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.


7 Responses to “Your Career in Creative: ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’”

  1. Pleased to report that Talent Zoo has published this article in its entirety. Whether my take on the subject is accurate you decide but clearly the topic is red hot.

  2. Jami said

    Really liked this piece!


  3. Ann said

    This blog entry has had me thinking about it ever since I read it yesterday. Steffan makes some very salient, if scary, points. Because no matter what age we are now, all of us will confront the issue eventually. Where DO creatives go to grow old?

    To those who are already in mgmt, I would argue that oldsters are worth every dime. (Full disclosure: I’m 40.) First, because not all clients are trying to sell their wares to young men. Diversity in the creative department is necessary, at least because there is diversity in the marketplace.

    And I would think the population bubble reaching retirement age—you know, the people who imagine themselves to be 10-20 years younger than they actually are—would find the writing of a 45-year-old to be just peachy. I mean, do they really “do the Dew,” or are they just smiling along because there’s no more relevant messages out there for them?

    Next, I would question the wisdom of the industry’s gutting of the middle ranks generally. Just last week an account pup told me that all of our clients are older than she is. Maybe if we had more account people and creatives who matched our clients in age, we wouldn’t get pushed around so much. Think about it. Is a 50-year-old marketing executive going to ask a 28-year-old for advice?

    But back to the work itself. Some of it requires serious expertise, in addition to sheer creative brilliance. I, for one, am constantly learning, and what I learned when I was 25 is still useful today. Products and media are more complicated than ever. And my years in the business make me faster, better, stronger, smarter than I would be without all that experience.

    Now, as far as getting into mgmt, perhaps you should also consider this: Some of you in positions of authority are of the belief that if you promote the most productive creatives, the work won’t get done. And oldsters are often the real workhorses of an agency. Not all, certainly. But many.

    So let us do our jobs, try new things, take risks, win awards, teach others, move into mgmt when we’re ready (and so desire) and stay valuable to our agencies while we ride into that glittering sunset.

  4. Ann-
    A very thoughtful comment. What I wrote is a holistic overview and, for that matter, only my opinion. Thankfully, exceptions to this arguably brutal paradigm exist. You are one of them.

  5. peanut gallery said

    There’s an old joke that at Leo Burnett, nobody ever celebrates a 40th birthday. Seems a lot of folks are perpetually 39 years old.

    That really scared me considering I got into this business at age 30. You mean I have 10 years to do this? While longer than most pro sport careers, that isn’t a whole lot of time.

    But like Bill Miller’s famous Rolling Stone ads, it was more perception than reality.

    Here, I’ve witnessed some of our most high level creatives in the trenches with the rest of us. Not because they didn’t like what we did, but because they love what they do.

    They still thrive on doing the work. I think that’s the secret.

  6. David Burn said

    Age is just a number. I’m 42 and still working on finding my big break in this biz. I could wonder if it’s ever coming, but what fun would that be?

  7. Mike said


    Good morning. I enjoyed your talent zoo article last week. And thanks for the creative PSA. I think it’s something that needed to be said, and moreover, heard. It’s a truism that my wife and I, who are both in the business, have been mindful of for many years now. Feverishly saving for a retirement that may come sooner than we’d like. And while we’ve both ascended to management positions, you just still never know. I suspected your article would create quite an uprising, especially here in Chicago. I moved here almost 3 years ago and upon securing a CD position and trying to staff my department, I was amazed at the number of agency veterans knocking on my door. Art directors and copywriters with 20 years experience and solid pedigree. Most had something else in common too….books that looked they they came from a bad 1980’s award annual. Admittedly, I’m perplexed by this trend. People are always proclaiming: “age is a state of mind”. So nowhere should that be more evident than in a business where the mind is our primary asset. Why aren’t we finding more 40 somethings with the passion & energy of 20 somethings?

    So yes, your article struck a chord with me as well. You see, I’m just weeks away from turning 40. And while unfortunately, I have discovered certain physical limitations creeping up in recent years, the same does not hold true for my advertising game. I feel like a savvy veteran with the youthful exuberance of so many of the talented creative athletes agencies are drafting from the beloved ad schools. I agree wholeheartedly with you. Hitting 40, or even the dreaded half-century mark doesn’t have to be a death sentence. Unless of course, you let it.

    Thanks again for the reminder.

    Michael Scalise

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