Paltry pay at agencies leads to moonlighting millennials

In May, Derrell Smith, an associate producer at R/GA, won a meatball-making competition. That success inspired him to launch 99 Meatballs, a pop-up meatball shop that serves limited-edition meatballs. (The project is inspired in equal parts by retro Air Jordan sneaker releases and Smith’s grandmother’s recipe.)

Appearing at various places throughout New York, including Brooklyn food festival Smorgasburg all summer, 99 Meatballs doesn’t just let Smith practice his hobby — it also pays his rent.

“I make enough to live on, but not more than that, since I’m just starting out,” said Smith, who uses 99 Meatballs for rent and expenses and his work check for savings. “It’s not a substantial add-on, but eventually it’s the plan,” he said.

Smith isn’t alone. Low starting salaries are driving younger agency employees to take on side hustles not just as creative hobbies but out of financial necessity.

According to a 2016 survey by CareerBuilder, it’s a common trend across the millennial generation. While about 29 percent of all workers have second jobs, about 44 percent of those between 25 and 34 said they did.

Kirby Todd, a social media manager at Heat, started her lifestyle blog, Short & Sweet, five years ago with an eye toward enticing brands to help subsidize her. Gradually, the brands came: Over the last five years, she has done branded-content projects with brands like Kohl’s and Pinhole Press. Through RewardStyle and affiliate links, plus ads, she made enough money to keep working. Today, the blog is about 10 percent of her income. “Having that bit of extra income helped.”

Sebastian Lizarazo, an assistant media planner at Maxus, makes money deejaying at night. “Living in New York means living frugally, so this helps,” said Lizarazo.

Kristin Mooney, director of human resources at Maxus, said while it’s a far cry from when she entered the workplace, she, like other HR people at agencies, are getting used to this. “It’s an economic reality,” she said. “When people start out, they don’t make a lot of money at first, so we’ve got people who do everything from teaching yoga to deejaying.”

This has resulted in a shift in how at least Maxus thinks about work across the board. The agency has now put in place more flexible work hours so if needed, people can go to their second jobs, she said. “The reality is that the new normal is four jobs before you’re 32.”

Alexandra Kayden, an assistant media planner at Razorfish, runs an Instagram account called “Put a Fork in It,” which has over 25,000 followers. The goal is to eventually monetize. “It’d be an added bonus,” she said, adding that she wants to become a “social influencer.” Right now, she “gets paid” in free food, with restaurants asking her to come in to shoot content — and then eat the product. It’s not yet a substantial source of income (“if it was, I wouldn’t be working at an agency,” she said) but gives her the opportunity to get what’s missing from her day job.

Low starting salaries in the agency world are common — and often pointed to as one the root causes of a talent crisis in the industry. According to Payscale, those starting out earn somewhere between $37,000 and $45,000 a year — incomes that are hard to make work in expensive cities like New York or San Francisco. Numbers released by the 4As are worse: $25,000 for assistant account executives and $28,000 for assistant media planners.

“Everyone does it,” said Todd. “We have a lot of junior creatives here [at Heat] who do graphic design but also run a design business on the side.”

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