THE SPAGHETTI FACTORY
When I was starting out in advertising as a young college dropout in early 1990s, the agency business model was very simple:
Hire a lot of young people. Pay them little. Work them to death. Throw their output against a wall like spaghetti, see what sticks, sell what sticks to the client, and take all the credit yourself. Profit!!!
The idea was, while you were being ruthlessly squeezed through the spaghetti factory, even though you weren’t being paid a lot (compared to the value you were generating for your client) you’d build a reputation large enough that would allow you either start your own agency one day (which you’d sell to a bigger agency in order to fund your retirement), or land you a top exec position with the big firms (stock options).
Hence the completely disproportionately high importance of advertising awards for young creatives. Reputation is the only thing they have to bank on.
Advertising people in general didn’t mind this arrangement. It’s not like someone told them there was another deal on the table. At least, nobody I know was ever told otherwise.
Besides, we all thought we were rock stars in waiting, so it was just a matter of time before we got famous or rich or both. It was just a matter of paying ones dues (and harvesting the awards) in the meantime. So yes, we were all happily complicit in the arrangement.
As I get older, I notice a few things:
1. Rock stardom evaded most of us, in the end, just like it evades most people. And many of us have little to show for it.
2. This spaghetti factory model seems to work well in other industries, especially startups (except the trinkets/baubles/magic beans this time are company shares, not awards). In fact, for many jobs out there- Hollywood, Media, Publishing, PR, Academe, Fashion- there is no other model.
3. This helps explain why Baby Boomer “creatives” trying to fight ageism in the workplace, are mostly losing.
4. This isn’t true for all industries, of course. Some professions actually value experience, just a lot of the “sexy” ones do not. Same as it ever was.
5. Again, to be clear, I was totally OK with the arrangement. I was learning A LOT more than I ever learned in school, and they were paying me for a change. But I knew this deal had a very limited shelf life, and so I started working on a B-Plan right away…