Published January 31st, 2018
by Steven Clark

About a week ago, Glasgow agency MadeBrave caught some flak for promoting unpaid work experience opportunities. This was then exacerbated by advertising agency Studio Something deliberately doing the exact opposite: offering an internship where they would pay the equivalent of a creative director’s salary for a weeks work. In this Medium post, they explained why they thought creating this alternative opportunity was so important:

“Yes it’s a stunt, but it is a stunt to make a statement, a statement to young, ambitious, aspiring, hopeful but most likely terrified, freaked out, nervous young folk out there with a dream of doing this job for a living, to show that the only way into this industry isn’t by flogging yourself for free, hacking away at the bottom and having to bet the house on a chance of experience.”

In the face of a Twitter pile-on, MadeBrave eventually caved – writing an open letter that basically amounted to them explaining why they shouldn’t have to pay anyone who doesn’t produce chargeable work before saying they’ll do it anyway. Clap emoji.

Well done

If that introduction is a little dry, you have to understand that I’m really tired of talking about all this. We’ve covered exploitative student contests, bad junior job roles and unrealistic skills expectations for graduates in detail already – do we need to establish why students and juniors should be compensated for their time? Yes, apparently, because despite the backlash resulting in a reluctant change of policy, it’s now clear the reason such a backlash occurred in the first place has been missed entirely.

A couple of years ago, I worked as a freelancer with MadeBrave on some of their digital projects and I was always paid fairly for my work. I want to make it clear that I don’t think their work experience offer is an attempt to deliberately scam anyone out of free labour, nor do I think they’re a particularly bad first start for anyone looking to break into creative industries in Scotland. None of this is a problem unique to MadeBrave, it’s just that an advertising company quite successfully seized an opportunity to make an example out of them, and their latest response to this has left me confused and embittered. More so than usual, I mean.

The point made over and over again, either directly by people replying to MadeBrave’s original tweet, in replies to posts about the issue, or in the aforementioned Studio Something article, was that if you’re not paying people for their time, you’re restricting access to your opportunity. If you really want to help people break into the industry, paying them ensures you don’t just receive applications from those in a certain income bracket; working for free – even for a day – is not a luxury afforded to everyone.

Let’s do a little maths. In 2018, living wage will be set at £5.90 for 18 – 20 year olds, £7.38 for 21 – 24 year olds and £7.83 for those 25 and over. Assuming a 7 hour work day, paying an intern for a week is anywhere from £206.50 to £274.05. If you wanted to hire an apprentice for £3.50 an hour, that total per week then drops to £122.50. Admittedly, I have smaller overheads as a freelancer but keep in mind as you’re reading this that arguments are being made to justify avoiding investing between £100 to £300 in people by an agency that – I assume – occasionally pitches for and wins contracts worth tens of thousands of pounds, some of which appear to be publicly funded.

If you’ve heard a talk by them or worked in Scotland’s creative industries – particularly in Glasgow – chances are you’ve heard MadeBrave’s origin story. Multiple articles about the company and its founder, Andrew Dobbie, have been published in a number of Scottish newspapers, and most make mention of £1,000 and a baby. The story varies depending on who’s telling it – some quote Dobbie directly describing the £1,000 as “[his] own money”, others say he had “just £1,000 in the bank”. A couple of articles also place emphasis on him having “a newborn to feed”, assuming this £1,000 to be his overall net worth at the time and not just personal money he had put aside to invest in his new venture. Whatever the case, the takeaway from this well publicised creation myth seems to be that you need guts and a small injection of cash to start a successful design business. As Dobbie wants so desperately to give back and half of all Scottish people have no savings, that little bit of cash MadeBrave will now be paying their interns might mean they can credit MadeBrave when telling their very own £1,000 and a baby story one day. So everybody wins, right?

Wrong. Writing this post in response to what was largely Twitter hysteria honestly felt like twisting the knife until I saw Dobbie’s post mortem – another wonderful addition to the “business owners are the real victims” style of post that I love so much:

We all have those weeks where bad stuff happens to you and you wonder why you started it all in the first place, but then something magical happens. […] You see, I am personally a big believer in the power of positivity and I also believe that there is a little bit of creativity in everyone […] We asked people to pop their CV (if they had one) in an email to us and tell us a little about themselves. You need to know who you’d be bringing into your workplace right? Little did I know the wrath that was about to unfold.

To summarise, he characterises this whole debacle as a misunderstanding, posts scanned images of postcards sent to him by grateful past interns and reiterates his feelings that those who do work experience at MadeBrave are being given something more valuable than payment. Judging by this older post, they were possibly given nikes and matching tracksuits.

My favourite Tim and Eric sketch

These articles may play well on LinkedIn to an audience of mostly middle-aged business owners and aspiring sycophants but the arguments presented by him – and others – benefit from a lack of definition. If you want to give people a shot at hanging around your agency to get an idea of how it functions and what job roles people do – as is described – then no you don’t need to pay candidates, but you also don’t need to vet them. If this work experience involves no meaningful work then why does it exist in the first place and why does anyone need to qualify for it? What is this for, to help young students make a decision about what they want to study, or to give aspiring graphic designers a chance to gain practical experience they can add to their portfolios? It’s unclear, which means the role exists in a grey area that allows people to both defend and condemn the idea of doing it for free. Remember, either way, we’re still talking about a maximum of around £300 per person to make this an opportunity available to everyone instead of just a privileged few, whatever the actual opportunity may be.

Dobbie can point the finger at Studio Something for misinterpreting and signal boosting all they like but with an audience MadeBrave’s size this was bound to happen sooner or later. Having needlessly obsessed over things like this for the last year or two it was encouraging to see so many people pushing for equal opportunity. As we’ve argued in the past, when people evoke this “power of positivity” guff – as Dobbie did in his post – it’s usually done as a tactic to deflect well-deserved criticism.

Considering a loud and guttural rejection of the idea that young people should accept unpaid work led MadeBrave to change their policy, it looks like the power of negativity wins this round.

Note: This post originally appeared on the Habanero Digital blog meaning certain parts are probably weirdly self referential or talk about ongoing feuds that probably exist almost exclusively in the mind of the author.

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by Steven Clark

Steven is a designer/developer and wannabe intellectual with an obsessive personality and too much spare time. Don’t follow him on Twitter.

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