"The job market is pretty rotten," said Nancee Martin,
director-talent at Omnicom Group's TBWA Worldwide. "Opportunities are limited.
Agencies aren't doing the same kind of hiring they were five years
ago, and there's no denying that those closer to 55 are going to
have a harder time," she said, particularly creatives vs. those in
sales or strategic planning.
Ms. Martin then spoke bluntly. "For a creative, pardon my
French, but good fucking luck. There's a commonly held conception
that to be a creative, you need to know what's hot, what music is
cool, what website is all the rage -- and [with age] you become
less aware of those things by and large."
A smattering of copywriter openings do turn up on career sites,
but most listings could prompt many people -- even millennials --
to feel full of insecurity about their capabilities.
For example, TalentZoo's openings as of last week included an
IA/UX Lead (information architecture and user experience) at RP3
Agency, a front-end web developer at HMC2 Advertising; a junior
creative technologist at Mullen, a social-media engagement
assistant at Merrick Towle Communications, and a flash developer
and a receptionist at MMB in Boston.
Mr. Shea applied to a variety of firms, including large agency
networks and tiny boutiques, sports marketing shops, ad startups
and corporations like Disney.
To avoid falling into a rut, Mr. Shea -- who lives in Princeton,
N.J., with his wife, Annie (also in the ad business) and her mother
-- had to get out and meet with people. But that 's easier said
than done when emails and texts are the preferred method of
"The lunch and grab-a-drink culture is gone," Mr. Shea said.
"The most important thing is to have a face-to-face meeting with
people -- that 's when you feel good about yourself. That's how I
kept myself motivated."
Mr. Shea is hardly a Luddite. He's active on Facebook and
LinkedIn and has built a personal website that gets about 1,000
hits a month, featuring links to his portfolio and details about
his extensive experience.
After graduating from Syracuse University, the Andover,
Mass.-native chased his early dream of becoming a top-40 radio
personality. That led to his stint as a local radio sales exec in
the 1980s. "I had never considered advertising until someone said I
should really be a copywriter," said Mr. Shea. "Once I looked into
it, I knew it was what I should have been doing."
Unsure of how to break into the industry, Mr. Shea took the big
risk of moving to New York. Day after day, he stood in front of the
Chrysler Building, headquarters of the once-top-tier Dancer
Fitzgerald Sample, in the hope of getting a few moments with the
firm's recruiter. He did, and that led to an interview and a job
writing TV ad copy for popular brands such as Play-Doh, Wrangler
Jeans and Hellman's mayonnaise.
Mr. Shea spent most of his career at Saatchi &
Saatchi, where he rose to a creative director slot, and worked
on projects for General Mills and the Centers for Disease Control's
His closest brush with fame was being one of the renegade
"Saatchi 17," a group lured away by Interpublic Group to set up a
unit dedicated to General Mills. When the unit folded, Mr. Shea was
one of four execs deemed worthy of retaining. He then worked at
Campbell-Mithun before joining WPP Group, where he was a creative
director at Geppetto. (The agency had no comment on why Mr. Shea's
post was eliminated.)
In sum, Mr. Shea has written for every media, including web, for
brands ranging from Lucky Charms, Hamburger Helper and Lego to
Pernod Ricard, Chase Financial Services and Mercedes-Benz.
Pat Giles, a former prop designer who now owns a broadcast
creative boutique in New York, speaks admiringly of Mr. Shea: "He
was my first boss in advertising. One of the things that I love
about him is how much experience he's got. It makes you feel
comfortable about his reactions, and that he knows the people that
he knows makes me comfortable with his opinions, too. A lot of the
times we discount people who have the war stories of things not
working a certain way, and agencies would be smart to have those
His former boss' predicament should serve as a reminder to all
in the ad business that regardless of the successful campaigns or
the Cannes Lions, everyone is expendable, Mr. Giles said.
"It doesn't matter how old you are, you have to keep up. Every
day there's a new method of distributing your idea. … By the
time they reach their 30s, he said, "kids in their 20s now will
find that things have changed drastically in this business."
Anyone who thinks Mr. Shea's plight is exclusive to the U.S.
should know that things aren't much better in other markets.
Last February, this desperate plea arrived in the inbox of the
U.K. Telegraph's Jobs Editor Louisa Peacock: "I am an experienced
creative director in my late 50s, searching for a job in
advertising after being made redundant more than a year ago. While
I've scraped by on freelance work, I'd like to get a permanent job
again. What should I do?"
Ms. Peacock's advice was some version of "get digital, find a
headhunter and good luck."
That last bit was based on stats she was stunned to uncover.
According to the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, the
average age of employees in the U.K. ad industry is 34. More than
two-fifths are 30 or under, and just 5.3% are over 50.
Hamish Pringle, former director general of the IPA, told Ms.
Peacock, "Agencies look for rising stars, not waning ones."
Industry executives say that a decade ago there was a somewhat
convincing argument that ageist assumptions cut both ways: Older
people were digital dodos, while "Gen Y" and other younger staff
members had a shoddy work ethic and unrealistic expectations about
how quickly they could rise. While ill will toward youngsters may
linger in some quarters, much of the disdain -- among hiring
managers, anyway -- has evaporated in the face of the well-molded
notion that only the world's Zuckerbergs really get digital. A big
part of the challenge for older workers is that they are paid at
the top of the scale, so they can appear pricey and replaceable by
someone younger and cheaper.
Industry executives say that when a 55-plus person is considered
for an agency job, it's often by a startup seeking a "grown-up" to
help shepherd the company or because a seasoned exec is expected to
have an established Rolodex to tap.
It's a daunting reality when you think that your best shot is as
the Lauren Hutton of a new-business pitch, flaunting your wrinkles
and once adorable gap tooth.
Mr. Shea can attest to that phenomenon, having been told during
more than one job interview that he could at least be viewed as a
candidate because he was "someone who doesn't throw their toys out
of the sandbox." But it was never enough to get him hired.
And why didn't his connections help him network his way into a
job? Mr. Shea said most of the creative directors he worked for are
themselves freelancing or shopping around. A few are "out on their
keister," he said, or "dead or retired."
But his contacts did help him land freelance gigs over those 11
Agencies' ageist hiring practices aren't necessarily the
smartest. Take one look at the white-haired leaders of McGarryBowen -- just
named Ad Age 's Agency of the Year for the second time in three
years -- and there's proof that the business can benefit from
experience. For marketers, too, a lack of talent from the 55-plus
set could pose practical business problems as consumer spending
patterns trend upward.
In a piece called "Ageism in Advertising," The New Yorker's
James Surowiecki put a spotlight on this issue 10 years ago.
"Perhaps companies suffer from what economists call an internal
audience problem -- the people who create their ads don't look like
the people who buy their products," he wrote.
"There's a mindset in agencies that if you're [over 55] you
don't understand the people we need to speak to," said Chuck
Schroeder, who is one of a quartet of 1960's-era DDB execs who recently launched Senior Creative People, a consulting firm focused on
helping marketers target senior citizens.
"Agencies aided and abetted, or directly promoted, the idea to
marketers and advertisers that the only valuable target audience
out there is under 39," Mr. Schroeder said. "That's a philosophy
that 's permeated the industry for years."
The attitude is part of America's lack of respect for elders, he
said. "Just about everybody takes better care of seniors than we
do. That's a huge cultural difference. Our senior is a joke, he's
Grandpa Simpson who can't find his shoes and can't find his
glasses. ... But we're wired. We all have our Macs and our iPhones
According to the International Longevity Center at Columbia
University, how older people are depicted on TV and in film and ads
directly affects others' perceptions as well as their idea of
themselves. The Center also says that by 2025, one of every five
Americans will be 65 or older, a metric that could herald a sea
The median age of broadcast audiences is already trending up,
and period dramas such "Mad Men" and "Pan Am" (vs. period sitcoms
like "That 70's Show" and "Friends," which once ruled) are part of
an effort to appeal to broader audiences. "My Generation," a show
created by AARP (formerly known as the American Association of
Retired Persons), was nominated for an Emmy in 2011.
There are also changes in print media. As the New York Times
pointed out in May, AARP's magazine has drawn ads for brands, such
as Skechers and Jeep, previously associated with a younger
demographic. "The grandkids say I'm really cool now, but what they
don't know is I always was," reads the text of one Jeep ad.
"Economics is a great force," Mr. Schroeder said. "When there's
a chance to make money, people will … take a 180-turn faster
than you could spit. Here are all these folks now being seen as a
source of income in a tough economy. Agencies and marketers will
pivot and try to figure out how to address this audience" they have
been ignoring, he said.
"In our business the options are slim, but it's changing," said
Mr. Schroeder. "This is our moment. You cannot find what we know on
Ms. Martin at TBWA echoed that . "You'd like to think that with
age comes wisdom and that we would place a value on that ," she
said. "Smart places don't let age get in the way. I've never gotten
a brief that says 'I'd like someone 50 and older,' but I can't
think of a time where I've presented a candidate in a management
role and someone said, 'Oh, they are too long in the tooth.'"
She added that that though she thinks ageism exists, "I don't
think it's a blanket feeling on behalf of agencies that 'I don't
want to see anybody with gray hair.'"
Fortunately for Mr. Shea, she's right.
This fall, Mr. Shea fired off an email to Animatic Media, a
production company. After multiple conversations, he was asked in
December to rep the company full-time. He accepted. Other
production firms have come calling, and he's also doing some
freelance writing. He works from home but takes the train into New
York about twice a week for meetings.
"I'm really starting from the very beginning. … I'm not
really a rep; I'm a creative," said an upbeat Mr. Shea. "But that
's the school of hard knocks. If I can stay creatively inspired and
solve problems for clients, that 's great."
His is a happy ending, but certainly not a common one.