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June 16, 2008

The 37-Year-Old Intern


I 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.


As 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.


Or 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.”


Huh? Intern?


“Well,” I began. “I wouldn’t have thought that, just because he would appear to be –”


He completed my sentence.


“Thirty-seven years old.”




I 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 financial world.


He 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 outstanding.


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 paying him?


“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.


I 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 fulfillment.



© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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