The future of advertising: What do the interns think?

When the challenges are obvious to the interns, it's time to realize the platform we're standing on is burning, writes RPA's SVP of creative, marketing and innovation

A couple of times a year, I do a presentation for our current crop of interns. I begin by asking them to think about "the future of advertising" and what it looks like. Inevitably, they surprise me with their remarkably clear vision of what's coming.

And then I explain that it was actually a trick question, because the future of advertising is, of course, them.

If you just rolled your eyes, that's cool. I probably would, too. But the gag is effective. Suddenly, the interns aren't at the bottom of the totem pole, hoping for a glance inside the Wonka-esque magical idea factory. They realize they're important. They realize the factory is going to be theirs someday.

Any agency is fundamentally only as good as the people that make it up. People are everything to us. Internships aren't just an opportunity for them—it’s an opportunity for us to show them why we love advertising and why it’s worth keeping their smart brains in our industry. And perhaps even more importantly, interns are an opportunity for senior folks to learn as well.

So, at RPA, we commissioned a survey of recent interns from agencies in the Los Angeles area (not just our own) to see what else we could learn about the future of our industry. Here’s what we learned:

They really do want to do this. One thing we learned is that they didn't stumble into this field by chance. Ninety-five percent of them were already interested in pursuing a career in advertising before their internship. And only 4 percent were less interested in the industry after their internship.

Also interesting is what they aren't interested in. For all we hear about the freelance economy, startup culture and the millennials' passion for doing good, the vast majority of our interns want to work for either a well-known brand (84 percent) or an advertising agency (81 percent). Less than half of them have any interest at all in working for a start-up (44 percent) and 26 percent expressed an interest in working for a nonprofit. They did intern for an ad agency, after all, not for Heal the Bay—so maybe this shouldn’t be surprising.

But this is surprising: only 21 percent have an interest in working freelance in the future. Considering how mainstream the idea is today, it’s interesting that our future leaders have a much stronger bias towards full-time work.

Creativity is (still) our secret weapon. Whether they plan to work in the department with the word "creative" in its name, or not, people are attracted to our creativity. Seventy percent of respondents listed "Creative Work and Environment" as one of the top-three most appealing aspects of the industry.

This is vital, as the industry continues to evolve. In this big data, programmatic, digital-everything world, it’s easy to let creativity take a back seat. But creativity is the one job artificial intelligence will have a hard time replacing. It requires people.

And the silo-ing of creativity into a dedicated department has a similar effect. Too often, both young and seasoned people disclaim an idea with "I'm not creative, but...." This needs to stop. Creativity comes in all shapes and sizes, and we need to foster it across every discipline if we want to thrive in the future.

They see our challenges without bias. Interns aren't part of the advertising system already, so they have no interest in perpetuating legacy thinking. This helps them see industry challenges with clarity. In one respondent’s words, they "worry about the ethics of the industry and how the continued use of digital media may turn off more and more consumers to advertising in general."

They don’t resist change, they adapt to it—even when it comes to where they see themselves. They recognize that "the trend of doing more in-house will continue," and as such, can potentially see themselves as being client-side in the not so distant future, or even understanding why their friends are "more interested in working at Facebook and Twitter than advertising."

When these challenges are obvious to people who've been working for only a few weeks, it's time to wake up and realize the platform we're standing on is burning.

They can remind us how to thrive. For even the best of us, it's easy to get bogged down by our day-to-day tasks and forget the attitudes and actions that help make superstars. We asked the interns what traits they believe are most important for achieving success. Their answers are valuable advice to anyone who wants to make an impact, at any level:

Adaptability – Being able to go with the flow was key for them, and given the industry’s unpredictability, that’ll be good trait to have moving forward.

Open Communication – Simply talking to people outside of your own team was something they valued. Finding mentors is key these days, and so is finding new ideas.

Initiative – Being told what to do isn’t in this generation’s DNA, so it’s no shock that standing up and creating their own projects that can benefit the larger team is something that they gravitate towards.

In general, internships exist to help the interns learn. But in an industry that's all about people, there's a lot to be said for taking the time to learn from the interns as well. They are often more sophisticated than we give them credit for, and it’s up to us to help them grow into tomorrow’s industry leaders. 

--Tim Leake is SVP of creative, marketing and innovation at RPA in Los Angeles


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