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Making the Most of Creative Interns

Help them grow as they help you deliver.

The idea of hiring interns is attractive to creative companies, and it’s not hard to figure out why. They’re cheap, the good ones bring positive energy to their work and to your company culture, and most of us in the creative industry love sharing our knowledge with the next generation. It’s a win on a lot of levels. But mismanage them, and they’re going to cost you more than they’re worth—even if they’re unpaid.

Here’s what you need to do to make sure you’re getting the most of your interns:

Pay them.

If you don’t, you’ll have a lot of extra rules to follow, including a requirement that your business not benefit in any way from the work they’re doing. Unpaid internships are strictly intended for educational purposes only. They’re suitable for a friend-of-a-friend who needs some education, but unpaid interns are likely to be more like expensive paperweights—only good for doing the simplest of jobs and definitely not worth the money. And, honestly, who really needs a paperweight? What kind of windy office are you working in? Pay your interns. And, get rid of those silly paperweights.

Don’t hire a total newb.

Nothing against freshmen, but, unless they’ve been killing it over their summers learning new skills, they’re probably not going to bring much to the creative table. Pick interns who already have at least the basic skills to produce the kind of work you do.

At io: Our two summer video interns were a huge success. Our cinematographer, Greg Giblin, says one big reason is that they were able to jump right into editing video that would eventually be seen by hundreds of thousands of social media viewers.

Say nice things to them.

Forget what you see on Mad Men—positive reinforcement beats negative, every time. If you don’t believe me, read this book, and email me your questions. Remember that it’s difficult for people just starting out in the creative business to detach themselves from the strong emotional connection to the work that we all have, so, if you’re not giving your interns positive feedback, you’re not getting their best work.

At io: Our content manager, Marc Acton, says this fits the io ethos anyway. “We have a policy of being nice to each other. Just ask Brad Pray.”

Don’t be too nice to them.

There are two great reasons to hold your interns to a higher standard. First, it’s better for them. This is likely their first break into the creative business, and you’re setting a baseline for how professionals operate. Letting little things slip because they’re “just an intern” isn’t going to help them improve, and it’s going to be counterproductive for you because it takes twice as long to fix problems as it does to do things right the first time.

At io: Our senior video producer, Zack Wilson, says there’s another reason he demanded a lot from our two video interns. “So they got the chance to be taken seriously.” A lot of times treating someone like a pro helps them act like one.

Use their ambition to your benefit.

Your interns are with you most likely for two reasons. One: They want experience. Two: They want to build a portfolio so they can get a real job soon. Take advantage of these motivations, and give them what they want by assigning them to projects that will challenge them in a variety of skillsets.

At io: I recently assigned a design intern to work on an iostudio marketing piece that highlighted a bunch of our client work. He got to add some pretty big names and logos—UPS, the Chamber of Commerce, and more—to his resume. And we got a motivated designer who wanted the piece to be perfect because it was going in his portfolio. In the end, the product was pretty amazing. But you can see it for yourself.