The Problems Of Advertising Sweatshops

Why Overworking Employees Is Only a Short Term Gain

Sweatshop
Sweatshop. GettyImages

Anyone who has ever worked in advertising will know about sweatshop mentality. In some respects, it really does live up to its name. Although, it will never be quite as appalling as dangerous, low wage, illegal sweatshops that exist all over the world.

The definition of a sweatshop, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is as follows:

  • Noun: a shop or factory in which employees work long hours at low wages and under unhealthy conditions.

    Now, when people think of advertising, especially those who have only seen the way it is depicted on TV and in movies, they would probably think that the definition above is far removed from the glitz and glamor of the ad world. But they'd be wrong.

    Sweatshop Hours Are The Norm At Many Advertising Agencies

    It's sad but true. And unfortunately, it is tolerated by everyone in the agency. The conditions exist because they make good financial sense for the agency, despite the detrimental effects to staff. So how are sweatshop conditions allowed to thrive?

    Here are a few of the main reasons:

    • Fear. Getting a job in a good agency, in any department, is tough. Keeping it means doing what you're told and not complaining.
    • Money. Aside from freelancers, almost everyone in an agency is on salary. That means you get paid a set amount regardless of the hours you work. Therefore, work the staff longer hours and you're getting more bang for your buck. Even just 10 extra hours a week, or two per day, amounts to an additional 500 hours per year worked for free. So the typical 2000 hours worked per year becomes 2500.
      On an annual salary of $50,000, that equates to $25 per hour for 2000 hours, but just $20 per hour for 2500. In short, the company saves $12,500 per year in labor by overworking one employee just a few hours a day. And a few hours is the minimum, many agencies require late nights and weekends, unpaid, every week. Multiply that by at least 50 employees and an advertising agency is saving an amazing amount of money in additional labor.
    • Competitiveness. The agency that overworks its employees knows that it has a staff at hand, ready to jump on campaigns any time of the day or night. That's an enormous advantage when competing with other agencies. "They need two weeks, we'll do it in one." Or "we'll get you three times as many ideas, fully mocked up with complete copy, and we'll do it for less money." Who would you give the job to, especially if the undercutting agency's portfolio is strong. Sadly, other people pay the price for that competitive edge.

      The Fallout From Sweatshop Conditions

      Initially, sweatshop conditions make all kinds of sense to the partners and holding companies of the advertising agencies. But it's the long-term effects that are often completely overlooked.

      • Morale suffers. Actually, it goes completely down the toilet. No one likes coming to work, everyone is miserable and it affects the quality of the work. Which, in turn, means even longer hours worked to correct the problem. It becomes a vicious cycle that only gets worse until management sees sense and eases up on the long hours.
      • The product suffers. In many companies, the product is physical. It's a widget, a car, a tool, a watch, something physical. If you decided to cut the amount of time put into making that product, or slashed the budget on materials, you would expect a detrimental product at the end of the line. In an advertising agency, the product is the creative work.
        It's the people who make that work, so if you overwork them, you affect the quality of the product. That means it's not as impressive, it's not competitive and the agency starts losing pitches and losing accounts.
      • The exodus begins. People won't put up with rotten conditions forever, and they will start to look for work at agencies that do not demand unreasonable hours. They will even take pay cuts and demotions in order to escape. When it comes down to it, people don't want to be stuck at work at 9pm on Friday, only to be told that they're working all weekend and double hours the following week. There's no point in earning a lot of money if there's no life to go with it.
      • The agency dies. Good people leave. The people that are left suffer even more. The work is poor. It becomes impossible to attract talent to the agency because news spreads fast about the rotten conditions. Pitches never get won, even by the most charismatic creative directors. Incumbent accounts leave. And before long, no one wants to touch the ad agency with a 10-foot cattle prod. All because the short-term gain was so attractive.

      Sweatshop conditions in advertising agencies should not be tolerated. If you're an employee, vote with your feet and leave.