Perks and Ping Pong

paddles1During my senior year in college, one of my final portfolio courses was taught by an art director/copywriter team from Publicis. Halfway through the semester they took us on a tour of their offices and, for whatever reason, I remember being so impressed by the fact that the creative department had its own ping pong table. As a poor college student who had only worked hourly jobs for minimum wage, I was incredulous. You mean, you get to play ping pong… on the clock? Right then and there, I knew that I had chosen the right major – advertising.

Since then I’ve been able to reverse roles and take several groups of students to New York to tour some of the most respected ad agencies in the world. Each place has its own story, personality, strengths and weaknesses. But every single one of them has a ping pong table.

Now, by “ping pong table” I mean some kind of perk or feature of the agency that makes it a more attractive or convenient place to work. In some cases the “ping pong table” is a foosball table. In smaller shops it’s a free beer cart on Fridays. In the bigger agencies it’s an onsite barber, doctor or daycare, a state-of-the-art workout facility, full-time masseuse or a rooftop patio with a million dollar view (and wifi, of course). It’s always fun and a bit nostalgic for me to watch the faces of my students light up as each new tour guide tries to one-up the previous agency with some previously unimaginable perk that makes work more fun and life more convenient.

(Cue grizzled agency veteran on a mission to disabuse students of their wide-eyed naiveté)
“It’s a trap! Don’t fall for it, kids!”

It’s hard to see how free beer and neck massages could be a bad thing. But you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see the potential danger in some of the more elaborate fringe benefits. There is a fine line between conveniences that make our busy lives more manageable, and conveniences that make it so we never have to leave work. Does the agency offer a doctor on-site to keep their employees happy and healthy? Or because they’re running their people ragged? Do they offer on-site daycare because they care about your family, or because it tricks you into working even longer hours?

After my students have had a chance to revel in their ping pong moment, I typically initiate a fireside chat about three options:

1). You can become a burned-out workaholic with titles, money and perks galore.
2). You can become an ungrateful cynic who is needlessly suspicious of your employer’s generosity.
3). You can understand the difference between means and ends.

I’ll save the first two points for another time because it’s the third that really holds the key to successfully navigating the whole issue. Whether or not an employer has ulterior motives for offering perks like these doesn’t really matter at the end of the day if you keep your desired end distinct from the means necessary to attain it. If your end goal is to get married, have a family and live happily ever after in the suburbs, then take advantage of whatever perks your employer offers to make your desired end a reality. If your end goal is to see your name in all the award books and earn a six-figure income by the time you’re 30, then use whatever perks your employer offers to make that end a reality. I’m not trying to suggest that you can have it all – we all have to make sacrifices and sometimes you have to make tough choices between competing goods. All I’m trying to say is that most people want more out of life than an agency with a ping pong table. So, don’t treat the agency you’re working at or the ping pong table like they’re an end in themselves.

There is one complication, though: this whole ends-and-means thing can get a little tricky for those who are trying to break in to the advertising industry. The harsh reality is that, while you’re young, you will be expected to work a near-impossible number of hours. But again, I suppose this is the way it is in most highly-competitive professions – not just advertising. If this is where you find yourself, you will have to make a list of two kinds of ends: provisional ends (i.e., short term goals) and final ends (i.e., long term goals).

Take for example a former art direction student of mine who had the long term goal of being married, with a family and working as a film director on the west coast. From this final end he worked backward to figure out what his provisional ends needed to be after he graduated. This process led him to accept a job at an agency known for doing great work, but also for being somewhat of a sweat shop. And even though he worked like a crazy man for two solid years, he kept his head on straight, saved his money and built a solid portfolio. All of this opened the door at a great agency in NYC that would give him opportunities to work with great film directors. From here he built up his reel, made a lot of important industry connections and 3 years later he and his lovely wife were on their way to LA to start his first solo directing job.

Granted, every story doesn’t work out as planned. Advertising is a volatile industry that requires a certain openness to change and the unknown. But the moral of the story is, don’t let short term perks distract you from your long term goals. There are many things about a career in advertising that can lead to burnout or an unhealthy work/life balance. But all professions have their Sirens. At the same time, some of the best things about a career in advertising are the many perks, options, relationships and connections that you can use to your advantage wherever your journey takes you – that is, if you can keep your head on straight.

Mark Allen, Lecturer

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