I recently moderated a panel discussion of creative directors from several ad agencies at an industry conference when a difficult but important questions arose: How old is too old for the ad game?
No one on the panel came up with a credible answer, but it certainly got everyone thinking about an issue that our industry is certainly conscious of but that fails to garner the same amount of attention as other hot button topics.
There’s an old cliche that advertising is a young person’s game, and the statistics I’ve seen seem to bear that out. In 2016, the U.K.’s Institute of Practitioners in Advertising—the leading trade group—said the average age of employees at all IPA member agencies was 33.7 years, a figure the IPA said has remained static since 2009. I’m not aware of any statistics citing the age of creatives in the ad business, the arena that is most familiar to me, but my guess is that it skews even younger.
The situation reminded me of my own early days in the business when I was a 20-something president and creative director at the old Hawley Martin agency (later to be acquired by Arnold Communications). Whenever I complained that clients weren’t taking me seriously because I was so young, my mentor and agency founder, Dave Martin, would say, “Matt, you will go from being too young to too old in a day.” Wow, was he ever right.
So the question remains: Is there a right “age” for this business I so passionately love? In my mind, the answer is simple: It all depends on your outlook.
After 36 years in advertising, my outlook is still that of a 20 year old. My affection for and commitment to this crazy business is deep. I am truly thrilled to wake up in the morning and go to work. Even my other passions have the thread of marketing running through them.
My understanding of, experience in and commitment to advertising is very real and genuinely deep-seeded. But herein lies the difficult part of this commentary: Does the business respect and love me back? Most indications are that it does not, so what are aging professionals who still love to work supposed to do with the rest of their lives?
The answer is that it depends on several factors.
I’m lucky. I’m 59-years-old but still very active because I have my own agency that I started when I was 43 after working at big agencies for many years. As long as my name stays on the door, I can call the shots about how much work I do and how long I stay in my current role. But not every creative in this industry has that luxury. What about a creative director at a big agency who’s pushing 40 or just passed it? Where does their future lie?
I don’t have a definitive answer, but I do have some ideas on how they should approach the inevitability of growing older in an industry that favors and rewards youth.
Basically, it’s about embracing change. If you want to keep going in this business, you simply must possess the ability to objectively look forward and say, “I’m willing to try that. I want to try that, and I will try my best to learn from it.” No matter what “it” might be.
That’s easy to say, but not easy to do. I’ve found that as we age, we tend to allow ourselves to become comfortable with our success. We’ve learned much from our years of experience, from our achievements and accomplishments as well as our inescapable failures. We’ve developed a certain degree of wisdom that tells us we know how things are supposed to be done in order to make them work. But I believe that so-called wisdom sometimes prevents us from trying something new. And guess what? When that happens, that’s when you become too old for this game.
We’re in a business of change. Time changes things, culture changes things and those changes can come on a daily basis. Sometimes hourly. So how old is too old? When you decide that you’re too old to change