From three-martini lunches to Madison Avenue offices, the ad industry has produced plenty of famous traditions. Less famous — though perhaps more enduring — is its tradition of paying new workers a pittance while demanding long hours and often thankless work.
The news that the Obama administration may soon extend overtime pay to Americans earning less than $50,400 a year may represent the first real threat to that tradition in decades. As agencies search for an affordable solution, we decided to ask some industry leaders — the ones who now make the proverbial big bucks — to share their memories of entry-level salaries and scrimping to survive.
Not everyone in the industry was eager to share their stories. But not one person we asked had trouble recalling his or her starting salary. Apparently, no matter how successful you become, you never forget that first paycheck. Even if it earned you only enough for one more meal of peanut butter and ramen.
Starting Salary: $13,000
Adjusted for inflation: $31,504.35
As an Assistant Account Executive. Lived in a two-bedroom with three friends (two per room), tight quarters but wardrobe access to all!
President, CEO, BBDO
Starting Salary: £6,000
Adjusted for inflation: (£19,100 or $26,984)
I started as a trainee media planner at Ogilvy London in 1982 on £6,000 ($10,800) a year. I rented a room in a friend’s apartment for £30 a week, cooked all my own food, watched a lot of television, only went out a couple of times a week for drinks, and never took a cab.
Starting Salary: $18,000
Adjusted for inflation: $35,330
I started as a proofreader/copy-typist. (Yep, that was when we typed up ideas on a typewriter — before everyone had Macs.) It was 1989. Ton Loc's 'Funky Cold Madina' was playing on every radio. And I was making $18,000 a year. I lived in a walk-in closet, literally, in my friend's apartment in Chelsea. Just enough room for a futon and an upside-down milk crate night table. I spent my days and nights working very hard to become a copywriter and taking on every assignment I could. I had a part-time job on weekends at my brother-in-law's deli. I was broke. I remember doing incessant and constant calculations as I walked down the street contemplating what I could spend if I had lunch or bought a new shirt or took a cab instead of the subway. Once I was promoted to copywriter my salary jumped to $28,000. I felt like I won the lottery. I was still broke. But I was on my way.
Starting Salary: $9,500
Adjusted for inflation: $30,300
I couldn’t survive on that. So I decided to go back to business school, and I lived at home. Couldn’t live out on my own with that salary.
Partner, President, SS+K
Starting Salary: $17,500
Adjusted for inflation: $30,000
My first job was in 1992 at Ogilvy — then Ogilvy and Mather. I was accepted into the Media Training program an Assistant Media Buyer making approximately $17,500! Even in those days it was challenging to make ends meet on that wage. We used to count on the Upfront parties for food. It was basically peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch and a gorge fest in the evening at whatever party I was invited to.
Chairman, CCO, BBDO Worldwide
Starting Salary: $4,000
Adjusted for inflation: $10,960
I made $4,000 ($10,960 in 2015) in 1981. Hahaha it’s true. Couldn’t find a job at a good place so I took intern money to be at one.
Co-Chairman, Partner, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners
Starting Salary: $15,000
Adjusted for inflation: $57,130
My first job was as a writer on Chevron at JWT San Francisco. A creative director friend told me that it was imperative to ask for exactly the right salary. 'If you go too high, they’ll wonder if they made a mistake hiring you. If you go too low, it’ll take you years to make it all back up.' I went for $15,000, which was $3,000 more than I was making as a newspaper reporter. You could actually live on that amount just fine in San Francisco in those days, as long as you shared a big Victorian with three other crazy people.
Founder, CCO, FL&G
Starting Salary: $15,000
Adjusted for inflation: $24,330
When I first started out in the industry at BBDO New York, I was making about $15,000 per year. I had the very strange title of Permanent Part-Time Assistant Art Director, because I was working at BBDO while I was attending Pratt Institute. After I graduated, I was hired full-time as an Assistant Art Director, making $35,000. I have to be honest — it was hard. I left school with almost $100,000 in student loans and still had to pay for rent and all of the other basics required to live. Ramen became my food of choice. Luckily, because I was a creative, I could wear sneakers, jeans and a T-shirt to work.
Chairman, CEO, MDC Partners
Starting Salary: $9,000
Adjusted for inflation: $34,280
I was working for the legendary Phil Guarascio, as an Assistant Media Planner at Benton & Bowles. No Internet. No computers. No word processors. Spreadsheets were manual. And when we made mistakes, only White-Out saved the day.
CCO, Y&R NY
Starting Salary: $25,000
Adjusted for inflation: $40,500
It was hard, but I didn't know any better.
Founder, Chairman, Deep Focus
Starting Salary: $22,500
Adjusted for inflation: $33,500
Associate Media Planner. I lived with my parents for the first half of the year and bussed 90 minutes each way. Once I saved a bit of money (and/or went crazy), I moved into a $1200/month 250 square foot studio on 22nd street between 2nd and 3rd avenues. Yeah, I ate ramen. And a lot of diner food. But growing up in NJ, I was used to that. I worked crazy hours at a very young digital agency, but we were family.
Starting Salary: $27,000
Adjusted for inflation: $41,600
In 1996, I made $27,000. And lived with a roommate in Brooklyn. When nobody lived in Brooklyn. And I had a deal with my landlord: I checked in on his parents — who lived in the basement apartment — and he agreed to raise my rent only $15 each year.
U.S. EVP, ECD, R/GA
Starting Salary: $25,000
Adjusted for inflation: $44,200
My career began at a Saatchi & Saatchi training program, working as a junior copywriter for $21,000. After a year of training with different art directors to find the best fit, I was hired full time to work on Northwest Airlines and my salary was raised to a whopping $25,000.
CCO, Walton Isaacson
Starting Salary: $35,000
Adjusted for inflation: $56,000
I was very proud to be a working ad creative and to have landed my first job out of Grad School. I had a new suit that my parents bought me (I would later learn you never wear a suit in advertising) and a fresh portfolio case. I remember feeling like a million bucks and walking in that job like I was Angela from "Who’s the Boss." But as a Junior Art Director I was not anywhere near a million bucks. My parents were pretty generous in assisting with my rent. They were always concerned about safety, so I didn’t live in any hell hole apartments. They definitely "subsidized" my early years in Chicago 'til I started making decent money. But I also got very familiar with the taste of ramen noodles and tuna fish.
Chief Creative Officer, FCB New York
Starting Salary: $25,000
Adjusted for inflation:$41,700
My first salary was $25,000 a year at DMB&B in New York. Thankfully, it included overtime, which got me to about $31,000, but I still had to live off of the land in Central Park, cutting open the belly of one of the carriage horses so I could sleep inside for warmth, just to survive the brutal winter. Oh wait, that was DiCaprio in 'The Revenant.' I just got lucky and found a rent-controlled apartment.
CEO, Partners + Napier
Starting Salary: $11,600
Adjusted for inflation: $27,084.79
I lived with 4 people in a little apartment and I worked like crazy, by the time I was 28 I was a VP.