Think he’s too old to create?

Derek Walker, who is “the janitor, secretary and mailroom person for his tiny agency, brown and browner advertising based in Columbia, S.C.,” wrote an entertaining essay this week in AdAge entitled, Ad Agency Dinosaurs Are Not Extinct; We Are Adapting.

Being four decades and change myself, I can appreciate Derek’s take on the Logan’s Run mentality permeating our business. (In the movie everyone turning 30 is killed to preserve society. Or some shit. I forget the details.) Derek paints a picture whereby a “digital asteroid” supposedly kills off all the oldsters in Adland, leaving just twenty-something’s in control. I say ‘supposedly’ because Derek refutes that perception. To the under-thirty, who claim digital superiority, he writes:

“You just can’t see it now. You misjudge how deep our talents and abilities run. You’re too busy laughing and ridiculing us. But understand — please take a moment to grasp — that for my fellow dinosaurs and myself this digital age is no killer asteroid. It is like a new hunting ground has opened up. And the prey is so unaware of how dangerous we are. They don’t even run away anymore. Digital has not destroyed us. It has exposed a whole new hunting ground.”

Like I said, it’s a fun piece. And it’s about time someone wrote it. Save for one or two brave rogues (God bless Bob Greenberg and yes, God bless George Parker), most ad industry folks really do obsess over the topic. Call it Youth in Advertising.

Or, better yet, call it bullshit. This idea that only kids understand –really get- digital is just fucking lame. Look at Hollywood…from behind the cameras. Since the beginning, rich, old fucks have been making films for punk-ass kids and the kids eat it up. Yet, only the actors belong in their peer group. Chances are the creators are 50 plus. No one calls James Cameron a dinosaur. He seems to get the technology thing. And putting aside Sanctum, he knows how to tell a story. Something too many kids in Adland can’t do, or even more unnervingly, won’t.

So, why is ageism so rampant in advertising? My theory: we’ve coveted the 18 to 34 demographic for so long we’ve subconsciously accepted them as our superiors. I myself have romanced the child-like wonder of creation, gleefully calling the creative department Romper Room. But staying in touch with your inner child does not mean you have to be one. They are not our superiors. In fact, in many cases they are vastly inferior. Consider the following:

People under 30 get Asian tattoos on their arms and think it makes them look badass. People under 30 think paying money to see dopes spin records is a concert. People under 30 pay money to see dopes spin records. People under 30 grow beards. Inexplicably. People under 30 make fun of ironic tee shirts yet they wear them anyway. People under 30 think making fun of shit they do makes doing it less stupid. Like wearing ironic tee shirts. Like growing beards. Like getting Asian letters tattooed on their arms. They think comic books are books. They think video games are important. They think that they think. And yes, these same people think they know how to make creative better than we do.

Chinese for douchebag

Well, on behalf of every creative director old enough to remember the Avid (let alone cutting film with a blade), I say Bravo Derek Walker. 40 isn’t the new 30. It just might be better. Um, except for having to get a colonoscopy. That sucks.

Finally, I know people under 30 like to hate anonymously (Man, do I ever), so have at it, boys and girls! Next post back to acting my age. That means less cussing and I can’t use the word “badass.”

Old farts! Damn kids!

Is there a right or wrong age to work in advertising? We often hear it said that advertising is a young person’s game, usually in a sentence with “man” and, if we’re being honest, “white.”

But let’s stick with age. I’ve written about the topic before, on this site and elsewhere. Reactions were many and vigorous. Like any “ism” ageism is controversial, inviting strong opinions. But is it as pernicious as sexism and racism? I wonder. Right now we seem to be getting mixed messages, at least as it relates to our industry. There is a persistent call to remove all “the rich, old farts from big dumb agencies.” These voices get pretty loud and angry. Shame. Because when they’re not obscene, they actually make good points. Are our leaders out of touch? Do they still think in last century paradigms? Men of a certain age… Are we passé?

However, many of these same harsh voices also criticize the younger members of our tribes, calling them sophomoric and juvenile. They ask: What happened to craftsmanship? Cannot anybody tell a coherent story anymore? The creative department has become a den of hooligans, fan boys and twits.  The so-called “frat boys” at Crispin Porter & Bogusky are good examples. Are they great or are they are scum? Most certainly they are young.

So which it –an old boys network or a frat house?

Either way, the debate gets ugly. Of course, neither side is right or, for that matter, wrong. What’s odd, however, is that many industry critics seem to be talking out both sides of their mouths. It’s ‘out with the old’ one day and ‘stupid kids what do they know?’ the next. I guess only people between the ages of 25 and 35 are suitable for employment. Everyone else get lost.

Well documented are African and Native American tribes who value the wisdom and experience of their elders. Alas, many tribes don’t, particularly in the modern world. Particularly in advertising. We are a youth culture. Being young and beautiful has become a skill set. Strength is appreciated over wisdom.

The animal kingdom calls this the circle of life. Survival of the fittest. Changing of the guard. Nature is rife with examples. The top dog always has other aggressive, younger dogs nipping at his heals. A pride of lions can only have one king. Eventually, a new sire emerges. It is not a pretty process.

Civilized society is supposed to be above all that…

Here’s what I want from my agency workforce: wily veterans and feisty colts. If both groups remain teachable (to one another and to the outside world) the tribe thrives. Good leaders, then, are hybrids. I like to think of myself as a feisty veteran! How about you?

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Last week my piece on ageism created a small furor in Ad Land. It was not unexpected. I knew the topic was radioactive and, therefore, the perfect subject for Gods of Advertising. When Talent Zoo picked up the story the message boards lit up.

Fact. We are all going to die. And before that we will get old. What’s contentious for many is the idea that getting old precludes getting ahead in advertising.

I wrote that I fight the ageing process, in part, because I don’t want to “lose” my job. I’d like to amend that comment: I fight the aging process because I “love” my job. Maybe love is the better “L” word; it removes the unhealthy fear from our discourse. Fear is a cancer in any creative department.

Let me introduce a phrase I’ve had in my head for years but seldom articulate at work. It is not a part of our agency’s credentials or rhetoric. But maybe it should be.

I give you the “Creative Athlete.” A bit of an eye-roller, I know. But before the haters crawl out from under their Macs, here me out…

The Creative Athlete gets her best ideas not in the shower but in the gym. She likens nailing a tag line to hitting a three-pointer. The Creative Athlete wants to score points. She is part of a team that plays to win. She gets off on winning. And the quickest way for the Creative Athlete to become successful is by helping her clients become successful. She is excited by ideas that sell. They are plays that work.

Do we not regularly compete for business? It’s called a “pitch” for a reason. These are tournaments. Each agency fields a “team” and goes up against their competitive set. Recall the storied rivalry of DDB and Leo Burnett. A true cross-town classic. More recent has been the domination of CP&B. Are they not like a Florida farm team that came out of nowhere, stunning the pride of New York and schooling the best in the west?

And what about “underdogs” and “dark horses?” My agency was one. When we got here, the local press called Euro RSCG Chicago a corpse. Now not so much. The boo-birds gave us fire, something to prove. We came back from extinction by competing and losing and eventually winning -first in the minor leagues (with small projects) and then in the bigs, adding Anheuser Busch, Barton Brands, Circuit City, and Valspar to our roster.

I like to ask prospective clients to imagine their brands as football teams. Are you the Fighting Irish or Fresno State? What are your colors? What is your mascot? Do you even have one? Questions like that. As creative partners we can help them field a better team. By improving their jerseys, giving them a fight song, creating a fan base. When we kick off a new campaign the game begins. By the 4th quarter we better have results.

As I said in the previous post, I’m a big believer in the axiom: ‘Use it or lose it.’ Working out our creative muscles is key to staying healthy. A writer writes. Books, scripts, poems, blogs. Not just copy. I also recommend every copywriter read as much as she can, and not just copy. Books, scripts, poems, blogs. Take part in your culture’s conversation. It never stops. And neither should you. Art directors pick up a paintbrush or camera. And you’d better know your way around photo shop.

Sports metaphors are nothing new. But keeping the head and body in shape in order to excel in the ad game is. It’s a youthful approach to our business that diffuses political correctness, allowing talent to shine no matter its color or sex. But creative athleticism is no panacea for age. Quite the contrary. After years in our “league” the creative person either becomes coach or manager or is cut.

Wins. Losses. Ads sold. Awards. The Creative Athlete has nowhere to hide if he’s under-performing. Of course, as in sports, a lot of over-rated managers keep landing jobs no matter their records…another reason for aspiring to management.

Spring is in the air. Is it in your step? Play ball!



“There is a delusion I have apparently quietly indulged since, say, age thirty, and it’s this: that I am still as cool as I was when I was seventeen.”
-Dan Kennedy, from his memoir ‘Rock On.’

I work out most every day. I wear a bit of jewelry. I adore horror movies. The other day my wife asked me why I fight the aging process. There are many reasons (fear of death, pride, etc) but without much thought I replied: “So, I won’t lose my job.”

Growing old. It’s the one thing we ad folks dare not speak of. Yet the ‘circle of life’ is anything but gradual in the agency jungle. So here it is: Advertising (specifically, the creative department) is a young man’s game. Don’t agree? Look around you. Is not every other creative employee in your firm a scruffy, white, male replete with loose jeans and ironic tee shirt? I thought so.

With so many FTEs in their twenties and so few in their fifties, it’s easy to see how scary the middle ‘ages’ can be. For the typical employee in his thirties, the arc of his/her career had better be brilliant because at his/her price-point anything less may not be enough to save his/her job. (Though extremely important, I’m avoiding discussion of race and gender. It is enough facing the one thing we have in common: our mortality.)

And so Human Resources serve as watchdogs. Ageism is against the law. HR instructs management to be very careful when dealing with (firing) employees over 40. Lawyers know the “Age” card, they warn. Like eyes in the sky at a casino, they swoop down even when it’s just rumored to have been played. Fire a fifty two-year-old writer because he hasn’t made a meaningful contribution in a decade, HR assumes a lawsuit is attached. Of course the sad sack plays along. Why shouldn’t he/she? A settlement is almost certainly more lucrative than a package. Yet, despite these threats, our business remains preternaturally youthful.

Assuming the above is all true what’s a girl to do? Especially when she’s no longer a girl.

The best advice seems brutally obvious. Aspire to management. In ad agencies the most advantageous place for an oldster is at the top. Take that elevator. Don’t stop at just being a good writer or art director. That’s merely the price of entry. You need to be exceptional at your craft. Always. But remember there are LOTS of guys with 5 or 6 years under their belt, making LOTS less money than you, who are damn near as good. Naturally they want your job. You should want the job above yours. That would be MGMT.

So how does one grow successful as well as old in advertising? My advice in three not-so-easy steps:

1) Don’t shun meetings because “they suck.” One day there will be a meeting and you’ll be the topic. ‘Nuff said.

2) Sell work. First your work. Then someone else’s. In that order. If you can do both you will be twice as valuable to your firm. MGMT does both.

3) Stay relevant. Nothing is sadder than the graying copywriter who waxes nostalgic about cutting film with a knife. Dead man walking.
3a) As with meetings, do not ignore popular culture because “it sucks.” If you don’t keep up with people… you won’t.

What more can I say? Exercise regularly. Keep up with trends –all of them. Get a haircut. However you do it, you must keep your head and body in the game. I’m a big believer in being a ‘player/coach.’ Work on assignments as well as help others with theirs. Wear many hats. When in doubt follow the old axiom about staying young: Use it or lose it.


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