Locked in a Cultural Battle of the Ages

Generation Gap: Age Issues Are Often More About a Power Struggle

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- "Who's Bernbach?"

Bruce Kelley was taken aback at that response from a young colleague who'd just plopped the Martin Agency vice chairman firmly into the generation gap.


Illustration: John Kachik
Rules of office etiquette have become blurred, making it hard for some to see eye to eye.
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Mr. Kelley, feeling that a campaign idea from the young creative was misguided, had just quoted Bill Bernbach, one of the fathers of modern advertising. The quote was vintage Bernbach: "If you have a man stand on his head, you'll get people to look. But you won't sell anything unless you're selling a product to keep things from falling from a man's pockets."

The young agency executive's idea, on the other hand, "was creative and fun; it just had nothing to do with selling the client's product," recalled Mr. Kelley, 57, who also holds the titles of partner and director-account services at the Richmond, Va., agency. The response was particularly stinging, considering that Mr. Kelley, in his 30-year agency career, did a stint at Doyle Dane Bernbach during the 1970s.

As generations collide
It's not just the Bernbach quote falling on deaf ears as generations collide in the workplace.

A New York magazine sales executive joked about his experience at a family-owned publisher where the boss, who was retired for all practical purposes, visited a few times a week. "For security, the office had a numerical key pad for entry, but either because the old man didn't like technology or was forgetful, the code was, shall we say, a consecutive sequence starting with 1 and ending in 4."

Sometimes the generation gap underlines a power struggle. A New York copywriter lamented about a boss who used his age as a mark of superiority and excuse not to read e-mail. "It was as though he was above all this newfangled e-mail," the copywriter said. The boss "preferred face-to-face meetings, which was catastrophic when accounts were pushed beyond deadline because it was impossible to reach him for sign-offs on ads. It was also looked down upon that we didn't know instrumental rock bands of the '60s."

Executives such as Mr. Kelley, a father of three teenagers, are the first to admit shortcomings on emerging pop-culture trends, especially music. He admitted with a laugh that he can't remember a list of current bands.

Beyond Bernbach and bands
But beyond Bernbach and bands, the differences spill over into such areas as dress codes. A 34-year-old Midwestern magazine sales rep recalled a boomer manager who required all women on staff to wear nylons with skirts, even in the summer. "She actually didn't think it was professional to wear sandals without them," she said.

So if baby boomers find themselves marginalized as dinosaurs, they shouldn't blame younger colleagues for the label.

"You have to position yourself to not say dated things," said Lynne Lancaster, a consultant on generational issues and co-author of "When Generations Collide." "You have to be a real media junkie and accept that in an agency ... you have to dabble around in new media, visit social-networking sites, blog."

Indeed, many are. "The boomers I work with are very hip; they all had iPods before me and are very up with what is going on," said Christie Hadley, 26, assistant account manager at Northlich, in Cincinnati.

For Nancy Kramer, who is known to refer to her 30-and-under employees as "my kids," the vast age gap is rarely an issue. But the 51-year-old Ms. Kramer -- who is CEO of Resource Interactive, a Columbus, Ohio, shop where nearly half of the 150 employees are under the age of 30 -- admitted her young employees fail to grasp what the business world was like when she started 25 years ago.

Life before '1984'
"They don't understand what the '1984' commercial was for Apple, they don't understand business life before e-mail or what it was it like before there was FedEx," she said.

Then there's the example of 42-year-old David Swaebe, corporate-communications director at Wenham, Mass.-based Mullen. Around Thanksgiving he was interviewing a 20-something job candidate and mentioned the story of Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant." He explained how the saga that commented on the 1960s' counterculture movement took place in nearby Stockbridge, Mass., around the holiday.

"The job candidate looked at me with the blankest of stares," Mr. Swaebe said. "She had no idea what I was talking about. It was a classic I'm-getting-old moment."
Katie Yontz celebrated her 25th birthday on the same day her agency turned 25.
Katie Yontz celebrated her 25th birthday on the same day her agency turned 25.

But Katie Yontz, 25, project coordinator at Resource Interactive, puts a positive spin on the differences. The coordinator celebrated her last birthday on the same day her agency turned 25. "That was a really poignant moment for me," she said. "These are the same people who were starting a business the day I was being born. ... They have so much experience and insight."

Experience vs. the hotshots
There's the very serious and often confusing problem for agency managers facing the dilemma of whether to keep the experienced 55-year-old on the longtime drug account or to hand over a hard-won new technology account to the new hotshot creative with almost no experience.

It shouldn't be such a dilemma, argued Patty Bloomfield, 50, VP-account director at Northlich, who spent 20 years at Leo Burnett Co. before joining the Cincinnati-based agency.

"We are all, hopefully, in the business where people and consumers come first," she said. "That makes the experiences of even those of us who are a little bit older still relevant."

Age bias has led some agencies to disregard a key target market.

"There is still a love affair with the 18-to-34 group in this business because of the conventional wisdom that people make brand choices when they are young, so don't target people when they are older," Ms. Bloomfield added.

Northlich's BoomBiz practice has documented this problem and reminds marketers of the competitive advantage to buck the youth trend. "There are 78 million boomers in the U.S, but only 10% of ads are directed at them," she said.

"This is a young person's business," said Debbie Strobel, managing partner of Advertising Recruitment Specialists, who added it's rare she gets a call from an agency asking for her to hunt for a baby boomer. "I don't care what anyone says, agencies want the young, hot talents."

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Brooke capps, Ken Wheaton contributed to this report.
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