Confessions of an agency exec: Clients ask us to give their kids internships

Talent is a hot topic at agencies, especially as they come under fire for not having diverse-enough workforces. One of the most tried and true ways of breaking into the business has always been internships. Highly coveted, these give younger people the chance to work on multiple bits of the business and gain valuable experience. They’re also seen as a good way to diversify the employee base, by hiring outside the usual portfolio schools and bringing in a variety of perspectives. But as an advertising agency executive confesses this week, internships are often more about nepotism than diversity, with many agencies reserving them for clients’ kids. Here’s what they had to say:

So how do internships work at agencies?
So every agency has an internship almost. But every agency I’ve worked has had internships that are basically earmarked for client kids.

How come?
One big holding company agency I worked at had a formal program. It was great. You applied for it eight months before, and interns came to New York and were put up in a hotel property and worked on a ton of clients. It was close to impossible to get into.

Because all the slots were taken up were clients’ children. Nepotism at its finest.

Did they ask you for it?
Depends. It also used to happen when I was at a smaller, boutique agency, where we had an internship program. So and so client would call you and say, “Do me a favor: My son is graduating from UMass in May, wants to get into advertising or media or PR. Can you help him figure out where to intern?”

And you would do what?
With the agency thing, you can’t say no. Our global CEO used to come to me and say, “Meet with our client’s kid.” When this girl came in, we rolled out the red carpet. She was escorted to meet with HR. She met everyone. If this was a regular person, it would have been coffee at best. After we met with her, she’s a lovely kid, but then it was like we had to report back to the CEO and tell him. CMO called CEO, she got the internship.

You’re like, “Jeez, OK.” Then you meet with the kid, and he’d tell you what he wants to do. And I’d say, depending on a few things, maybe I’ll introduce you to my friend at a brand or another agency. Or, more likely, I’ll slot him in an internship with us. I remember getting client kids top-notch internships because those clients now love me for life. And I did it because I knew they would love me for life. The challenge is when the kid is stupid or an asshole.

Did you think you were doing something wrong?
Look, I do believe in helping people. If they are total jerks, then I won’t. But for the most part, I do. The problem with client kids in your own internship program at a smaller agency is that its client kids see your inner operations. I mean, once we had a client’s kid come in for an internship who just heard everything we would say about his dad.

You mentioned being put up in hotels.
It’s funny because you used to have clients asking for so much, tickets to the Super Bowl. That culture is changing. Now they’re asking for stuff for their kids. That program at big agencies is structured and honestly, it was run as a business. CMO kids flying into New York, working at a Madison Avenue agency for a month, going from group to group. These are coveted internships.

What’s the effect?
Hard to say, but when I first got hired at agencies I had to cold call people, met people one on one, people would tell me they can’t hire me because I had no experience. When a powerful parent calls, it changes the game. It comes from the top. When you have an intern program filled with privileged kids, you can’t get a kid from a community college or from a different background. It has effects on diversity. It’s impossible to break into this business.

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