Think Israeli advertising firms are reminiscent of the posh "Mad Men" dens, replete with cushy salaries, long, expense-card lunches and surreptitious tipples of vodka throughout the workday? Think again.
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“It's become trendy to attack the advertising world,” wrote employees of the advertising agency Drori Shlomi in a publication put out in advance of the annual creative writing contest Dag Hazahav (Goldfish). Critics cite long hours with unfair pay, the lack of a private life or time for personal relationships or children. "People question the masochistic streak required to pursue such a career.”
The grumbling began 18 months ago, during the social protests that swept Israel in the summer of 2011. Inspired to shake up the status quo, some creative writers in the industry tried to unionize. The plan was to start a routine labor union, but it never got off the ground.
One of the driving forces behind the unionizing initiative was Itamar (not his real name), a senior copywriter working for several leading agencies. “The problem is the demand for unrealistic working hours and an unreasonable commitment to the workplace," he says. “The norm is more than 12 hours per shift, whereas the law permits a maximum of 12. You’re not allowed to attend family celebrations, and doctor visits are impossible. A story making the rounds is of an employee working for weeks with an aching wisdom tooth that needed pulling out.
“Employers treat workers like a leased car, which can be used at will in exchange for a monthly fee. If the boss phones on the weekend and tells you to drop everything and show up, you’re obliged to do so. It’s a very exploitative environment. Anyone who falters is simply replaced, with the attitude being – ‘if you don’t like it, get out.'
And it seems that on the ladder to success, the higher you go, the more perilous it becomes.
“The smaller firms are more decent, with good salaries and no mistreatment of employees," says Itamar. But in most places the only thing that matters is the bottom line The feeling is that if you slow down, you’re out. Despite its fancy wrapping, the industry is rotten at the core.”
So if it's so bad, why do employees put up with it? Itamar chalks it up to a resignation among the creative types that this line of work is their dream, and they have no choice but to toe the line. And while advertising always offered a difficult work environment, over the years salaries have gone down, and bonuses and perks have dwindled. Job satisfaction has nosedived as a result. "Things have become very difficult," Itamar says.
There are labor laws on the books to protect employees, but few people are aware of them. "Until we consulted with the lawyers, we didn't know what they said," Itamar says.
Fear of retribution, of lost jobs and tarnished reputations, has also made it difficult for Itamar and his peers to change anything. This is why the drive to unionize ultimately failed, he says.
“In the end not enough people joined us," he says. "Some were afraid to stick their necks out. Some senior managers were supportive, but not openly. I don’t think we’ll see a union any time soon."
The Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Labor recognizes the problem and has tried enforcing the law at several agencies. Several files were opened and one firm was indicted for not paying its employees for overtime.
There are 3,000 employees working in advertising in Israel, 300 of them creative writers, spread across 30 large agencies. While most agencies continue to take advantage of their employees, some have tried to address these issues. For example, at Gitam BBDO, one of the largest agencies, employees were told that they would be limited to working only 12 hours a day. This was met with ridicule by employees who knew that expectations were unchanged and that they would continue to work after leaving the office, just from home or a café.
According to Gingi Friedman, owner of ADMAN, a human resources company for the advertising industry, working conditions were reasonable here until the 1970s.
But a new ethos developed, making the customer god-like, needing to be appeased at all costs. Senior industry sources disagree with this view, saying that in the past employees worked harder than they do today.
Employees insist that they cannot be compared to high-tech workers who also have to be available at any time, since the latter earn much higher salaries. Furthermore, advertising people have to work in the office, under supervision, and not from home. Their salaries don’t reflect the overtime they put in, they claim.
Some employees get addicted to the job, focusing on campaigns they work on, with the extensive overtime rendering their hourly wages very low. Eventually, family and other considerations wear down many. Friedman says that there is an annual turnover of 70% in the industry.
“Employees are constantly complaining and try to join the companies they advertise for. In most cases, people in the business last until they are 40."