make use of e-learning? Young talents aren’t strangers to unorthodox educational formats, and will usually welcome most types of relevant development initiatives.

The issue of salary

There is, also, the issue of salary. A host of studies have shown that millennials are not looking for the highest bidder, they will take meaningfulness and inspiration over a fat pay cheque any day. This is of course good news for the many smaller agencies and firms that cannot afford the luxury of permanent employments and substantial compensations. However, in line with their need for recognition, young talent does see compensation as a signal of employer’s regard.

The bigger agencies are notorious for their enormous pay differentiation: senior creatives might make hundreds of thousands of pounds a year, while a junior copywriter typically brings home a salary just above the London living wage. Make no mistake: this sends a signal that does not build loyalty.

As for Christine, her advice to the creative industry is clear: “Simply start treating interns and junior employees like a valuable resource. No one wants to hear that they are just one out of a bunch of people who are willing to work for free. Young creative talents today know their value, and they have so many options to choose from. Make them see that they made the right choice bringing their talent to your firm,” she says.

“Working in the creative industries is still the lifelong dream of so many people, so talent attraction will probably never be a problem. Now [employers] just need to find ways to make them want to stay.”

intern-magazine-issue-four-cover
Issue four of Intern magazine

Kajsa Asplund is studying for a PhD in management at Stockholm School of Economics. The article above is an edited version of her feature, Exodus, which appears in issue four of Intern magazine. It is illustrated by Dan Howden, an MA Illustration student at Manchester School of Art.

The issue also includes interviews with Kate Moross, Rough Trade magazine editor Liv Siddall and Carrie Thompson, studio manager at Soth Studios, plus features on Icelandic internships and working in a big company vs running a small operation. You can order copies here.

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