The case against paying interns with T-shirts and coffee cups

Along with its breakthrough and often award-winning client work, Zulu Alpha Kilo has built a reputation for taking a stand against problems in the industry, with its campaigns about unpaid spec work, for example, becoming famous in ad circles.

But agency founder Zak Mroueh has also said that just as his agency should be paid for any work it does, all agency interns should similarly be paid for the work they do.

“Part of the founding principles of the agency is to try to improve and challenge the way things have always been done,” said Mroueh. “It’s the responsibility of every industry to groom the next generation of talent. Unpaid internships are not always manageable for those who may not have the financial means. Which means we don’t get to see an equitable representation of who the best talent really is.”

That belief led to the creation of the agency’s “employeeship” program in 2017, and is behind a new campaign for the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) in the U.S.

The “Unpaid is Unfair” campaign depicts the absurdity of unpaid internships with six different minute-long videos—directed by Mroueh—featuring a young woman trying to pay for things in the real world with the “compensation” she receives from her internship, such as agency T-shirts and coffee cups, a thank you card, and a letter of recommendation.

Naturally, each of the vendors are confused by her proposal, and suggest she insist on getting real money for her work.

The genesis of the campaign goes back to late 2019, when the agency hosted 20 advertising students from Humber College, and asked them to create a campaign encouraging businesses to pay student interns. Robin Heisey, a professor in the Humber College advertising program at the time, suggested they contact NACE to see if it would be interested in what they were working on. It was, but production of the winning idea from Brooke Charlinski and Joel Gerrity was put on hold because of the pandemic.

However, earlier this year, NACE released a new position statement calling on all internships to be paid, with research to support their call—a perfect time to actually produce the videos and put the campaign into market.

“In our most recent study, we found that paid interns averaged 1.4 job offers, while unpaid interns averaged less than one,” said Shawn VanDerziel, NACE executive director. “The data also shows that employees who have been paid interns have higher retention rates than unpaid interns or those who have never participated in an internship.”

“It’s the beginning of a new school year, when companies and students are in the early stages of planning for internships in the months ahead—it’s time we retire the idea of unpaid internships once and for all,” added Mroueh.

And yes, the Humber College students were paid for their work.

David Brown