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Taking it interns

Taking it interns

While students can provide a ready source of labor and inspiration for ad agencies, to make the most of work placements, both sides need to know what they want.

October 6, 2008 8:46 by

Mansi Shah

While the sight of underpaid workers slogging to make others rich is a common sight in the Middle East, the communications industry isn’t the most obvious culprit. But it does depend on a different exploited labor class: If you are in advertising, you bring in interns.

And although the summer is the longest break for university students, work placements aren’t as seasonal as one might imagine. Sue Hunter, career services manager at American University of Dubai says a student is for life, not just for summer. “Agencies take interns all year around,” she says.

It’s more a question of convenience that many internships are penciled in for the summer months. “Most interns apply for summer internships because their university schedule allows for it, but we have internships throughout the year,” says Joumana Abushaheen, human resources director of the Leo Burnett Group of Companies, Dubai.

So, having interns lounging around the office is a way of life for many agencies. And while the stereotype might be that interns contribute little and can often be found dumped in a dowdy corner of the office, well-managed placements provide great benefits for both parties.

“Internships give students a chance to see what it’s like out in the world, and give employers the chance to see what the interns are capable of,” says Hunter. “And often our students come back with job offers from the company. It’s a good opportunity for agencies to understand what the students are about and for the students to understand if they have chosen the right field and if they want to continue working in that field.”

For a university, then, sending the students out to test the waters is a smart move. But are things as hunky-dory at the agencies’ end? Reda Raad, managing director of TBWA/Raad, says, “Interns are a great source of information. They come in with lots of new ideas and lots of insights. They have their finger on the pulse of the new generation. They know what’s happening and what’s hot. And it helps with planning and keeping our guys in the know. They are great to have around.”

Slave labor? But while agencies and academic institutions are comfortably working together, interns can get the raw end of the deal. Mariam Abdillahi interned with Memac Ogilvy while she was studying at the American University in Dubai, and now works with the agency as a senior account executive. But while her tale had a happy ending, it wasn’t so good for all of her classmates.

“I would not like to generalize,” she says. “But I have heard from my peers that some of them were dissatisfied and wanted to change their place of internship. It could be because of many reasons, like office culture or their work. Some said they weren’t really doing anything, just sitting there and reading.”

Agencies say that what interns take away from their placement has a lot to do with their attitude.

“It’s really up to them,” says Raad. “We give them the opportunities, but they have to be up to it. They have to be mature enough to ask for more if they have some time on their hands, and to be more involved in the projects. We have a very open, collaborative environment, so people who are keen to learn are given the opportunity.”

For most students, an internship is their first foray into the corporate world, and their steps are still shaky. To expect them to jump into the thick of things and know their way around seems a tad unfair. But it’s not like that, say the agencies.

“We have a program that we put them through, and each intern gets appointed a mentor in the agency,” says Raad. “They rotate around the different departments. In a normal three-month internship, in the first month we give them an orientation course. So they get a week each with account management, creative, planning etc. Then they move on to their area of expertise. If they are looking to be a designer or a creative person, we assign them a mentor in that department.”

It’s a similar situation at Leo Burnett, according to Abushaheen. “In our agency, internships are designed to be a proactive and meaningful learning experience. As such, the first few days of an internship are spent shadowing a team member; after which, interns are given specific assignments by their supervisor,” she says. “Interns are encouraged to take ownership of their work so they can actively learn as much about what is involved in their ‘job role’ and function as possible.”

Before sending interns out, universities also do their bit to ensure they are getting the right kind of work.

“One of the things we do is to insist on seeing a job description from the agency about what the intern is going to do,” says Hunter. “And it has to be valuable experience. We don’t want anyone doing the filing. There is always a bit of boring work, but we need a list of what they are going to be doing and we need to ensure it fits in with what the student needs. So, if the student is in graphic design, we don’t expect them to go and do a business job. An official internship has got to match what the student is studying. It’s got to be useful and it’s got to be with a company that the university approves of.”

Internships are often all work and no pay. But money shouldn’t be the reason to seek a placement, says Raad. “You get hands on experience with an international agency, a feel of how it works and it’s a part of your career progression. This is how it starts,” he says.

Hunter agrees that interns don’t get rich. “Mostly agencies do pay,” she says. “Only one or two of the very well known ones will say ‘unpaid internship,’ because they know students are desperate to work with them. But we ask them to pay interns enough to cover their expenses, and they usually do.”

While internships can be invaluable, going back to the classroom afterwards can seem like starting all over again. Does an internship involve the application of concepts interns have learned, or is working in an agency utterly different from the academic side of advertising?

Abdillahi says, “It’s a bit of application of the learning in college and a bit of ‘Oh, I never thought it would be like this.’ I was so glad I did all those projects at college. Being in university helped because I had lots of big projects to do and [at the agency], when I have to deal with tight deadlines and pressure, those projects have helped.

“I can fully appreciate it now, because I feel like I have an edge over any new employee,” she continues. “And studying here means you know the market better, which obviously helps a lot when you are in the business of communication.”

And as Abdillahi sits tapping furiously at her keyboard, another hapless student makes his way to the tea room.

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