Full disclosure: I’m 39. In some industries I’d still be making my way up from the mailroom, but in advertising, I’m the grizzled veteran. I’m almost a decade older than the average employee at my agency, and the majority of my staff is closer in age to my teenage daughter than to me. When I was a 22-year-old assistant account executive, I wondered if there was some type of trap door hidden beneath the agency’s floorboards that sucked up veterans and deposited them at the advertising equivalence of an old folk’s home: a sleepy, client-side post.
In many industries, age and experience is valued. Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, at the sprite age of 87, is still holding court in the UK. At the age of 50, Colorado Rockies starting pitcher Jamie Moyer can use his AARP card to get a discount on a ballpark frank at Coors Field. In corporate America, the average CEO is more than 55 years old. And who would you prefer to be operating on you: a resident or an attending surgeon?
However, in advertising, a premium is placed on ideas over experience, and youthfulness equates to cultural relevance. Our industry is more fluid than most, and experience is less relevant. This constant flux favors the young, nimble, digital natives who thrive on change and constant adaptation. Additionally, our business model also requires an army of entry-level doers.
An industry that only 15 years ago was focused on network TV is now all about networks of a social type. Even our acronyms have changed – from FSI and ROP to SEM and API. Agencies that stubbornly clung to the past went out of business. Open, collaborative, digitally driven and young agencies took their place. Many of these shops resemble a grown-up Chuck E. Cheese’s: video games, scooters to get from conference room to cubicle and Red Bull-stocked refrigerators (at Carmichael Lynch a swing hangs from our lobby ceiling).
So, is it possible to stay relevant and grow professionally when you’ve passed the ripe old age of 40? The bottom line: To stay alive and thriving in this business, it’s not as much about how old you are but whether you think like a young person. You can’t be rigid and cling to decade-old assumptions; you need to have a fresh sense of discovery, playfulness and curiosity. Download new artists to your iPod. Better yet, stream some tunes through Spotify. Invest time in staying culturally current. Every now and then, jump on a scooter. New perspectives lead to fresh ideas, and the perspective is a lot different from the apex of a lobby swing than it is from your office chair.
Also, exploit the fact that there are some areas where experience does count. Despite how radically the industry has changed, some things are still pretty similar to the “Mad Men” days. People still need to possess the ability to discern good ideas, uncover insights and sell and manage client relationships. The core needs haven’t changed — just the tools we have at our disposal. And clients still want to look across the conference room table and be reassured that their money is in the hands of people who know what they’re doing.
In our haste to jump to new, shiny marketing objects, some skills have even become a lost art among the millennial set: writing a solid contact report or POV, understanding there’s still a time and place for traditional vehicles such as TV and print — if used effectively — and relationships are built on calls and face-to-face interactions, not a series of email volleys.
The irony is that we’re an industry that can effectively sell $50 bottles of anti-aging cream, but we have yet to discover an anti-aging serum to preserve the careers of experienced agency veterans while also fighting off the effects of cynicism and predictability. There has been a lot of discussion around how to recruit and retain millennial talent, but very little time is spent discussing how to continually reinvent veteran talent so they can stay relevant and valuable to an agency. And while the “ownness” falls on individuals to stay curious and informed, it’s also an issue agencies should address because experience, leadership and institutional knowledge are traits for which a client is willing to pay good money.