10 ways to kill an intern

Written by
Tommy Means, Mekanism

Jul 24, 2019

Jul 24, 2019 • Author: Tommy Means, Mekanism

OK, first of all, nobody is going to teach you how to actually kill an intern. Instead, this is about how I almost killed our interns by unintentionally breaking their hearts.

Through exit interviews, I became newly empathetic to their struggles. Even when you’re young and talented, it’s not easy to break into our business without the resources and connections to get that coveted first job. 

The Apollo 51 program is a network of creative shops committed to doing just that. It comprises 18 agencies, including Droga5, BBH, BBDO, Grey and Mekanism, the last of which is my workplace, with a goal of launching the careers of diverse future talent. We’ve been able to curate our internship programs into one that ensures there is more diversity at the ground level of our creative teams—at least 51 percent diverse talent, to be exact. 

Here are 10 tips that can benefit your intern program this summer: 

Be clear about hiring expectations
Be clear up front that an internship might not result in a full-time job
offer. And to alleviate the broken hearts, use your connections, social platforms and resources to help them find jobs.

Preach your purpose
Imagine an intern’s first day at the office. New outfit and a venti cup of eagerness. Out of the elevator and straight into the cynical salt mine of a hectic creative department. Let’s ensure that interns’ first impression is a positive one. On Day One, have an agency principal tell the company’s origin story, higher purpose and vision for great work. 

Build micro-mentorships
“When an actor enters through the door, you have a scene. But when an actor comes through the window, you have a story.” This quote from director Billy Wilder is a small but powerful piece of advice. It’s a simple metaphor to approaching an idea from a different angle. Assign every intern a creative mentor, through a structured and accountable relationship. But also inspire your non-mentor creatives to drop some “micro-mentor” knowledge. One simple quote can last a career.  

Throw them to the wolves
“Shit on my work. Please.” A young writer intern thought we were being too nice with our feedback. Instead of eviscerating her like her professors did, we explained that it wasn’t part of our culture. Destroying work does not get it from good to great fast. Try to make your internship program emulate the best of your creative process. Instead of exposing an intern to debilitating critique, throw them to the respectful and supportive wolves that live within your agency.  

Don’t hide them from clients
As a young creative, I never met a client until well into my career. Until then, I imagined them to be monsters lurking in a closet, munching on the team’s ideas. The sooner you expose a young creative to client thinking, the better. Interns need to understand where the work goes and why it comes back sold, mangled or killed. An in-person client meeting might be tough, but at least let them listen to a call or two. 

Art, copy and context
Interns are given the smallest assignments in the creative department. They work hard and produce work that too often ends up in a black hole. Try to structure a program that exposes interns to a project from brief to delivery, even if you have to make one up. It will help them experience the holistic creative journey.

Teach meeting theater
I once overheard Goodby, Silverstein & Partners Co-Founder Rich Silverstein say that the advertising business is a business of theater. A team of creatives telling stories and acting out ideas is often the best part of a client’s day, if not their week. Meeting theater is
crucial to selling an idea, and it’s rarely taught to young creatives. Make sure interns get to watch senior creative teams rehearse for a big meeting, and inspire them to theatrically pitch their own ideas. 

Serve up the Kool-Aid
There are more than 13,000 ad agencies in America. The one thing that makes yours unique—and potentially magical—is your culture. We have a tradition of giving our teams a standing ovation as they march out the door for a big pitch. We did the same for our interns when they set off for their final portfolio pitches. It warmed my heart to see them feeling genuinely immersed in the agency’s traditions. So, as you send your interns out into the world to seek their first jobs, make sure they are able to feel, and differentiate between, different cultures. 

Dude, where’s my portfolio?
A barren portfolio is the poison arrow that will kill most interns’ chances of landing a dream job. After months of hard work, there is still a very good chance that some will exit their internship with nothing marketable in their portfolio. One pro tip is to have all of your interns work on one master brief together. A master intern project ensures that all interns have something to show and that they can speak to the thinking and process for developing that work.

The art of the (mock) interview
In the last week of our program, we realized that our interns lacked the most important skill of all: how to crush an interview. So we conducted mock interviews and had them show us their portfolios. We offered advice both on selecting the right work and on what we look for in candidates. 


The article 10 ways to kill an intern first appeared on Ad Age.