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Picture: pch.vector/Freepik
Picture: pch.vector/Freepik

For a young person entering the agency world, the benefits of an internship are obvious: it’s a valuable opportunity to learn about the business, gain experience, build their network and prove themselves.

But internships also benefit the agency in terms of finding and nurturing new talent, says Khumo du Toit, learning and development manager at VML. “The agency gets to take talent from scratch, guide them, mentor them and help them put theory into real contexts. For agency staff it’s an opportunity to develop leadership skills through mentoring interns.

To achieve that, the internship needs to be mutually beneficial to the intern and the employer, she says, adding that the cliché of the unpaid intern relegated to coffee service is out. In 2024 internships need to make business sense.

Internships need to be strategic

Before accepting an intern, the business needs to have the capacity to create an environment where they can learn, grow and develop, says Du Toit. “If the point is to create jobs, begin with the end in mind. Running an internship should not be a tick-box exercise. We need to think about what the individual will get out of it. You need to think, ‘How do I set this person up so I would want to hire them at the end?’”

There’s no point placing an intern with a team that has no capacity to mentor them because at the end of the internship, not only will the intern have gained little from the experience, they will also not be a viable prospect for the business, she says.

This requires a willingness on the part of the agency to invest time and effort into training and mentoring interns. Du Toit suggests enlisting the help of an external service provider to provide interns with formal training. Then pair the intern with the right destination team to ensure they get relevant on-the-job experience.

Set clear parameters

For internships to be beneficial to both the intern and the employer, the parameters need to be clear from the outset — including time frames and remuneration, says Du Toit.

She says VML offers longer learnerships to allow unemployed individuals the opportunity to gain valuable experience while learning towards a related qualification, and shorter-term internships for those coming out of formal learning. Both are remunerated.

The exchange of work for experience is vague. It can also lead to a situation where the intern is forced to take time off or adjust their hours to accommodate a paying job. Having a remuneration structure in place professionalises the relationship between the employer and the intern. It allows the agency as the employer to make reasonable demands on the intern’s time. The intern is incentivised to produce their best effort while the employer is incentivised to ensure the intern is given the necessary opportunities.

Running an internship should not be a tick-box exercise. We need to think about what the individual will get out of it
Khumo du Toit

Adjust your recruiting

“Recruiting interns is not the same as recruiting experienced staff — you’re recruiting for potential,” says Du Toit. For one, a good intern doesn’t necessarily have to come from an advertising-related education stream. “We see people pivoting into marketing and communications from, for example, the sciences. That doesn’t necessarily count against them. What’s more important is that they’re coachable, teachable and hungry for the opportunity. They need to have curiosity to learn and continue learning. We also take note of how they show up in the interview — their attitude and whether they’ve taken the time to look up the company and learn about it.”

Once again, it’s about approaching the recruitment process with the end in mind. If the goal is to employ the person at the end, it’s important to think about what kind of staff member you would want this person to grow into and whether you see that potential in the candidate — not whether they are that person already.

Managing interns in a post-pandemic hybrid work culture

Since Covid many agencies have adopted a hybrid working structure and that lack of constant in-person interaction can make it trickier to keep track of interns.

It’s always beneficial for an intern to be reliable, self-motivated and curious, but even more so in a hybrid working environment, so those are qualities that should top the list of attributes agencies look for during the recruitment process. “If we’re encouraging teams to be in the office at certain times, it’s even more important for interns to be present at those times to build relationships with their colleagues and seek out opportunities to learn,” says Du Toit. “And when you’re working remotely, they need to be deliberate about engaging with people. The office water cooler is now our Teams chat.”

It’s also important, through the induction process, to prepare the intern adequately, she advises. “Let them know what will be expected of them, not just in terms of their deliverables, but in terms of the agency culture and their level of engagement with colleagues. They need to know it’s OK to speak up in the Teams chat and that it’s not OK to choose to stay home on work-from-office days.”

Today’s interns are the future leaders of the industry. It’s therefore important that the industry makes an effort to invest in them. By approaching internships positively and proactively, the business will also benefit. 

The big take-out: Internships are a way for the advertising industry to invest in future talent. However, they need to be mutually beneficial to both the intern and the agency.

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