Media: The joys of being a creative - and the woes

Advertising attracts many with its promise of fame and wealth, but the reality is harsher, says Richard Cook
When the great and good of the film world make their annual pilgrimage to the Oscars ceremony in Los Angeles, they do so with fond hope and earnest expectations. Ditto those members of the advertising fraternity who make their way to any of that industry's numerous glittering awards evenings. Both sit through speeches and a marathon of musical entertainment: both catch up with their peers; both do a little glad-handing.

The similarity stops there. The former tend not to round off their evening by presenting the best film Oscar to a couple of producers just filling in at the studio for experience and pounds 50 a week expenses. But that, by contrast, is just what happened at one of last year's most prestigious advertising awards, the Campaign Poster Awards. The winning poster, by common consent a champion out of the very top drawer, was devised by copywriter Pete Cain and art directed by his partner Louis Bogue, both of whom were volunteers, working at the time on expenses-only placement at ad agency M&C Saatchi.

It's a powerful indication of one of the attractions of advertising as a career. Most industries pay at least lip service to the idea of meritocracy, but few can really deliver in quite such spectacular fashion. And few offer the same mixture of enviable working conditions and attractive salary that the successful adman can command.

A copywriter three or four years into employment at one of the top agencies, for example, might easily be earning pounds 50,000 a year. If their work wins an award that might earn them a bonus of anything up to pounds 10,000. And the offices in which they work are frequently extravagant advertisements for the creative career.

And that's not all. What adland staff can also expect are those little extras that make office life worth living. They might get corporate croissants in the morning, while most of them can enjoy a session down the subsidised gym at lunchtime before wriggling into their replica footie kit after work to take on their peers at a gentle five-a-side kick around. Naturally the kit and pitch will be provided by a beneficent employer. And afterwards they can repair to the company's bar to embrocate the stresses of the working day, at suitably subsidised prices.

"Pay and conditions are good but the real buzz comes from hearing people talk about your work," says Saatchi and Saatchi copywriter Andrew Fisher. "I've done a campaign for Jammie Dodgers recently and to hear kids picking up on that in the playgrounds is an unbelievable feeling.'

And if it all sounds too good to be true, that's because it is. There is at least one considerable obstacle separating would-be advertising creatives from their own private vision of workplace nirvana. It's called the placement system.

The placement system is how almost all advertising creatives get their first job. It's simply the process by which creative teams are offered work experience by the leading agencies. Andrew Fisher and his partner Dave Askwith administer the scheme at Saatchi's, taking on a maximum of two teams at any time for a maximum of three months. The teams will work long hours, tackle anything that's thrown their way and pick up the less than princely sum of pounds 75 a week for the first month, rising to pounds 100 if they are kept on for a second month and pounds 150 a week in the third.

There's no guarantee that this will lead to a job, indeed it probably won't, but it provides the raw material for a book that might persuade another agency to take them on. In fact, Saatchi's has just hired a creative team from placement, but more than 30 teams have passed through the doors since that last happened.

"In fact the system is a bit more structured and pleasant than it was in the past," points out Fisher, "and while teams do work hard, at least they are doing something they enjoy. I see people all the time and I enjoy helping young teams come into the industry but they have to realise that it's extremely competitive. You have to be part of a team for starters and usually you also have to have completed a postgraduate course like the one at Watford. So you might easily be in your mid-twenties before you even start taking up placements. It can be a huge financial commitment."

It can also be more taxing at some agencies than others. Saatchi's take an unusually enlightened view of the placement process. Some agencies offer as little as pounds 35 a week and hang on to staff at that reduced rate for months. There are all sorts of horror stories. One team of graduates from the Watford College training course worked an 18-month placement, was listed twice in the single most prestigious UK advertising awards, the Design & Art Directors, and still didn't get a job at the end of it.

But then placements are nowadays just the final hurdle of what has to be a long-term campaign to break into the industry - a quest that can take even the most talented years, cost thousands of pounds and which as a consequence increasingly attracts only the most hardened and dedicated of creative types.

"We still get people who really want to get into advertising because they think it's all about big money and driving around in a Porsche," points out Tony Cullingham, course director of the Watford College's talent pipeline copywriter and art direction course. "But far fewer. Most students realise that it's just not like that anymore. People nowadays have to be really dedicated to break into advertising because they are likely to have run up debt of up to pounds 15,000. But prospects are now looking up. Of the 13 teams who completed our course here last year, 11 now have jobs."

Cullingham receives almost 700 inquiries for the 30 places on offer for his one-year course and subjects them to a copywriting test to select the 80 or so people he then invites to day-long interviews. They have to answer questions such as Why? or to draw a picture which illustrates the word irony. And that's just the first step of a gruelling slog to advertising's promised land.