Read D.F.'s bio and previous columns
June 16, 2008
The 37-Year-Old Intern
recently had to attend a meeting at the office of a client’s ad agency –
part of a project in which our two companies are coordinating on a
particular issue the client is facing.
I walked through the hallway of the ad agency’s office, I did a
double-take when I noticed what appeared to be a middle-aged man running
envelopes through a postage meter. I’d never seen this guy before, but
it’s not like I know this ad agency’s roster of employees intimately, so
I didn’t think that much of it.
I didn’t, until the meeting started and Mr. Middle Aged Envelope Runner
bounded into the room and sat down at the conference table.
“Gary is going to sit in and observe,” the account executive explained.
All right. Gary is going to observe. Because . . . ? Is Gary like the
Cigarette Smoking Man on the X-Files, lingering in the corner of
Skinner’s office for no apparent reason – “observing”?
The account executive began the meeting, giving an overview of the
client’s issue, and reiterating why their agency and my company were
working together. Then he paused and looked in Gary’s direction.
“Gary, it’s not uncommon for a client to ask us to coordinate with
another outside resource if they feel that brings together the best
collection of competencies to solve an issue.”
Gary wrote that down on his notepad. I wondered if the AE would next
explain to Gary what a dollar is. At any rate, the meeting continued in
this vein for about 90 minutes, and since I possess no self-restraint
whatsoever, it took me about seven seconds after Gary left the room to
ask the AE: “Who is that guy and why do you keep explaining elementary
things to him?”
“Oh,” he said. “I thought you knew. Gary is our intern.”
“Well,” I began. “I wouldn’t have thought that, just because he would
appear to be –”
completed my sentence.
“Thirty-seven years old.”
was just beginning to learn the story of Gary. A one-time rising
executive at a financial services firm, Gary had grown disillusioned
with his employer around the same time it became disillusioned with him.
Gary had been aggressive at seeking and attracting new clients to the
firm, but he had a bit of a hard time keeping up on developments in the
also had a bit of a problem with client fees. He either felt guilty
about billing clients, or made mistakes when he did. Oh, and the
financial strategies he recommended were, shall we say, less than
After a 10-year stint there, he tried to keep his financial career alive
by jumping to a regional bank, but the same shortcomings that had dogged
him previously followed him there too. Out of a job again at 37, Gary
decided it was time for a career change. He wanted to do something
creative and interesting, which led him to the advertising industry.
But ad agencies tend not to hire people with no creative experience
whatsoever, and whose sole career background consists of failure in an
entirely unrelated industry. So Gary decided to force his way into the
business by becoming the 37-year-old intern. How much was the agency
“Nothing,” the AE said. “We told him we didn’t have budget for an
intern, and he said he would do it for free. So far he’s been great. He
does everything we ask him to do, no matter how menial, and he stays
late to master the creative assignments when we give him one.
suppose one good thing about career failure would be that it leaves you
with nowhere to fall, assuming you’re willing to accept that. Being an
intern at 37 is only demeaning if you decide to see it that way. Whether
Gary makes it in advertising remains to be seen, but you have to give a
guy credit for recognizing that there’s a whole wide world of things you
can do, and not to stay in a rut in a field where he didn’t have the
talent to make it.
Come to think of it, an intern probably has a more placid life than a
CEO the majority of the time. Maybe my spot in the corner office and my
CEO salary are not all they’re cracked up to be. Maybe a lowly position
consisting of menial tasks and no money could bring personal
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