Does the advertising industry have a problem with modern slavery?


Whenever there’s a conversation with purchasing about modern slavery law, there’s a general consensus that most companies think about slavery in a more historical or dramatic context, says Darren Woolley, Founder and Global Managing Director of TrinityP3. But for most developed economies, the interpretation of this UN Sustainable Development Goal is to ensure that people are not exploited in the workplace.

The climate crisis. Diversity, Inclusion and Equity. These are all detailed initiatives to be addressed in the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to change the world. At the start of the Sustainable Development Goals process, ending modern slavery was not a clear priority. Following significant campaigning, in a late-breaking addition, the final version of the Sustainable Development Goals included language calling for efforts to end modern slavery. These goals, which all governments can now adopt, were finalized by the United Nations General Assembly in September 2015.

According to law firm Norton Rose Fulbright“In its broadest sense, the term ‘modern slavery’ refers to any situation of exploitation in which a person cannot refuse or leave work due to threats, violence, coercion, abuse of power or deception”.

So what does this mean for the advertising industry? Well, if you read the industry trade media and listen to agency executives at one of the virtual or real industry conferences, nothing. It would appear that the industry has all 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals in hand and underway. And while I am not suggesting that the advertising industry practices “slavery, servitude, worst forms of child labor, forced labor, human trafficking, debt bondage, practices similar to slavery, forced marriage and deceptive recruitment for work or services”, this topic is becoming an area of ​​increasing importance for procurement teams globally.

Therefore, it’s worth considering where ad agencies may need to rethink their processes, culture, and behaviors. Here are three that immediately come to mind.


Despite a number of industry actions and discussions over the past few years, the practice of hiring unpaid interns potentially falls under modern slavery law. While it is unfortunate that young people often have to undertake unpaid internships in a number of agencies before they can have the opportunity for paid work, it is particularly distressing to hear of interns doing the work of staff paid for 6 months for more .

There are specific rules described for work experience and internships. Yet many reported that the expectations of agencies are that they are not there to be formally trained but to do unpaid work, with initial short-term commitments spanning months, with the promise of a Job done, but never done. It’s even worse if the agency charges clients for their work or even includes them as a resource under a retainer.

If you consult certain profiles of young graduates on LinkedIn, you will often find more than one year of internship for some, generally unpaid. Simply search for “intern” for the marketing and advertising category.

The beginner

So if they survive the internship process and manage to land an entry-level position with an agency, then both issues arise with their salary of $35,000 per year reflecting minimum wage for 1,650 hours per year. The first is that it often includes their mandatory pension contribution. The second is that they are expected to work more like 2400 hours per year with unpaid overtime – or effectively less than $15 per hour.

Okay, so they’re underpaid and overworked. Many of the most experienced players in the industry will put this down to doing your time and earning your stripes. This culture of unpaid overtime is prevalent throughout the industry, even at the most junior levels. But what happens next, if not the exploitation, may be fraudulent. In these times of fiscal restraint, the beginner is told that salary increases are on hold. While they may get a title raise, they get a very modest or no pay raise to go along with the new title. It’s called a title promotion and we first noticed it in 2010.

But with the title promotion comes new responsibilities, with new clients, who have no idea their new senior account manager has less than two years of industry experience. Of course, the agency bills them as the lead account manager on the tenure and pockets 80% of the revenue, while the newbie learns a valuable lesson about why the ad industry has such turnover. high of employees.

The supply chain

Finally, we come to a shopping favourite: the offshore supply chain. Whether for design and production or digital and technology development, more and more agencies are building or partnering with suppliers in lower-cost markets such as Eastern Europe, the sub- continent or Asia. The benefit to the client is lower cost and faster time to market, with many more employees working on the project at the same time.

But with these offshore production facilities, how can the agency be assured that those who work there do so voluntarily and under acceptable underemployment conditions by local standards? There is enormous competitive pressure on agencies to cut costs, but supplying low-cost workers from overseas markets can be risky.

How many times have we heard of outsourcing in the fashion industry and the technology sector, causing scandals and problems for local businesses, wanting to enjoy the financial advantages of low-cost labor cost, but unwilling or unable to ensure that low-cost labor enjoys a level of employment equivalent to that of their home-based employees?

Working for a sustainable world

When we speak with modern slavery law procurement, there is a general consensus that most companies think of slavery in a more historical or dramatic context. But for most developed economies, the interpretation of this UN Sustainable Development Goal is to ensure that people are not exploited in the workplace.

Adopting these initiatives means not only complying with legal interpretations of the laws, but also looking at the broader context of modern slavery and as an industry working to ensure that no one is exploited through their employment status.

Darren Woolley is Founder and Global Managing Director of TrinityP3


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