Ottawa agency’s intern recruitment effort called out on Twitter

Apparently there’s no crying in recruiting. An Ottawa agency found that out the hard way this week when its unusual intern recruitment program garnered some negative attention on social media. A New York college professor denounced it as “the darkest and dumbest thing” and encouraged young people not to work there.

“Intern Tears,” a direct mail effort from digital creative agency McMillan, touted paid internships offering real client work. Its intended message was that its internships are best suited to people willing to work hard, even to the point of tears.

A box containing bottles supposedly filled with the tears of former McMillan interns was sent to several schools, accompanied by a note asking instructors to recommend the agency to students. “Don’t come to us. Unless you’re ready for the kind of agency work that’ll beat you down to build you up,” reads the copy on one bottle. Messaging on the website, meanwhile, reads, “We promise to kick your ass. So you can kick-start your career.”

Juliette Cezzar, assistant professor of communication design at the New School’s Parson School of Design in New York, took to Twitter on Tuesday to express her distaste with the campaign.

“Ok so I don’t normally call people out on Twitter, but last week we got this box of “intern tears” from an agency in Ottawa and it’s just the darkest, dumbest thing I’ve seen in this dark and dumb moment we’re living in,” she wrote in a tweet featuring a picture of the bottles (above).

The tweet had garnered more than 1,100 likes and 269 retweets as of Wednesday afternoon. Among those commenting were well-known ad world champion/critic Cindy Gallop, who wrote “FUCK. THAT. SHIT” and included a link to an article about “bro culture” in agencies.

Rob Hyams, McMillan’s chief creative officer, told The Message that hard work should be seen as a positive element of an internship with the agency. “We’re not making light of toxic workplaces. We’ve worked hard to foster and build a healthy work environment,” he said. “Our insight was that young people are unfairly cast as lazy or entitled, when in reality they’re actually very ambitious. And they certainly don’t want all their hard work in college or university to culminate in an internship that doesn’t give them real-world experience.”

Hyams said the tears are meant to represent the fact that working in advertising is hard, that clients can be demanding and the work intimidating. “This isn’t meant to be taken literally,” he said. “Of course we don’t work our interns to tears. It’s about letting them know that we treat them as equals by giving them real-world experience here.”

McMillan sent the package to 12 schools and received more than 100 applications, says Hyams. “We knew it was bold and unconventional and probably wouldn’t resonate with everyone, but we were willing to take that risk,” he said.

In an interview with The Message, Cezzar said she was shocked when she saw the package, which included bottles bearing labels reading “Tears of Cameron” and “Tears of Ally.” “If you got something like that from your ex, wouldn’t you call the police? It’s just too much,” she said.

The New School has been vocal about its distaste for unpaid internships, she said, so she initially thought the package was just an “elaborate hoax” meant to “troll” school administrators.

Cezzar believes that too many agencies treat interns as free labour. “For the most part they don’t learn that much,” she said. “Students who spend a lot of time on their schoolwork tend to graduate with stronger work and get better opportunities.

“It just seems like it’s time to call some of this behaviour out,” she added. “I have an inside track on the lack of value placed on [interns] and the amount of abuse they get. It’s a very different time right now.”

But Hyams said that McMillan designed its internship program to attract attract young talent in a competitive market. “Creative agencies don’t have the cache they once did,” he said. “Here in Ottawa it’s the tech upstarts and marijuana firms that are attracting young people. It’s hard to get a job in this industry without experience. We invite our interns to work on real clients to help them build a strong portfolio or resume. Many end up gaining full-time employment with the agency after graduation.”

In fact, Hyams says the idea for the campaign came from two former interns, one of whom now works at McMillan and wrote the copy for the campaign.

—With files from Chris Powell

David Brown