It's a Monday in March, and Dave Shea has just returned from vacation in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. It's an unusually temperate afternoon in leafy Princeton, N.J., where he's rested, relaxed and settled into his ad agency office.
What a difference a few years make.
Before landing a job at Ferrara & Co. in January 2013, Mr. Shea had spent more than two years scouring for ad agency work after being laid off from his copywriting post at a youth-marketing agency. Despite a resume listing top-tier shops like Saatchi & Saatchi and McCann Erickson, and a book bursting with familiar campaigns, his relentless networking, knocking on doors and hounding recruiters was for naught. The issue: He was over 55.
"There was a recession and the reality was I had a lot of experience in children's marketing, my portfolio was kids-centric," said the 61-year-old Mr. Shea, whose work includes a lot of animation, including the Trix Rabbit and Lucky the Leprechaun. "But it was really the gray hair that was working against me."
Ad Age featured Mr. Shea in a cover story on ageism in advertising in January 2012. He initially had reservations about the piece. "You don't want to advertise how old you are," he said. "The industry is focused on the young. It was a little scary putting myself out there."
At the time the story was published, Mr. Shea was working as a rep for an animatic company while freelancing and job hunting for a creative director role. "It was a very modest income," recalls Mr. Shea, who had kids in college and alimony to pay. So he kept plugging away at the job search, traveling from his home in Princeton to New York to network whenever possible.
But the answer, it turns out, was three miles away.
It came in a call from Chris Havard, a senior VP at Ferrara, a local ad agency specializing in packaged goods with a roster than includes Nasacort, OxiClean, Arm & Hammer, Rolaids, Aspercreme, Unisom, Cortizone-10 and the New Jersey Lottery.
"I read the article and I'm sitting here thinking, 'Wow, here is this guy miles away from us,'" said Mr. Havard, who saw the appeal of a copywriter steeped in packaged goods with tons of experience. "It was like a huge lightbulb went off in my head."
He arranged to meet Mr. Shea for coffee at a local Starbucks, and the two hit it off. "You can't walk away from a meeting not liking Dave," said Mr. Havard, who viewed Mr. Shea's age not as an issue but an asset. "He knows how to serve clients and how to talk to them. He can think on many planes."
But even that meeting did not result in a job offer. In fact, Mr. Shea had already reached out to Ferrara for a job without success. There were no openings at the time of that coffee meeting, and it took a full year for a creative slot to open up.
Today, Mr. Shea works on pretty much all the accounts at the agency, which was founded by a former Johnson & Johnson executive named Art Ferrara. The shop began as a market research consultancy (some say 25 years ago; a press release issued in 2015 claims a 30-year history) and has since bloomed into a 360-degree full-service agency. Bought by privately held Atlanta-based holding company PureRED last year, Ferrara & Co. boasts 80-plus employees, many of them transplants from shops like McCann, Grey, BBDO and Saatchi.
The office isn't a sexy skyscraper with a view of the Chrysler Building; this is an unassuming low-slung building in a nondescript corporate park. There are no foosball tables or rolling bar carts on display. And that suits Mr. Shea just fine. Here, he does work for Nasacort and OxiClean and the Hess Toy Truck, which taps into his kids-marketing experience.
"I was proud of what I had accomplished going through tough times," he said, looking back. "I didn't light the world on fire creatively. I have a couple of Effies; no Clios, no Lions, but it's OK. I have a career and I'm in it for the long haul."
In particular, he had to fight the misconception that a creative past the age of 55 cannot be digitally savvy. "When I started in the '80s, it was like, 'We want spots like MTV,' so we did that, and then the internet came along and for General Mills I helped create one of the first kids' websites. You just adapt. It doesn't matter if you are 65, 55 or 35. You just adapt."
So what would Mr. Shea have done differently? "After the article ran, there was one comment I took to heart. Somebody had written, 'Nice article, Dave, but the picture of you standing in your home office holding "Ogilvy on Advertising" with a bunch of relics from your career wasn't the best thing. You need to surround yourself with 2012, not the 1980s.' And I thought, 'You're right. Here I am a positioning expert, and in that shot it looked as if I was positioning myself for the past and not the future.'"
His philosophy today is to immerse himself in the now, and his now involves children's books. "I have four books in my computer and I'm continually rewriting them and repitching them." He's had no luck yet, but said, "I still have a lot of faith in them and keep pushing them. You have to be relentless."
No doubt. "Dave is an unsung hero," said Bob Sullivan, chief creative officer at Ferrara, who spent more than 20 years at Grey. "I knew a lot of Daves in my life and it is proof that nice, smart people can win. You don't hear that story a lot."