It hit me a couple of years ago many of my friends and ex-work colleagues started to turn fifty.
I was at one such one event, standing outside a pub in Berwick street, and I realised everyone was of a certain vintage, all still talented, all still enthusiastically talking about the work they were doing, almost none of them in full time agency employment any more.
These were men and women, like myself at one time, who had either found themselves tipping over the point where ad agencies see the value in them, or had decided to leave full time employment or were encouraged to leave or had accidentally left, rejoined and then left again anyway.
Maybe their faces didn’t fit any more. Maybe it was their Levi’s or mini skirts.
So what happens to people over 50 in adland? where do we all go? It seems nobody knows.
In last week’s Campaign John Hegarty is interviewed on this subject, a fine example of longevity in the business if ever there was one, and the article highlighted a worrying yet unsurprising statistic.
The average age of ad agency staff is 33.7
So what do you do if your nose hairs have started to need an industrial strimmer and your facebook page is full of TENA posts?
It all seemed so simple when you started out, freshed faced, doing placements for a year or two, followed by years of lost weekends and late nights, awards and promotions, adulation and nicer cars, till you’re sipping cocktails in the whisky bar in the Sunset Marquee thinking you are hot-bloody-shit.
I suspect that a lot of the agency average age thing is down to natural attrition, some people just get fed up with all the bullshit. And there is a lot of bullshit that no cocktail can dilute, and like global warming it melts part of your personal polar ice cap every year until all that’s left is a rocky island and a couple of penguins wondering what happened to all the snow.
So let’s talk choices.
You could start your own agency. No? Well, it’s not as easy as it sounds.
Some try the foreign assignments. For the more snobby creative it used to be that ‘FILTH’ was a rather unfair accronym for that career path.
It meant Failed In London Try HongKong.
But these days Asia is far from a place to hide or cash in. According to one regional ECD ex-colleague of mine who wanted to remain nameless (for reasons best known to himself!), Singapore or China doesn’t restrict its sweatshops to small children making GAP T-shirts.
Mystery Regional Exec CD: “The older creatives who moved here years ago can struggle with the work. If you are planning on trying Asia as a career move make sure you are very digitally focused”
…he said as he headed off to start another conference call at 8pm.
Well, isn’t everywhere digital these days?
But some people just don’t see the new digital landscape as the industry they fought so hard to be a part of.
My old copywriting chum and creative partner of ten years Matt Bartley left adland a few years ago and has retrained as a nurse and is now working on a hospice ward. I asked him, somewhat disrespectfully but never one to shy away from a gag, what made him swop polishing turds for the real thing.
Matt: “Firstly, I have never regretted working in adland. Many wonderful times and, more importantly, friendships with the most bizarre and sometimes brilliant people. It is impossible to explain to people who have done ‘real work’ all their lives what it was like – so I don’t even try anymore.”
Aw, thanks Mate. I think.
“There are two main reasons I got out. 1. My understanding of a creative idea was increasingly redundant in the digital age. I spent 5 years in a digital agency and it bored me shitless. I was useful in winning pitches. I could give ’em everything from TV to shelf-wobblers, but we all knew that a dancing packshot in an online pop-up was the sum total of the client’s ambition. Digital ‘copywriters’ tended to be digital producers who could spell. I was increasingly irrelevant and, at 50+, not on anyone’s shopping list”.
Well, you can’t please everyone. And from my perspective Matt was talking about a formative time when digital largely only meant display advertising. Digital has become so much more and blurred again with trad advertising and social media to be something far more potent.
Matt: “It’s not easy describing my life now, but there is still a buzz to be had. Perhaps not quite the same buzz as snorting coke off an advertising PAs tits, but, shit, we don’t have your budgets..”
But there are options for the less altruistic among us. There is always ‘consultancy work’ or penning a novel. Or yes, finding yourself in Pharmaland where experience is still valued and the fields are green with creative opportunity.
For me, it was a revelation.
Of course there are some survivors and the ones that are, are the ones who stay hungry in any aspect of the business.
I asked the ‘mature’ legend Billy Mawhinny ex-BBH and Exec CD at JWT who now has his own successful agency, about survival as a ‘senior’ creative.
Billy: The best career advice I ever heard was given to me by Terence Donovan. In that wonderful cultured cockney tone he said “Do something you love and get somebody to pay you for it.” Unfortunately I wasn’t good enough to play for Man United and the Beatles had a drummer so I took up colouring in.
I truly love it as much as I did when I started, now over 40 years ago. I believe it’s that naivety that I can solve anything and unbeatable enthusiasm that has kept me working.
John Hegarty once talked about the Catholic Work ethic and I had to disagree with him in the nicest possible way.Certainly in Ireland, and without the slightest hint of sectarianism on my part, it was referred to as the Protestant Work Ethic.Mostly because of the Industry and Ship Yards of the North. I knew I was no John Hegarty so I decided, very early on, that no one would ever work harder than me.
Protestant or Catholic it has never left me. I also refuse to be intimidated by fashion and what’s new. Bill Bernbach was asked in the early 60’s what Advertising would be like in 20 years time. He said it would be the same in 20 years and it was 20 years ago. People with the power to touch people would be successful and people with out that power won’t. All that and a young loving, energetic family will keep me forever young.
After all, that lawn won’t mow itself.
Finding yourself suddenly without an expensable cocktail in your hand and paying for your own hotel bill, what most do is turn to freelance.
But there’s a funny thing that is true of freelance that I found. Something that gives us old crusty creatives a trump card (if you’ll excuse the expression).
Nobody wants young cheap freelancers.
The irony is honey-sweet.
If you have a problem, you don’t need a couple of cool twenty something hipsters who may or may not crack it, who have never driven a car or don’t understand the true nature of family holidays from a parents perspective or only eat pizza and never cook or who have never had a mortgage or understand women’s bladder issues.
You need a couple of pros who can crack that problem quickly and brilliantly.
And even if that’s not you now, it probably will be.
The fact is you have to adapt, those 33.7 year olds just aren’t going to hire you unless you are going for that really big senior job where the hiring is done by the 66.7 year olds.
So get used to being that free spirit, roaming from agency to agency cracking problems big and small. And when you have to work weekends, you can even charge for it.
It comes with a certain amount of shit-shovelling, but when didn’t it?
Maybe agencies will start to see the benefit of experience, or maybe they will remain in the ‘shoreditch wanker’ mode and keep anything with a grey hair at a tatooed arms length.
But until agencies wise up to keeping and exploiting the worth of all that talent and experience, the next stage of your career could come with a good income, no stress and allow you to concentrate on doing what you enjoy doing best. Cracking problems.
My old boss always said that ‘your career is a marathon not a sprint’ and he was right.
You may have hit a wall and had to take a crap in a drain, but it’s not the end. All that training will pay off if you stick with it.
Truth is, if you’re creative there is no finish line.