Advertising is a profession of many professions. There are copywriters who are lyricists. There are art directors who are sculptors. There are planners who are consultants. And, then there are copywriters, art directors, and planners who jam together to crack brand campaigns as side-hustles because the money is too good to refuse.
Pursuing passion projects is actively encouraged by many advertising agencies and moonlighting is an open secret in adland.
But it’s not just passion that drives people to look for work elsewhere.
The temptation of moonlighting stems from the fact that ad agencies don’t pay well. The average salary of an entry-level copywriter is anywhere between Rs 2 Lakhs to Rs 4 Lakhs per annum. It is similar for art directors. In the case of account management executives, it’s about 10 percent more.
According to Prathap Suthan, managing partner and chief creative officer, Bang In The Middle, creative executives are not paid enough money for what they do. “For the amount of time they spend on a campaign, they are paid one-third of what they deserve. You pay them 100 percent of what they are entitled to and then they would not moonlight. However, the fact is agencies don’t have the money to pay them well,” he explains.
Manoj Jacob, executive creative director, Crayons, echoes Suthan’s views when he says, “Let’s be honest, no one wants to take up extra work for fun.”
He shares that the reason advertising folks have been moonlighting for decades is “because they are not compensated well. If agencies start giving their employees the salaries they deserve, the talent will not look for opportunities outside.”
A senior creative director of an independent agency tells Storyboard18, even though advertising agencies pay less, they come with a glamor quotient. “Youngsters join an agency for the brand value that it will add to their portfolio, and nothing else,” he says.
Some agency chiefs think if there are no conflicts of interest and if employees inform their agencies about these after-work projects, they don’t see moonlighting as a problem or as an unethical practice.
A former creative chief of a network agency, who wished not to be named, tells us, “Advertising agencies shouldn’t lecture on ethics and moonlighting. They are notorious for handling conflicting clients by creating sub-divisions. It’s a mess and everyone has made peace with it.”
Different shades of moonlighting
Recently, Wipro’s chairman Rishad Premji said the IT major discovered that 300 of its employees were working with the firm’s competitors. Wipro fired these employees for the "act of integrity violation". The news sparked intense debate on moonlighting, a practice that seems to have increased in a post-pandemic era as work-from-home became the norm and financial strain increased in a tough economic climate.
In the past, global network ad companies have taken strict actions against their employees who were found working with other companies or on projects and side hustles. At a lot of independent agencies, however, the practice is encouraged to build transparency and trust.
Santosh Padhi, chief creative officer of Wieden + Kennedy India, has always encouraged his younger colleagues to take up projects that will help them open their minds and enhance skills that they don’t pick up in their everyday agency life.
“It’s important for senior creative executives to have conversations on matters of side-hustles. There is a sense of freedom that comes with side-projects. It’s not always about that extra money,” Padhi tells us.
Abbas Mirza, a senior creative professional, who has worked with agencies like The Glitch, Kinnect, BBDO India and MullenLowe Lintas Group, observes that adlanders need multiple activities to keep their creative juices flowing. Working with the same set of brands at an agency can get monotonous. That’s why many look for projects outside to take a break from the routine.
Restricting such activity can also end up hurting the agency, he points out.
In advertising, if agencies start stopping their employees from moonlighting, they may start losing more talent, says Mirza. He adds, “This is one of the many reasons why creative folks are moving towards freelancing. It might not give them a steady income, but it gives them flexibility and the chance to work on the briefs they want to work on.”
Transparency is key
Advertising veteran and founder of Spatial Access, Meenakshi Menon has a different take. She thinks if an employee is bored with an account, he or she should go up to the creative director and look for a different project within the agency.
“The idea of moonlighting is interesting but not at the cost of unethical practices…There are a lot of layers in an agency that talent can explore. However, transparency is key,” she says.
Menon, who is the founder of Spatial Access and chairperson of icogz, wrote a post on a professional networking platform that sparked an intense discussion about moonlighting in advertising. It fetched varied points of view and also opened up a “guess who?” game for everyone.
Sample this. Naresh Gupta, co-founder and CSO of Bang In The Middle, commented: “Advertising and moonlighting is at another level. There is a leader in a large network agency. He has global responsibility. He is also a celebrated song writer. And a story writer. He writes for movies. How would you see this? Moonlighting or use of free time? What if a brand takes the song he writes and created communication that competes with brand that his agency handles? Agencies are at pro level.”
Amita M, a marketing professional, left this comment: “As long as we're discussing the (ahem) principle of things, how would you view this - A national-level client lead in a network agency is also on the board of an advertising start-up operated by said person's spouse.”
These examples, it seems, also indicate that moonlighting or some form of it, is not just a practice picked up by young advertising professionals.
So what’s the final verdict on moonlighting in advertising?
Suthan believes advertising is one of the most liberal industries in the world. So, agencies have to adapt and adjust to new-age practices. Also, for the industry to survive and thrive, it’s critical to get a variety of talent on board.
However, the bottom line is that if agencies want to hire good people, they need to pay them well. “There aren’t so many writers or art directors in this country to handle the number of businesses which have come up. Which is why 95 percent of the work is mediocre,” says Suthan.
The moment agencies add restrictions to their operations, talent will start migrating.
Suthan adds, “Don’t forget that creative people are creatives who find creative ways of cheating.”