The class of 2017 wants it all: Work-life balance and a well-paid future

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Recent grads aren't afraid to voice their expectations, and agencies are responding with new programs and policies.

As college students trade their caps and gowns for timesheets and RFPs, ad agencies are shifting into the busiest recruitment season of the year. Like any newly-minted alums, these ad grads are feeling a mix of excitement and trepidation as they prepare to start rounds of interviews, a new position or—hopefully—their final summer internship.

But this new cohort of entry-level employees isn’t begging for jobs. Agencies are competing with tech giants, consultancies and even their own clients for the best talent. Combine that with a generational bent toward openness and prospective workers have become emboldened, speaking up about their own needs more than ever before, even before being hired. Work-life balance, recognition, compensation—once taboo topics are on the table now, and agencies, in turn, are developing new policies and having new conversations that may change the face of the industry.

Recent graduates are "a lot more upfront and open and transparent about their needs, their wants, as well as their concerns during the interview process," said Jennifer Catherall, chief talent officer of Tribal Worldwide New York. "They ask very openly, ‘What are the hours?’ ‘What's work-life balance like?’ You have somebody who's just out of college and already talking about financial security, talking about family planning. All those things that entry-level candidates 15 years ago certainly didn't bring up, or maybe weren’t even thinking about at that time."

This year, a woman asked Catherall about the prospects for parenthood—whether taking a job at Tribal would be conducive to having a child in about 10 years. "She asked that right out of college, which was impressive," Catherall said. "All of the conversations that we're having around gender equality, I think, are giving people the comfort and the confidence to speak up and ask these questions."

More than ever before, interviews for entry-level positions at agencies have become two-sided, with both parties trying to determine whether this a relationship they want to pursue. New recruits express expectations rather than concerns, said Eric Weisberg, chief creative officer at Doner. Since joining the agency last summer after 15 years at JWT New York, Weisberg has been building up Doner’s creative team, actively recruiting young creatives out of school and from larger markets.

"When people ask about the benefits Doner offers, they’re not asking about the 401k match or the copay. That's just an expected norm at any reasonable company, and that's not how they define benefits," he said. "The expectation is that you come into a culture that shares your values, that gives you flexibility to pursue your personal passions and not just your work passions. They look at Google and Facebook's sabbatical offerings. They look at how the company is investing in the community and diversity initiatives and all those things which they consider to be aligned to their values."

Still, it’s not like recent grads are holding out a list of demands as they grill recruiters. Many of their concerns are the same questions everyone has about the industry—questions no one can answer definitively for them.

"I am equally fearful of and excited by the fast-paced, ever-changing nature of the advertising industry," said Maddie Weiss, a 22-year-old graduate of the University of Georgia’s AdPR program. "On one hand, this can mean high turnover rates of employees or clients, but it also means technology is changing at such a rapid rate that there are more ways to engage with consumers, which is something I'm excited to explore."

Industry uncertainty has made young workers prioritize mentorship opportunities, especially those guaranteed relationships facilitated by the agencies themselves. "There's an expectation that they're going to have access to management and mentorship that's going to allow them to feel a key part of the company and not just a cog in the wheel," Weisberg said.

To address these varied concerns, agencies have undertaken efforts to adjust or revamp their policies. To better incorporate personal passion projects, Minneapolis agency mono has a program called Work + Rec that lets employees pitch an idea that the agency will develop. "They have to present it to the agency and we all vote in support of the ideas that have the most merit," said Julie Vessel, director of talent at mono. "This gives all employees, no matter their tenure, the opportunity to think creatively, work on their presentation skills and the time and budget to see an idea through, all as a part of their 9-to-5 job."

Rob Schwartz, CEO of TBWA\Chiat\Day New York, makes it a point to engage with prospective employees in-person. He recently presenting an interactive lecture on logo design at Princeton University’s Designation Conference last month in Manhattan. "It was like a pop-up internship," he said. He also responds directly to inquiries from students and recent grads asking advice about how to break into the industry or how to get a job specifically at TBWA. "The senior people here, we’re all recruiters."

To accommodate new workers who expect better work-life balance, Tribal Worldwide has implemented a year-round summer Fridays policy, Catherall said. "If you can get out of here at one o'clock, we are opening the door for you and begging you to get out and enjoy your ‘me’ time."

There is also a ban on sending work-related emails between 8:30 p.m. and 8:30 a.m. A full-time culture coordinator implements the wellness program, which features fitness challenges, speakers, meditation, monthly massages and monthly yoga classes. And an agency partnership with Bright Horizons child care provides backup care for young children or an aging or sick family member.

While spurred by the desires of new employees, these types of changes at agencies apply to everyone, from long-time workers who were hired without the expectation of the perks to senior management. "From a culture standpoint, overall job satisfaction has increased at Tribal," Catherall said. "I absolutely think that what entry-level talent is asking of us is benefiting all of us."

Not every recent grad, however, has the same concerns or expectations, because not every grad is dealing with the same obstacles. On top of traditional agency issues, women and people of color who are new to the industry have to navigate potentially thorny topics.

"It's a whole other set of concerns," said Taylor Yarbrough, manager, diversity and inclusion strategy and talent development at the 4A’s, who also runs the organization’s Multicultural Advertising Intern Program. "’Am I being heard?’ ‘Am I being included in these conversations, in these decision making opportunities?’ ‘Do I even know if I'm missing out on any opportunities?’ I know a lot of very talented people that have either left the industry, or just switched an agency because they didn't feel like they were getting the support they needed to succeed within that space."

Ironically, young people of color and women can actually be less concerned about diversity issues than their mid-level peers, Yarbrough said. It’s not that those issues aren’t important to them, but they’re more optimistic. "You're there for a few years, the work is still fun, and there's definitely still good moments, but when you realize that maybe I'm not getting the development that I need to succeed, or maybe I'm not getting the support, the financial resources that I need to do this, you start to come down to earth a little bit."

To help prevent those late-term realizations, the 4A’s introduced the MAIP Coach Program, which pairs new grads with a mentor for a summer. "The coaches are really good at dropping the reality bombs on our Fellows and keeping them grounded and making sure that they don't kill the excitement and curiosity that they have."

The needs of new grads also vary by discipline. "My biggest fear about entering the industry right now would be to not have the ability to be me at a job, to just execute other's ideas and lose part of me in the process," said Aaron Cheng, a 21-year-old from Venezuela who just graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and is beginning a summer internship at BBDO NY. "I believe that as a recent grad in the ad world, it’s important to show that you have a voice, a tone and a personality."

That’s a sentiment Weisberg has often encountered while recruiting creatives to Doner. "A lot of agencies haven't really articulated their vision in a way that was participatory," he said. "There's a strong expectation among young employees that there is a vision from the leaders of the company, that you buy into that vision and it's something that excites you."

Sometimes, though, articulating a clear and prominent vision tells prospective employees everything they need to know about agency life and expectations. A recent memo from Schwartz praising two employees for skipping a bachelor party to work through the weekend on a pitch was met with feedback both negative and positive. It also offered a useful metric for self-selection.

"That was probably the single best recruiting tool we’ve had in the last 6 months. A lot of people got really interested in the agency," Schwartz said. "The world is split between those who are ambitious and those who are not. As a company we don’t need to hire everybody. There are a lot of places to work now, and if you want something where the ethic of the place is more casual and less demanding and less energetic, by all means, go there, because you’re not going to be happy in an agency like this one."