Last week, I asked Ben Welsh if he’d write an op-ed on longevity in advertising, a story about the art of survival. A couple of days later, the chief executive officer of WPP made ageism topical. So Welsh wrote this for me:
Youthful enthusiasm vs Wisdom, by Ben Welsh, chief creative officer, DDB Australia
Candide asked me to write something about ageism in advertising. As WPP’s global CEO recently proved it’s a subject that’s on trend:
“The average age of someone who works at WPP is less than 30. They don’t hark back to the 1980s, luckily.”
Anyone who follows my wine blog wineunder20lifeover50.com will know that I’m over 50 – and like wine. Some wines are best enjoyed young, but often the best ones improve over time. I wonder if the same can be said for advertising creatives?
As he lay in hospital, Bill Bernbach said to his colleague, Bob Leveson, “I’ll be back on Monday and we’ll do some great stuff.” Bill never made it in. He died aged 71, his contribution to the world and his colleagues already made many times over.
There was no need to be back in the office on Monday. But that’s what he wanted, and I suspect that’s why he was such a legend. For the last ten years, he could have been sitting on a yacht somewhere, enjoying sunsets and Sundowners, the occasional sojourn in the world of academia, but instead he wanted to be back in the office.
Great work takes great passion. Or as I say, excitement. I have a simple approach, asking just one question, “Is it exciting?” It’s a question you can ask of every stage of our job: the brief, the client, the work, the treatment, the hire, the PR release.
If it isn’t exciting, then you can bet that your end-user won’t be excited.
But am I still exciting?
Advertising creatives in Australia have a use-by date. There is some debate around what that is, but if you look at your average creative department, you’d conclude that it’s hard to get past 50.
I wonder if this is true of other creative concerns?
Architect, Richard Le Plastrier, is still working aged 81, likewise Glenn Murcutt, at 84, Picasso was painting up till his last breath at 91. And if the drugs don’t get them first, there are plenty of musicians still composing rather than decomposing.
Keith Reinhard, former chief executive officer of DDB, still rocks up to the Madison Avenue office to help guide the network. And he always gives sage advice to anyone prepared to listen. He’s 80 something.
Closer to home, I can think of a few hugely successful creatives who are still writing ads after more than 40 years in the game.
But all the above examples have one thing in common; they are, or were, self-employed. It’s harder when you’re working at the pleasure of the company.
Harder, but not impossible.
Sir David King, emeritus professor in physical chemistry at the University of Cambridge is another octogenarian. He could be resting on his laurels, pondering the workings of the world as he strolls along the River Cam. Instead, he’s leading the world’s most creative response to putting the brakes on, and reversing climate change.
Passion and youthful curiosity are the keys. You add what you know but accept that you don’t know everything. You keep on experimenting. A new brief is a new opportunity.
You learn what you know and don’t know
But the grey hairs and years of experience can make you seem out of touch in front of clients. They can feel awkward. They can assume that you don’t connect with their audience, their brand and the modern world. For fuck’s sake, you are the same vintage as their parents, who think TikTok is the noise a clock makes.
Perhaps this awkwardness is felt by the senior creative? No longer welcome, do they bring on their own demise?
At the risk of sounding really old by quoting the Seven Ages of Man speech in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, I thought the third, fourth and fifth ages sounded familiar:
And then the lover, Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow.
His mistress being the advertising industry.
Then, a soldier, Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation Even in the cannon’s mouth.
The creative director who cares more about their own brand than their clients’
And then, the justice, In fair round belly, with a good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut, Full of wise saws, and modern instances, And so he plays his part.
I rest my case.
Here are ten things I’ve learned over time, between “soldier age” and “justice age”:
You think you know everything You know you don’t
It’s all about the idea As long as the idea gets made
You get excited winning awards You get excited winning pitches
You spend every day with your mates You have to fire your mates
Great work sells itself No it doesn’t
The long nights Become the short cuts
You have to learn a new category You’ve worked on every category
You have to get to know a new client You get to work with a great client again
Ideas sell Craft charms