Age and Advertising, Part One

I had a boss early in my career who framed the age-and-advertising issue perfectly. His theory was that as you got older, particularly in the creative end of the business, you encountered two stages of eyeball-rolling from the young people in your office:

Stage One: They wait until they leave your office to roll their eyes.
Stage Two: They don’t.

The goal, he said, was to get out of the business before things had progressed to Stage Two.

Stage One is something you learn to live with if you’re going to manage creative people. If you can’t endure the fact that killing the creative team’s wild-posting-on-urinals campaign earned you a huge eyeball-roll the minute they left your office, you can’t be a creative director.

But now I’m roughly the age (mid-fifties) that boss was when he broke it down for me. Many of my friends in the business have gotten the boot for age-related reasons. I make cultural references that produce blank looks on the faces of 20-somethings. Am I approaching Stage Two?

And if I am, what does that mean?

Do creatives lose it as they get older? Certainly, if you look at the award shows, most of the most innovative new work comes from younger creatives. From this, it’s easy to conclude that creativity, like gray cells, muscle mass and hair, is something that just ebbs away over time. And certainly there’s nothing sadder than watching an older creative trying to recycle past work to solve a new assignment. (I’ve seen guys in their 20s pull that crap, too. The only difference is they have a smaller supply to draw on.)

But is it really true? It’s hard to know. For one thing, there are simply far more creatives in their 20s and 30s than in their 50s. There are more because everyone likes it that way. Agency management likes it that way because younger creatives are cheaper. Creative directors like it that way because the rosy glow of youth freshens their own older vibe. And clients like it that way because, godammit, we need some fresh thinking around here. With the ranks of creative departments so tilted towards youth, statistics work in their favor. Their sheer numbers mean they do most of the really good work. Of course, it also mean they do most of the really bad work.

Are older creatives less willing to try new things? That’s certainly the rep, but again, it’s not clear whether this is just perception becoming its own reality. In most agencies, “give it to the kids to work on” is the automatic response when traditional solutions won’t do.

But in my own experience, the opposite often happens. The kids, being new to the game and having no sense of what’s gone before, often wind up recapitulating the history of advertising in their own explorations. (And since life is basically unfair, pointing out that they have—totally accidentally, of course—come up with an idea first done in 1977, just makes me more of a loser. Cue the eyeball roll. Not that I’m bitter or anything.)

Whereas the older creatives I know are desperate to do something totally different because they’ve been forced back into traditional solutions their entire careers. They also have the advantage of actually knowing what’s been done before.

Who do you suppose more appreciates having the door to the cage opened—the newly hatched chick or the bird that’s been there all its life?

Next installment in this discussion (not necessarily the next post): Do you have to be young to write young?

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