Oct 15, 2008

White Collar Sweatshops

It took me a while, but I finally found out the real name of what we do and it’s on the title of this post. For clarification lets us define the term thus presented.

White-collar sweatshop:
n. an ad agency employing workers at low wages, for long hours, and under poor conditions.

Tell me that doesn’t sound like some place you’ve worked at or heard about. You know the type of agency that works people to the bone, pays them shit, treats them like an Indonesian dog, a Japanese dolphin, or an Alaskan baby seal, and then has the balls to expect people to be thankful for all they’ve done for them. Last I checked the only favor a truckload of CEO’s do for their workers is to sign checks the 15’s and 30’s of the month. Three squiggles and any troubles in their conscience magically whisk away, but I stray from the topic.

Do you want to know what the scary part of this definition is? The only word I changed was shop for agency. The rest of the definition refers to a sweatshop and sad but true, it applies to a lot of the places I’ve worked at. True, the blame is in large part due to the decisions I’ve made regarding the places I’ve worked at and I should have done better research when looking for a job. But when you’re in a pinch and you don’t have a savings account to cushion the fall, you don’t really do much research, you just pray that the next place doesn’t suck as much as the current one.

Back to white collar sweatshops though. Haven’t you noticed how young (barely of age) students are suckered into believing that getting fucked over with work and getting yelled at is all part of paying their dues? Sorry but an ad agency shouldn’t have the hazing rituals so commonly found in fraternities or employed in boot camp to let people know the local hierarchy (more on this later as well). But sweatshops are often guilty of breaking child labor laws and ad agencies do their best white collar impersonation of said practice, paying students peanuts for work that has at times won accounts or made a whole bunch of people happy since they finally have something they can take credit for. The rewards? Scraps within the capitalistic juggernaut that can be an ad agency. $100-$300 a week if you’re lucky. I did a couple of internships and actually experience the difference of getting paid nothing a week for six months, $100 a week for two months and $335 a week for 3 months and in case you’re wondering, yes it makes a huge fucking difference because although you’re gaining valuable experience you still need to cover expenses, quite often leading to the oh so famous Ramen Diet.

To add to the mix, take into account the work conditions you’ve had to go through. If you’re a copywriter, odds are you’ve had to endure some of the shittiest computers in existence. I know I have. But speaking from experience, I’ve worked in places so dramatically draining that the working conditions could only be described as southside of lala land.

Yet we’re still prompted and exhorted to be thankful for the shitty job we have, because at least we have a paycheck. It’s the classic “it could be worse” approach except that in place of whips, canes, lack of food or water, the ever present threat is that we’ll get fired. We can’t leave at a normal time because we’ll get fired. We can’t be late, because we’ll get fired. We can’t say no to working on a weekend, because we’ll get fired. Etc, etc, etc (the funny part is that we’re often the ones to think it without the bosses having to move a finger to instill additional fear into their work force).

Then there’s the pay. You say you earn X amount of dollars a year… This is obviously a myth because you’re assuming you’ll have normal work hours. But you don’t because you work ad years, which are much like dog years in the sense that in comparison to normal working human years, you work anywhere from 3-5 times as much as your average professional layperson (and people still wonder why so many ad people are burned out by age 50).

Hey it could be that I’ve just had monumentally bad luck. It could be I’ve made shitty decision after shitty decision regarding where I work at. It could be I’m hard to please or that my outlook on life is not fair to the places I’ve worked at. Or maybe, just maybe I have a point and most agencies are not worth their weight in dirt (I don’t say shit because that can at least offer fertilizer or shrooms).


Anonymous said...

You know, I like your blog, and I read it almost everyday, but this sentiment (which I've heard you use before) just sits bad with me. Granted I'm new to the ad biz. I've been a paid copywriter for all of 6 months, but do you know how many people want our jobs? Not that it's any excuse to be treated like slaves but are we really? I worked in restaurants for 10 years before this. Believe me, we've got it made. It's work, it sucks, all work sucks.

Love your blog though, really do.

Anonymous said...

Yet again, something this copywriter can identify with. A couple jobs ago, I was seated at my new cube and introduced to my computer - an eMac. Yes, that same computer that little kids play with in the "children's waiting area" at your local fitness center. How a direct marketing agency even ends up with an eMac is beyond me. But guess who got it - not an intern, not a receptionist, not an account exec...

Joker said...

I'm glad you like the blog and I concur that this sentiment has come by a few times and to be honest, we don't have to deal with even a fraction of what someone in the situation of a restaurant has to deal with. I also agree that most work sucks because after all, it is work. What I'm getting at is that while someone in a restaurant is paid to serve people and yes you need to maintain quality and be nice or lose clients for life, the attitude I think most midlevel people in advertising have to endure is a little absurd and here's my case. I really think that what we do for a living is great in theory but when it comes to practice, there are a lot of ifs and buts, which blows. I'm VERY conscious of how many people want our job and that's actually part of the reason why I keep up the bitch factor way high, just so people take into account that it isn't all glitter and gold. That advertising has a very shitty side to it and that at least for me, I was sold into an industry that doesn't resemble what I was told would be my career. I think a lot of companies should be a lot more organized and that's one of the main reasons why ad people are so screwed over with work.

I'm sorry said sentiment sits bad with you and I'm more than sure that you are not the only person who feels that way, and you're entitled to. Maybe it's my way of making people also say, wait a minute, advertising isn't that bad, but I wouldn't give myself that much credit.

One of the many gripes I do have with the job is that extra hours WILL be a reality, and that's cool as long as there's some type of sentiment to say my bad, sorry or even remunerate extra effort. But none of that happens and most places have subpar treatment to its employees mainly with the classic excuse "that's just how things are".

Don't get me wrong, I'm EXTREMELY conscious that working for other companies will blow as well, but for the most part, it does seem they are a bit more responsible with pay, work hours etc. Granted, shit hole work environs have, do and will exist in every industry, but maybe I'm just annoyed that something that could be so satisfying as a profession is often pushed to the work sucks side of jobs.

Maybe I just think things should be better, people should get along better and a company's success should be felt in the whole pyramid which is utopic thinking at best.

But that doesn't change my sentiment that I don't feel as if we have it made, and maybe it was a bad career or company choice, but I sincerely can't say I haven't given my all in each and every place I've worked at. I just wish the same could be said for my employers.

Oh well. Thanks for the input though, it's very welcome and if you want to discuss anything else, feel free to comment or just write me at jokerwashere@gmail.com


Joker said...

@addude13: If you want more input regarding the great equipment copywriters get, feel free to check out this old post.



BTW: My second job I went through the agency junkyard until they found a computer where Word didn't crash. Fun times.

James Duffy said...

Yeah, I guess i see what you mean. Maybe I'm not giving myself enough credit when, "oh work sucks, fuck it." is my status quo. I should demand more out of life. Plus I'm new so, you know.

Justin said...

I say we start our own shop, called the sweatshop, naturally (if it's not taken already), and make it a wonderful place to work. Decent hours, decent equipment, decent wages, decent people, decent clients, and damn hard work. Notice I didn't say "great" anything, that's because I'm trying to be realistic.

Dominicka said...

Thanks for your post! Imagine now - you are a Project Manager within that same sweat shop!
I'm frightened at what I've become, trying hard to get out (I wish recruiters would stop funneling me from stable to stable with bigger carrots) of the advertising sweatshop. sure it's great money- but who can spend it on anything besides bills when you spend your weekends catching up on sleep! And the women- the most unhappy/dysfunctional people I've ever met! (And I'm a woman)-between the gossiping, the and sneaky behavior, the most incompetent teasers usually lead the pack in promotions. And don't get me started on being an Indonesian dog -anyone with a different hue, has it hard/ if they've made it out of the mailroom, or away from a reception desk!
As I type this I'm on the stage and (figuratively) Heidi Klum (aka the small sweatshop) I work for 12 hours a day for (but cant bill the client for the real time spent on the projects-beause we wouldn't want them to get the impression that their work requires time) is about to say "Al vida zein" to me. More than likely I'll get tossed in front of the circus of my "peers" and everyone will be smiling. Another one down justifies the dysfunction. She couldn't cut it. She's not one of us (said in the agnecy Stepford voice). Yes, another one down and out the door (trial by firing) helps create a little more space in the psychologically cramped agency minds. Everyone inhaling the toxic fumes of so many late nights and unfair pay- will breathe a little easier when I'm gone.

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