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Hiring interns for your agency

Interns have been a common sight at many agencies, especially over the summer months. For small agency owners, the idea of hiring interns can be especially appealing because it feels like an easy (and affordable) way to grow your workforce and get more done.

Yet there are many challenges with brining interns on board. While it once was normal to have unpaid interns, that has fallen out of favor — and may even run afoul of labor laws in your jurisdiction.

It is also important to remember that interns should be learning and growing in their roles, not merely filling needed work hours for the agency and its clients.

In this episode, Chip and Gini discuss their advice for creating and maintaining an internship program that benefits all involved.

The following is a computer-generated transcript. Please listen to the audio to confirm accuracy.

Chip Griffin: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast.

I’m Chip Griffin

and I’m Gini Dietrich.

And today we are hiring an intern for this podcast because that’s what we really need, an intern. Oh yeah, that poor kid. Solves all the problems in the world. And we’ll explain how, right after this.

So how many times, Gini, have you talked to someone who said, you know, Oh, We’re overworked. We just need to hire an intern at summer. Let’s bring an intern on and that will solve our people power problems.

Gini Dietrich: every day I have that conversation.

Chip Griffin: And how often have you actually seen that work out? never.

Exactly. Never. We’re going to talk about interns because interns are, they do play an important role in the agency community and they can be valuable, but not necessarily for the reasons that I think most people are focused on.

Gini Dietrich: No, for sure. They, you’re not going to get more time back and they’re not going to take a lot of things off of your plate.

Chip Griffin: That is correct. They are. And, and generally speaking, by the time you get them up to speed, so they actually are helping you. They freaking leave. It’s time for them to leave. Yes. The semester’s over. The summer’s over and they leave. Yes. And you are back at square one because now you sit there and say, well, geez, I, I had this help for the last two or three months.

Yes. Now it’s gone. Now what do I do now? You got into a whole new routine and now that stuff is back on your plate or back on your team’s plate. Yes. And so you really, before you decide to hire an intern, you need to think these things through and notice I say hire because that’s the other piece of this, particularly here in the United States, it is very difficult to have free interns anymore.

When I got started 30 years ago, free interns were the norm. I mean, that was when you were an intern, you expected to work for free. Yep. Nowadays, it is very difficult to do that legally. It’s still possible. But you have a lot more hoops you generally have to jump through. Usually you wanna be doing it in conjunction with a school program or something like that.

And even then, in some cases, you have to, the schools will require you Yep, yep. To, to pay the internships. Yep. Yeah. I, which is, which is kind of funny because the student is paying the school usually for the program that has the internship and then the, it’s, it’s a very odd setup there. That’s a very good point.

But congratulations to higher education. They’ve. That’s figured out how to make it work.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, that’s a very good point. I’d never thought that through, but yeah. Yeah, there are schools. And so I think a lot of the conversation is twofold. One that they, people assume agency owners assume that they can get the intern for free, which is not the case.

And that this person is, or people are going, it’s going to take a ton of work off of your plate, which is also not the case. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t have them, because I do think you should. I think there’s a big advantage to, to your point, you know, you have a summer intern, they go back to school for their senior year, they can come back to you and work for you full time.

So there are advantages to it for sure. But Where you’ve been, you’ve been able to work together. And in many cases I’ve seen at work where they come for the summer, they work full time and then they scale back to part time during the school year and then they join full time after they graduate. So there, I think there are opportunities for you to do those kinds of things and test people out and make sure that their culture fit and all those, all of those sorts of things.

But yeah, they’re not free and they’re not going to take a ton of work off of your plate.

Chip Griffin: Right. And so you need to think about it in terms of, you know, what are your actual costs because you’re going to have to hire them. You’re going to have to pay them something during the time that they’re there, but you also have to think about the time that you’re investing because for an intern to, to even be marginally effective in helping you, you’re going to need to spend time training them and mentoring them and those kinds of, and that’s going to eat up time, particularly in the early stages of the internship, but it should continue throughout, even once you’ve got them.

So they’re up to speed on whatever you want them to be helping you out with. You still need to be giving back to them by helping. I mean, an internship is not about just providing work hours. That’s a part time job, a full time job, a temporary job. An internship is about learning. And so that means that you need to be spending time helping them to figure out, you know, is this the right fit for the kind of job that they’re looking for?

Because Students will do internships to figure out, do I want to work for an agency? Do I want to work in house? Do I even want to be in PR or marketing? Do I want to do something entirely different? Right? It’s an exploratory phase for them. And you need to be helping them through that process, not just thinking of them in terms of labor hours.

Gini Dietrich: I think that’s a really good point, because I think the other thing that happens is agency owners will say, okay, well, you know, pre pandemic, we need somebody to answer the phone or we need somebody to greet. You know, a more receptionist role versus a marketing communications advertising role, which the student is probably majoring in, to your point, to, to figure out if it’s the work that they want to do and what kind of work they want to do.

I’ve seen lots of internships where they go and get coffee for the account teams, like that kind of stuff. And maybe that’s fine as a small sliver, but if they’re not doing the work that they would be doing as a full time employee. They’re not getting what they need out of it. You’re not getting what, what you need out of it.

And it’s not working. So if you want somebody, you need somebody to answer phones and greet clients when they come into the door and get coffee and order lunches and that kind of thing. Hire a receptionist don’t hire an intern. The intern is there to learn and for you to, in many cases, like one of the things we’ll do is we’ll give mid level managers, A group of interns to manage and lead so that they get those skills and learn how to do it in a way that allows them to fail.

It allows the interns to fail, but it’s in a safe, risk free world where they can learn and not, not lose their jobs over it.

Chip Griffin: Right. I mean, that’s, that is a great point and it is a great way to, to use interns to not only help them, but also to help your team level up because, you know, management is a learned skill.

Nobody comes into the workforce and immediately knows how to manage people. I know that when I first started out. I was not a very good manager. Now, fortunately I did have some of that experience by managing interns. Right. So that, that did give me that opportunity to sort of, you know, figure out the basics of it and, and, you know, all the little communications nuances when you have someone who’s reporting to, and you have to kind of keep an eye on the work they’re doing.

So it’s helpful. to your whole team to have them. So there is real value beyond just those work hours and the skills that they’re learning, but also the skills that the rest of your team can develop.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. So one of the things we used to do, we don’t do this anymore, but we used to, we used to hire four interns every semester.

So we had one for the winter semester, one for the spring semester, and one for summer. We had a cohort and of, of those four, we always hired one full time. So they were always juniors and seniors. And if the internship went well for a one or one or many of them, they would, and they were juniors, they would come back and do the spring semester or a summer semester.

And then they would, they would compete, but they all competed for full time jobs. And it was. Like there were some cohorts that did phenomenally well together. And we had one cohort that was like, we don’t want, none of us want the job. If you don’t hire all four of us. And I was like, I can’t, I love that, but I can’t hire all four of you.

and there was one cohort that they couldn’t stand each other. So it, it ended very badly for all of them. But in most cases in the cohort, you have one or two people that do rise. To the occasion and do go above and beyond and go to the extra mile and they got full time job offers and it was a really fun way for us to learn about new college graduates or those that were going to be new college graduates and figure out whether or not they were a culture fit and where they would fit inside the organization.

And give them a huge opportunity to learn and many of them went to big agencies. Many of them went to big corporations like there and certainly there was a time where I was like Frustrated because I was teaching and mentoring these kids to go work for somebody else But it was really great for us. It was a great program

Chip Griffin: well, and and that’s that’s an interesting perspective too because there are you know, you can do the the Individual intern, or you can do more of an internship program where you have multiple, involved and there are pros and cons to each, obviously.

Right. If you’ve got multiple, there’s more of management overhead. Yeah, yeah, yeah. That, that goes into it. But you do have that opportunity for them to interact with each other, for them to learn from each other, to perhaps build relationships with each other. Yep. Yep. you know, there are, there are more things that you can do from a learning perspective.

If you’ve got a group versus one because with one it feels more like you’re lecturing to them whereas if you’ve got a group you can do brown bag learning lunches and things like that on the other hand if you’ve got one it can often be better for the individual intern because they’re then you know getting more steeped in and in a.

Often perceived more as an additional employee, which sometimes will level up the kind of work that they get. So you want to think those things through too. And obviously, since most of our listeners are small agencies, more of them are going to be leaning towards the individual, probably just, you know, from a both a cost and a management perspective.

But you should think about, you know, do you want to have two or three over the summer? and have an actual formal program for it. And, and if so, how is it going to be structured? Cause you want to do planning beforehand, right? That’s, that’s another key piece of this. It’s not just, let’s go get an intern and wing it.

Let’s figure it out as we go. You need to have some idea for what the structure is going to be. While you have that intern or those interns.

Gini Dietrich: The other thing that I will, throw out there is there are many universities that have, and my, my background is communications. So that’s where I lean, but that many colleges have, PR firms, student led PR firms, and they take on clients.

And in many cases, Your agency could be a client of theirs, or one or two of your clients could be a cl clients of theirs. And so we’ve, look, we’ve done that for the past few years where we work with the student led PR firms. So those, they’re not actually reporting to us. They’re not employees of ours, but we still get to work with them and mentor and train and, and coach and all those things as they’re working on some of our clients with us, alongside of us.

And that’s actually been really, good. From our perspective, because it gets us everything that we need and it gets them everything that we need, but they report into the school versus into us, which I personally love. So it works for me. and it’s, it’s, you know, you still pay a fee. You pay a fee just like you would to an agency.

they become your agency and. You decide how they divide up the work. It’s, you know, and they, they’re also learning billing and time management and all those kinds of things at the same time, because they’re working inside a quote unquote agency that that’s run by them. And that’s been, so there’s, there are several schools that do that, that we, that we work with every year.

Chip Griffin: Right. Well, and I think that’s a, you know, that’s another benefit of having the internship program in some fashion, whether it’s, you know, working in partnership with someone or having them in house, that they’re, as I often refer to it, it’s the potty training of an employee. Right? Yes. You know, when you first work in an office environment, it’s different than having gone to high school and college and those kinds of things.

It’s, you know, you have to learn how you behave within an office environment and you have to figure out, you know, all of the basic etiquette and, and, you know, showing up on time and, you know, those basics. And so it’s one of the reasons we’ve talked about this on the podcast before, why I tend to lean against hiring recent college grads, particularly if they haven’t had internship experience.

Because I don’t want to be. Paying a full time permanent employee to learn those basics, right? I want them to get that out of the way somewhere else. And we can focus more on some of the hard skills of the job that they need to do. And so, but if you’ve got an intern and you view it as a, as a long term, term play, right?

You know, you might be training them, doing the potty training so that if they become your employee later on, they’ve worked those kinks out while they were on an intern’s pay rate, as opposed to a new employee pay rate.

Gini Dietrich: Love that. And I will say that there have been many experiences in my career where I’ve had to do things like teach an intern that they have to put their napkin on their lap while they’re at client lunches and dinners.

They can’t do shots at the dinner table with clients. There are also very funny stories that you get from interns who don’t have any experience in the business world yet that they think is appropriate and it’s not. So there is that as well. You, you get those. Those things that you’re just like, okay, didn’t think I’d have to teach that, but all right.

so there, there’s that side of it as well, but I would, I would say we’ve always had such a great experience with interns, no matter in what format that we’re using them, that are working with them, that. It’s, it’s been a really great experience for us, but there are some funny stories for sure.

Chip Griffin: Oh, yeah.

Well, I mean, funny stories with employees too. In fact, I was, I was talking with an agency owner recently who had, a young employee, but not an intern who was dramatically oversharing in client conversations. and, and obviously that can be a real issue and you need to know. Where you draw that line, there are some things that maybe you talk about with co workers, maybe not even with co workers, but certainly not with clients.

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And those are, those are learned skills and it evolves too, because obviously as your relationships with clients evolve, you know, that line may move a little bit, but you still, I mean, no matter how close you are with your client, you need to be able to figure out where to draw those lines appropriately.

Cause you can get into some pretty sticky situations otherwise. But, you know, I mean, you know, some of the other things that you want to be thinking about with, you know, if you’re bringing on interns, you know, we talked about the pay piece, but you also have to think about any other regulations that there may be around having an employee.

You know, particularly because I’ve talked to some folks who have said, you know, I don’t have any employees yet, so I’ve, an intern’s my solution. Well, if an intern’s your first employee, now you’ve got a whole bunch of other things you need to think about. Right. Because you are, even though it’s an intern, you’re technically an employer now.

Yep. And so you need to be cognizant of those things. So, generally, I would advise you, you know, not to hire an intern until you’ve hired an actual full time employee. You know, that an intern should not be your first foray into that environment. In my opinion, I made that mistake. So, well, you know, we all make mistakes from time to time.

And that’s one of the benefits of this podcast and the communities that we have. It’s, it’s an opportunity to learn from each other’s mistakes and hopefully not repeat them.

Gini Dietrich: Yes, yeah, my very first employee was an intern and that was a good lesson.

Chip Griffin: Yeah, the other challenge that a lot of agencies, I think, have now when they’re contemplating internships is that the interns will be in some cases remote.

Yep. And and so that’s a whole different. It is a whole different because an intern in the office. I don’t want to say it’s cut and dried, but there’s sort of an established model for how you do it and how you work with them. And it gives them opportunities to easily sit in on meetings. And you know, they can, they can be the fly on the wall and they literally seem like a fly on the wall.

You can’t be a fly on the wall in zoom. No, right. If you’re in zoom, you’re on zoom and you’re on the same footing as everybody else. You don’t sit, you know, you don’t have the seat against the wall while the principals are at the table, you know, like they do in the, you know, the white house and things like that.

You are actually, you’re right there. And so, you know, if you’re going to do that, you need to think those things through. As well, because it’s certainly a much more complex environment to integrate an intern into the program if they are remote.

Gini Dietrich: Well, and you, you brought this up earlier and we have talked about this on a, on a podcast episode, but it is more challenging for sure.

And part of the reason we stopped doing the intern program, Is because we were, we went virtual and it was, it was a lot more challenging and it just got to the point where all of us were like, it’s just, we can’t, none of us can, can keep up with this. So, we have had interns throughout the years since we, you know, we’ve been remote for a decade now, which is crazy to think.

But, I, I, we have found that the working with the student led PR firms inside universities works better for our structure now because they have their own. Structure and set of expectations and all of that that isn’t required as part of working with us. So it that that works better for us. and we’ve just found that having.

Somebody who just doesn’t have business experience yet as a remote employee is really challenging. It’s really challenging.

Chip Griffin: So if, if someone came to you and they had a virtual agency and said, you know, I’m thinking about an internship program, would you counsel them against it? I mean, I’ll be honest.

I’ve never had a remote intern. I, I think I’ve talked previously on the show about the telecommuting receptionist that I had at one point. Yeah, yeah, yeah. never understood that one, but I don’t understand that one yet. Would you advise against, interns? I don’t,

Gini Dietrich: I don’t typically advise against anything, but I do provide pros and cons.

And I’ll say, you know, based on our experience, this is what we saw. And we talked through pros and cons and then they make their own decisions. So that we, I do have some clients who have remote interns and they do fine. It’s just, it didn’t work for us and our, and, and our culture. And my. Management style or lack thereof.

Chip Griffin: I have no idea what you’re talking about, Gini. I don’t see why your management style would be at all unique at all. No, it’s not. It would be pretty straightforward. Yeah, super easy to work with. Yeah, I’ve never had the remote intern experience. I have. Clients who do have remote interns and, and, you know, like you, they seem to work out okay.

in most of the cases that, that I’m aware of, I would say that generally speaking, when the ones I know where they’re remote interns, they’re a little bit less like what I would consider the classical intern. They are more. They are typically people who might be college graduates who are looking to get into the agency world.

They really, at least the ones I’m familiar with, feel more like part time freelancers as opposed to your classical intern who is a college student, you know, working for a semester or a summer. And so, You know, that’s that is different and and internships are, I think, increasingly being used as those as a tool to bridge people from one job to the next or, you know, when it’s different kinds of jobs, right?

So I wasn’t in the agency world. I want to get into the agency world. I wasn’t in communications. I want to get into it, you know, or, you know, someone who is just out of college and is job hunting. And so they’re sort of doing an open ended internship because it’s an opportunity for them to build their resume while they’re looking for something, obviously in the current job market, that’s a little bit less of an issue.

Most agencies I know are having a devil of a time hiring right now for full time positions. Particularly at the junior level. and so, you know, it’s, it’s probably not as necessary as it has been at times in the past, but I think that is another use for internships where there is potentially a mutual benefit.

But in those cases, then you have to be. You know that it’s, it’s an uncertain end date because you have to be supportive of them finding their full time game whenever they can get it. Right, right, right. And that may be a week after they start their internship. You just don’t know. Right, right. And so, you know, if you’re going to engage in that, you need to understand that this is, this is really not a labor play on your part because it could just disappear almost instantaneously.

Yeah. You have to be okay with that.

Gini Dietrich: And, and they may, they may give you two weeks, but. Right. You know, the new employer may say, that’s great if you want to give 2 weeks, but we need you to start on Monday. I’ve seen that happen where, and then the, then the intern slash employees in a position where they’re, they have to make a decision.

Can I do I burn the bridge with my current. Because I’m not giving 2 weeks, or do I, you know, tell my new employer. Lock. I have to give two weeks. Like, so it’s, it’s this weird thing. And in, in those cases, I’m like, just, just go, you’re not burning a bridge, do your thing. Like,

Chip Griffin: right. Well, and so I have two thoughts on that.

The first of all, the first thing is if you’re an employer and you are pressuring someone, even if they’re an intern to give less than two weeks notice, shame on you, it happens all the time. It absolutely does. I know it does. It’s terrible on you because guess what? If someone’s willing to give less than two weeks notice to their current employer, What do you think the chances are they might do it to you too?

Yeah. How are you going to feel when you’re on the receiving end of it? Correct. I mean, use a little bit of common sense here, folks. Yep. You’ve now demonstrated that this is the behavior this employee is willing to engage in. Yes. Yeah. To me, that would, if they give, I mean, I generally tell people don’t give your employer less than two weeks, right?

I’ve had cases where they’re like, well, you know, I should give two weeks, but I can probably get them to give me a week. I’m like, no, no, don’t do that. Right. Now, obviously in an internship. Arrangement, particularly if it’s, you know, very low pay or even if you’ve managed to find a way to do it unpaid legally or in a gray area, you know, you need to be proactive with them and say, look, you know, if you want to go sooner, you can, right?

Because it may be that they need that income, right? And, and so you want to be helpful to them because this is, again, the internship is, is more to benefit the employee, the intern than it is to benefit you, the employer.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, I would say there are all sorts of pros and cons and you definitely need to think it through.

It’s not a, Oh, I’m going to hire this person. They’re going to be free and I’m going to just offload a bunch of stuff and not have to worry about it. That’s not the case at all. But there are many, many pros to having interns for sure.

Chip Griffin: Absolutely. And it’s, you know, I guess I would leave you with the thought that internships are, you know, something that you need to look at for the long term benefit.

It is something that can benefit your agency by helping you to recruit. Maybe it helps you find clients down the road because if those interns don’t come to work for you, they’re going to go somewhere else. And maybe that’s an opportunity for them to say, Hey, you should talk to this agency that I interned at.

They do a great job and they might be able to help us, but you, you really need to look at it as an investment and not look at it, look at it as a short term solution to your own staffing problems. Absolutely. 100%. And so with that, it’s, this is a long term play and we’re going to have to draw this short term episode to a close.

That wasn’t a great one, but you know, it’s the end of this episode. So. See you. Adios.

Gini Dietrich: Peace. Gini Dietrich.

Chip Griffin: It depends.

Thank you for listening to the Agency Leadership Podcast. You can watch or listen to every episode by visiting agencyleadershippodcast. com or subscribing on your favorite podcast player. We would also love it if you would leave a rating or review at iTunes or wherever you go to find podcasts. Be sure to check out Ginny Dietrich at Spin Sucks.

com and join the Spin Sucks community at Spin Sucks. com slash spin sucks community. You can learn more about me, Chip Griffin, at smallagencygrowth. com. Where you can also sign up for a free community membership to engage with other agency leaders. The Agency Leadership Podcast is distributed on the FIR podcast network, where you can find lots of other communications oriented podcasts.

Just visit www. firpodcastnetwork. com. We welcome your feedback and suggestions and look forward to being back with you again next week.

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The Hosts

Chip Griffin is the founder of the Small Agency Growth Alliance (SAGA) where he helps PR & marketing agency owners build the businesses that they want to own. He brings more than two decades of experience as an agency executive and entrepreneur to share the wisdom of his success and lessons of his failures. Follow him on Twitter at @ChipGriffin.


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, the lead blogger at Spin Sucks, and the host of Spin Sucks the podcast. She also is co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Follow her on Twitter at @GiniDietrich.

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