Meet The Richards Group's 71-Year-Old Intern

Why Doug McKinlay Took a Break From Teaching for a Two-Month Agency Gig

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Would your agency ever consider hiring a senior citizen for a summer internship?

In a business that's obsessed with hiring the hottest young talent boasting digital experience, most shops would probably balk. But 71-year-old Doug McKinlay -- an ad professor at Brigham Young University and former agency owner -- took a chance anyway, and proposed an internship to Dallas-based Richards Group this summer.

"The industry is moving at Mach One, and academia isn't moving nearly that fast," Mr. McKinlay said, comparing the pace of changes to advertising curriculum to "the speed of a receding glacier."

Doug McKinlay
Doug McKinlay

"The only way for me to find out whether we were doing the best job at training our students wasn't more research -- it was about going to an agency," he said. "There was this thing inside me that said, 'You're old. Can you be a 71-year-old writer and compete with these kids, and be dropped in the middle of this fast-paced industry that you teach students about?"

So, sheepishly, he approached a fellow BYU graduate, David Morring, who is a longtime creative at Richards Group. They didn't know each other well, having only met once, but Mr. McKinlay explained his motivations and pitched the internship.

Mr. Morring then took the idea to his team, who agreed to take on Mr. McKinlay -- unpaid -- for two months this summer (BYU assisted Mr. McKinlay with some costs). It likely helped Mr. McKinlay's case that Richards Group's CEO, Stan Richards, is age 80 and is still a very hands-on leader.

"Doug is just an all-around good guy," said Mr. Richards. "It was a treat to have him here and learn from his extraordinary experience as a professional and teacher." He added: "From a selfish standpoint, one of the most important aspects of Doug's time with us is the access we have to the creative talent at BYU. BYU is turning out some great young talent, and we hope to be at the top of their list when they graduate and seek an agency."

The gig

After being accepted, Mr. McKinlay managed to persuade his wife to make the trek to Dallas. In some ways that pitch -- to lure herto stay at a Marriott Residence Inn while he toiled sans pay for a couple months -- was probably tougher than any he knew he'd need to make to a client.

Mr. McKinlay said when he arrived at the agency, the staff "didn't know quite what to do with me. People looked at me and said, 'he's old, he's a copywriter and he's a professor?' "

But given his breadth of experience, he proved himself able to add value. Mr. McKinlay had been a copywriter at General Electric, worked at New England shop Wilson Haight & Welch in the early '70s (when it was bigger than Arnold or Hill Holiday) on Spalding and later on Stanley tools and Cigna health. He had his own Connecticut-based agency for a time, McKinlay Advertising, which handled B2B and consumer clients and reached $30 million in billings. It was after that, in 1999, that BYU asked him to start an advertising track.

During his summer at the Richards Group, Mr. McKinlay was given assignments on two clients, Orkin and AAA. And, in order for him and the agency to get the most out of the experience, he was partnered with a 25-year-old creative, Skyler Thiot.

Initially, Mr. McKinlay felt self-concious in meetings based on the tech-savvy of staffers. "Everyone brought their Macbook pros, and everyone had their iPhones with them, and in and out of searching for visual assets on their computers." But he realized that he was probably being more judgemental about his abilities than the staff was. "Nobody ever thought of me as the old fart that didn't know his way around social media," he said. Mr. McKinlay calls himself a "passive user of social media" who has Facebook and Instagram accounts but doesn't use them much, though he has 1,000 contacts on LinkedIn.

Of course assimilating to life in a general-market agency isn't nearly as tough as blending in to the digital world. "In a totally digital agency I would have had a much more difficult time integrating, and people would have looked at me as the odd duck," he said. "I would have felt more uncomfortable, no doubt. Working at [a place like] AKQA would have been a totally different experience."

Following in his footsteps

Based on his experience, Mr. McKinlay hopes that all ad professors will consider following in his footsteps to gain more real-world ad knowledge. He proposes that, at minimum, every five to seven years ad professors work inside an agency and take that experience back to their classrooms.

He said agencies can benefit, too. "When you look at stereotypes of older people in advertising, they are portrayed as stupid and can't tie their own shoes," he said. "But you can be old and be with it and be intelligent. I was productive in our brainstorm meetings and generated ideas."

Richards Group creative Mr. Morring, Mr. McKinlay's fellow BYU alum, said: "What I learned from Doug is that you can't get complacent in anything you do. At 71, he could easily have mailed it in and thought that he already had enough experience and wisdom to share with his students.

"But he realized he had to get out there and make himself have new experiences to be of real value to them. Doug made me realize that age has nothing to do with energy and drive. You have to stay hungry, whether you're 21, 41 or 71."

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