Monday, 30 May 2011

Who's the highest paid person in this chain?

I am often a bit slow off the mark when it comes to commenting on Singapore news, despite the instant nature of electronic communications these days. My excuse is I do have a life to live, a home to look after, a business to run.

Concerning Dr Lim Wee Kiak's comment about high minsterial salaries, he was supposed to have said, but later apologised for these inappropriate comment, “If the annual salary of the Minister for Information, Communication and the Arts is only $500,000, it may pose some problems when he discusses policies with media CEOs who earn millions of dollars, because they need not listen to the minister’s ideas and proposals. Hence, a more reasonable payout would help to maintain some dignity.”

My immediate response to this was this man has never lived in the real world.

At eighteen, when my classmates went to National Service and/or university, or repeated their A Levels (which were really tough), I decided that I had enough of school and went out to work.

I went into advertising as a trainee copywriter. Prior to this I had asked and was given a column to write in a teenage magazine. The editor said, "Yeah, I think you can write," and gave me a job that did not exist before. She even assigned me a senior writer to train me, in between my long hours at a junior college.

When I saw an advertisement for a copywriter after my A Levels, I thought, uhm, I don't think I they would give me this job, but who knows? They could only turn me down.

Though I was not the type of person they needed, the creative director managed to create a trainee post for me, because he saw that I had the potential. He even managed to find an extra desk and an old typewriter for me, rather upsetting the chemistry between members of an existing creative team.

What I learned here was wages were in inverse proportion to "power".

The advertising executive in a client company called the shots on the type of advertising campaign his/her company required. He/She signs off the contract, and if the agency does not comply with what was agreed, the client could refuse to pay.

The account executive from my advertising agency probably got paid a lot more than the client advertising executive, but he/she quietly took instructions from the client, and produced the brief for the creative department.

The creative director who was paid more than the Account Executive (AE), no doubt, then gave the job to one of the creative teams. The art director and copywriter took instructions from the AE and planned the campaign. The creatives are known to make a lot more money than the AE. Or at least they behave as if they did!

Then if the campaign required models and photographers, the creative team sourced for these. The photographer and model took instructions from the art director. The copywriter took care of the "copy" (ie words). I got to talk to the model agency and "ordered" the type of models we needed and helped to audition them.

Again both the photographer and model probably made more money than the art director (at least on their hourly rates). The top models I worked with (sometimes I helped to style photo shoots) were paid about half my monthly wages for an hour of work!

Sometimes if the art director/photographer would let me, I would make suggestions about the photo shoot (especially if I knew that it would be more in sync with the copy (ie advertising text) I planned to write. Even top models had to take instructions from me. Sort of.

So you see, the person/s at the lowest order of the command chain (the model) actually made the most money, while the advertising executive who thinks he called the shots actually, possibly, probably, made the least (bar the trainee copywriter).

What has Dr Lim got to say to that?

It was the same when I was the editor of the magazine for an international non-profit organization. I had to commission articles from the people who were the "who's who", the "aristocracy", of the business I was in.

Poor me, earning peanuts and therefore living on peanut butter sandwiches in my north-west London town, had to tell these people what I required of their articles and the deadline by which I needed them.

And then I had the audacity to edit their theses into 800 words for a target audience made up mostly of readers who do not have English as a first language.

Yet I always got my writers to agree to write, and my articles always arrived on time, and no one has yet to complain that I have not done justice to their original articles.

So Dr Lim, clearly it is not a question of how much I earned, what brand peanut butter I used, or how important these people are in their spheres of influence.

It comes down to the skill with which I (or anyone else) could persuade other individuals -- who do not owe me a living -- to do something for me despite not gaining any financial advantage.

Does this surprise Dr Lim?

If it does, I can only conclude that Dr Lim has lived in a very cloistered world.

Going by his reasoning, no one would engage in any unpaid voluntary work.

Sir, Man shall not -- must not -- live by bread alone.

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