The Real Scoop on Creative Salaries

Keeping Up With the Benjamins

“Did you do it for love?/Did you do it for money?/Did you do it for spite?/ Did you think you had to, honey?”  — Don Henly/Glenn Frey

Money, money, money; that’s what I want. That’s what almost everyone wants. The root of all evil (well, not quite ALL evil). Dough re mi. Cabbage. Gap. Dead Presidents. Benjamins. Bread. Cheddar. Clams. Dinero. Cake. Jack. Lettuce. Loot. Moolah. Wad. Wampum. We all sit on the jagged precipice at the juncture of Art and Commerce.

The Long Run

There’s a perception that the only way to prosper in the ad agency business is to move about like a gypsy — one desperate agency upping the ante after another. This perception has become reality. We’ve become a peripatetic species. The proliferation of creative headhunters has certainly exacerbated this condition. This isn’t a bad thing, nor a good thing. It’s just the way it is. Everyone’s looking to make a buck. What’s lost on everybody is The Long Run — how much money will you make in your cumulative career? And, the dark side of the road: when do you become irrelevant in this business?

This is a complex question and concept. If you break down your creative career into segments and evaluate how to maximize your marketability — you may have to sometimes take LESS money (or make a lateral move) to enhance your career. Why? As always, it’s because of the work. But, too many reject the notion of a lateral move (or less). It’s beneath them. Their buddies will snicker. Their spouse will bitch. Greed is a terrible thing — it’s the work of the devil. I’ve learned that creatives who focus more on the work than the money ALMOST ALWAYS make more money in The Long Run.

The advent of the Social Era spawned numberless online creative communities. Job Boards. Resume and Portfolio Farms (er, I mean “forums”). Creatives have become cattle in the slaughterhouse. Another hyperlink in the chain. Lost toys on Hyper Island. There are more shills on Twitter than there ever were in the diners along the New Jersey Turnpike, or Telegraph Road. They feed off online creative communities. These charlatans are quite adept at touting the results of their latest poll (as if statistics prove anything). One of the most amusing myths that emerge from these online communities: “Salary Monitors” — by region, by title, by gender, by height, by shoe size, etc. Quite often, creative candidates tell me how much salary they should make according to some cockamamie Salary Monitor.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news — but salaries in the ad agency business are exactly the same as they were in 1989 when I began placing creatives in Raleigh, NC. The minimum wage in NC that year was $3.35 per hour. In 2012, NC sports a $7.25/hr minimum wage. That’s more than a 100% increase! Okay, that’s a common laborer at the low-end of the scale. Possibly an incongruent example. So, let’s go to entry-level salaries out of Wharton School of Business in the same period. Guess what? Same 100% increase. Yet, ad agency salaries are exactly the same in 2012 as they were in 1989.

Why is this? How can this be? It’s the law of the land/supply and demand. Employers pay what they have to and not a penny more. That’s why I chortle at salary monitors. A boss likes a book and asks me what it costs. And if it matches up with the person, they pay it. The really bad news, even in this era of creative dearth, is that creative salaries are beginning to trend down slightly . We can only theorize why. No theory ends happily. When push comes to shove, technical skills trump creative skills today. Style trumps substance. Context trumps content, despite what the blowhards are spewing at Cannes this week. This is not a complaint, it’s just the way it is. There’s a New Kid in Town.

                                                      The New Kid in Town

Quite simply, a technologist that can think somewhat conceptually. This is a freakish morphing of the creative species. Reminds me a bit of flying roaches or two-pound   cannibal shrimp. The New Breed of Art Director is a Developer that can think conceptually. It’s a Designer that thinks in terms of web experience. The new Writer in town creates the “new poetry”: tweets. They ghostwrite blogs. Their favorite brand tagline is: “Like us on Facebook”. But if you follow the money to get to the immediate truth, you’ll see that the best paid folks across the board are still doing traditional television commercials. Why? Clients still pay more for traditional media than digital media. Therefore, agencies pay accordingly. This, too, will pass. The new kids in town, the Jeff Benjamins, and the new media, are fledgling and will ultimately prevail.

                                                     The End of the Innocence

With the Social Era comes an inescapable transparency. Most transparency is good, but some is toxic. We “friend” people we hardly know. We “connect” with people we’ll never talk to or even email. We share secrets with total strangers. We’re left to live out an inescapable irony: being “Social” encourages us to be less social than ever. We lose a little bit of innocence with every Instagram that we pin onto Pinterest. Voyeurism and Exhibitionism replace Sociability. Does it surprise that in this environment money trumps creativity? Or that widgets trim ideas. What does that have to do with creative salaries? One does not need to look any farther than the rash of consumer-generated content in the past 5 years. Allow the late, great Phil Dusenberry to explain:

WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE STATE OF COPYWRITING, GIVEN THAT WE HAVE USER-GENERATED CONTENT AND CONSUMER INFLUENCE IN THE CREATIVE PROCESS? Dusenberry: “As far as consumer-generated content, I think that’s a joke because you should leave it to the pros to get something done. You may luck out and catch an idea from some amateur, but that’s not really the way to go.”

SO, YOU THINK IT’S A FAD? Dusenberry: “I don’t think it’s going to last, and you’re going to see it take a powder very soon.”

EVEN THOUGH “CONSUMER ENGAGEMENT” IS THE PHRASE OF THE MOMENT? Dusenberry: “The whole idea of consumers generating ideas is like pulling your own teeth as a dentist. Leave it to the professionals. That’s what they’re paid for.”

“Professional” is the operative word here. Your “profession” has been devalued to the point that clients think they can get what you provide from anywhere. It’s like if the Boston Red Sox allowed me to play left field for them because I love Ted Williams and Carl Yastzemski. Your skill set is commoditized to the point that brands can’t distinguish between you and an amateur. That’s why hybrid technologists are in greater demand than creatives at ad agencies. How did we get here? That’s why creative salaries are exactly the same as they were 23 years ago, and may soon drop.

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