Ageism vs. Experience. A Different POV on Advertising’s Obsession with Youth.

Ageism vs. Experience. A Different POV on Advertising’s Obsession with Youth.

First off, I’m no spring chicken. And I fully realize that I am taking a contrarian viewpoint. And god knows, in today’s troll-driven universe, its “agree-with-the-popular-opinion-or-get-roasted-for-being-tone-deaf”. But give me a chance to express my POV.

I also want to acknowledge that I’m not disputing that ageism occurs. I’m 100% sure it does. That being said, the agency business, like every other business is driven, above all, by profit. Money. We all need it to survive, grow and thrive. If you can help drive the bottom line, money is blind. It’s not ageist. It doesn’t care if you’re 25 or 105.

I’m a huge sports fan and for those who know me, I often like to compare the agency world to the sports world. It’s funny, because nobody has ever accused the sports world of being ageist. Racist, homophobic, gender inequity – for sure. But ageist, not so much.

The sports business, like our industry, is driven by the almighty dollar. If you are an athlete who can help a team win, you’re a valuable commodity. Look at Lebron James fast approaching age 40, he’s still at the top of the heap. Why? He refused to coast into the twilight of his career. He could’ve mailed it in a decade ago and retired to do whatever Lebron wanted to do. But he loves the game. Passionately. He decided to invest in his body, his craft, his routine. Once he achieved the pinnacle of success, he could’ve started to take it just a bit easier. Not practice quite as hard, eat the odd burger once in a while. Maybe indulge in the many temptations that surround a billionaire celebrity with the world at his fingertips. But he didn’t. He knew he needed to do the exact opposite if he wanted to continue to play at a high level. After all, just like in the agency world, there is no shortage of young, hungry, driven talent entering the league, desperate for a chance to compete on a big stage. Knowing this, Lebron changed his diet, refined his workout routine, invested in self-care. He didn’t get stuck in his ways or continue to train or play the exact same way he did earlier in his career. He continues to study the game. He changed the way he plays as he knows he doesn’t have the strength or speed that he had at 25. And he is still as much a student of the game as he was when he was drafted.

That child-like curiousity is what keeps him open to learn and adapt. As we age, it’s easy to let our egos get in the way. We have years of experience to fight against. That curiousity is what fuels adaptability. We become open. We ask questions. We discover new insights and that fuel our energy.

Lebron is an extreme example. So what about those that don’t have the same discipline, drive or God given genetic make-up to be at the top of their game as they age? Well, many who have achieved success earlier in their career feel that their resume should justify a top salary because of what they accomplished previously.  And that is a problem in our industry that nobody wants to talk about. Sometimes, they can’t (or aren’t willing to) impact a team like they could before. Which means  they don’t drive the same bottom line results. However, many are still  unwavering in their expectations to make top-talent money. Many aren’t interested taking a perceived step backwards in their compensation. Most athletes’ and agency veterans’ egos won’t let that happen.

Therein lies the problem. Nobody debates that veteran talent is important. It helps provide leadership, training and a stabilizing force on a team. There is no replacement for experience.

This is hard to hear but, it’s less of an ‘age thing’ and it’s more about what talent can bring to a business. A lot of times senior talent needs to take a hard look in the mirror and ask themselves if they are still relevant. If they are still at the top of their game. It’s human nature to reach a certain level of career success and then you start to get a little comfortable. You start to avoid certain assignments because they’re beneath you. You might get a little more inflexible or set in how you approach your work. After all, you’ve been doing it for years. Your opinions might get a little stronger. You might think the latest TikTok trends are stupid. Hell, you might think TikTok is stupid. Or you used to work on multi-million dollar TV campaigns and you think working on digital ads and social posts are bullshit.

What I sometimes see, are agency veterans unwilling to make the adjustments needed to drive value. Because it’s hard. And it’s way easier to stick with what you know because that’s what got you to where you are in your career. But we all know that the only constant in this sadistic business is change. Being adaptable and open is imperative. It is an unforgiving business. One that will be forever linked to pop-culture, trends and emerging technology. And if you don’t stay curious and you don’t remain flexible and open, it can make you feel pretty insecure or even irrelevant. The constant in the business is that it always has, and always will be about the bottom line. And if you expect to get paid solely based on what you’ve done in the past, that’s a tough a sell.

I know how hard it can be to land a new job at any age, let alone if you’re in the later stages of your career. It can be intimidating and disheartening. Here’s the thing. I think prospective employers are intimated by you too. Because they’re often worried that you’ll be too expensive. They worry about paying a premium for great talent who might be unwilling to be a ‘bench player’. And that’s a difficult dance. So rather than facing this reality head on, I think employers and recruiters avoid it. They don’t want to insult your achievements. But they might not be willing to pay you what you earned when your name used to be all over awards annuals or when you used to make it rain new business ten years ago.

My advice above all, is to stay curious. Maintain that child-like wonder. Keep learning. It’s really easy to get jaded after spending a a decade or two in this industry. Conversley it’s really hard to stay curious. But a learning mindset combined with years of experience is a deadly combination that every agency needs. It makes me furious that this business demands that we ‘act young and relevant’. It’s downright humiliating. Maybe you can look at sport and draw some conclusions. There are a lot of passionate athletes who might not be able to play at their physical peak anymore. But they can become role players, or play in the minor leagues or they can become coaches, or management. Nobody in any of these roles make what the star athletes make. And that’s ok. We need to embrace veteran talent and stop playing this game that puts great people on the sidelines and agencies depleted of experienced talent.

Disclosure: I’m 47 years old and head up consultancy in Toronto named Blackjet. Approximately 30% of our team is over 40. 15% of our team is over 50. Approximately 75% of our staff is female and we are a diverse group (but not diverse enough). We’re working on that.