Your Career in Creative: ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’
March 24, 2008
“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.