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Will work for all it’s worth – the launch of Agency Nil

20th May 09

Almost everyone who works at an agency has a few favourite horror stories about the particularly tricky negotiation into their first position. The crazed lunacy of certain graduate recruitment processes (mine still gives me nightmares), the deeply uncomfortable hours spent in creative directors’ offices having your book taken to pieces, begging your way onto an intern programme, starting out in the mailroom. It’s always been tough. It’s part of the folklore. At least the reward’s in the car park.

But now it’s tougher than ever. No, really. A punchy piece by Jef Loeb on TalentZoo.com, “Same as It Never Was“, published just recently, paints a undeniably grim picture of an industry undergoing dramatic change. Loeb’s themes – structural transformation, accelerating evolution of new media trends, financial woes – are painfully familiar. As he notes, even if we’ve passed the bottom of the trough, our “shared profession is more than a long link or two from being at the top of the food recovery chain”.

Imagine now that you’re just graduating from your Ad School or coming to the end of a degree or Fine Arts programme. Suddenly the tales we recount of our elaborate scheming to get a job out of college look like some kind of joke. Where would you start today?

We met a brilliant young graduate from the VCU Brandcenter a few weeks ago who finds himself in exactly this position. Hank Leber is fresh out of this highly prestigious school, is clearly awesomely smart and is super nice & full of character into the bargain. Given we’re not taking on interns just at the moment (oh, how I wish we could), we got talking about exactly what Hank might do.

We talked about the trials of internship (Hank had previously had a very successful internship at DDB, so he knew what he was talking about when he mentioned hard work). We mulled over the crunch that agencies were feeling right now, making even internships tricky to come by, let alone permanent positions. And we noted that despite all this, many agencies were still spending heavily on (expensive) freelance resource. As Loeb notes, we’re “living in an extraordinarily deep and flexible buyers’ market for full time, freelance and project-based help alike.”

As we talked about this last point, Hank came up with a radical idea. Forget begging your way onto the bottom of a long and fairly shaky ladder, working to cover expenses. Hell, why not just launch an agency instead? But an agency with a difference. An agency that doesn’t charge. Agency Nil.

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This is the rationale, straight from Hank:

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It’s been a while since I had an Econ class, but I remember the laws of supply and demand. If supply goes down and demand goes up, price goes up.  Supply youjizz goes up and demand goes down, the price tanks.  In advertising we now have a ton of supply (talented but jobless ad people) and lower demand (clients cutting budgets mercilessly) and indeed levels of fees and margins ARE coming down for agencies, for the SAME level of service, or even more.

I think there’s a pride clause to be noted. Freelancers won’t work for less than what they’re used to, and laid-off ad people can’t fathom living paycheck to paycheck.

The only ones left to do the work for cheap are interns. But interns need hand holding, at best. At worst – a reworking of their work which takes as much time as doing the work yourself.

ENTER: the young, hungry, talented, not-afraid-to-take-a-risk individuals coming out of portfolio schools, graduate programs, and those from agencies – recently laid off but not yet spoiled by a big paycheck.

We can do the work, have the confidence and skills to do it well, we’re complete digital natives, and we don’t mind taking the risk of saying “don’t pay anything up front, then. We’ll do the work and if you like it, then pay us whatever you think is fair.” We’ll prove it.

It works out nicely for both parties. The agencies can feel like they’re shaving big percentages off of their expenditures and we the workers wind up doing better in the long run than getting sporadic freelance at a high rate. And we’re learning as we go . . .

It’s a win/win.  And that’s the kind of business I like to be in.

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Hank & his team are going to make this work. I strongly encourage you to check out what they’re saying about what they do, how they propose to go about it, and how you can get involved. Their site is http://www.agencynil.com/, their twitter feed is at https://twitter.com/agencynil and Hank’s at hank@agencynil.com.

We’re really up for seeing how this goes at BBH Labs because this is an innovative and simple new model that appears incredibly timely. And I’m just struck by – and a little envious of – their energy and their raw swagger. That alone makes Hank & his new colleagues stand out from the crowd right now and ensures that whatever the external or initial response to this new start-up, they’ll make this awesome.

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