Aging in Adland: The Gray-Hair Phobia That's Hindering Older Execs

Dave Shea Is One of an Army of Over-55 Ad Pros Fighting to Stay Relevant

By Published on .

Dave Shea's full-time job last year was hunting for a new job.

Laid off from his post at a youth-marketing agency in November 2010, the creative director answered hundreds of job posts and went on dozens of interviews brandishing an impressive resume.

Mr. Shea has built websites and filled them with content. He has created online games. He has devised TV, print and radio ads working for agencies big and small -- and won awards along the way. Witty, quick and pleasantly self-deprecating, he carries a conversation.

Yet time and again during his job search he received polite rejection letters explaining that his background, while estimable, simply didn't fit the profile of someone who is , as more than one recruiter put it, "cutting-edge."

David Shea in his home office, surrounded by relics from his ad career.
David Shea in his home office, surrounded by relics from his ad career. Credit: David Yellen

Mr. Shea, 56, works on a Madison Avenue that more than ever is no country for "old" men, defined as anyone 55 or older.

If you're in that age range and not already in a senior post at an agency, your chances of finding one are slim. If you're among the many older employees whose positions were cut during the recession, time is working against you: The longer you're out of the workforce, the more disconnected you become and the harder it is to re-enter.

Your experience also works against you, and that 's a bitter pill.

"I'm a happy-go-lucky guy, but believe me, I got depressed and there were weeks where I thought 'This just sucks,'" said Mr. Shea. He was sitting in his home office, its walls covered with the Trix Rabbit and Lucky the Leprechaun, souvenirs from decades of working on General Mills ads.

"How does anybody out there not have a need for what I've got?" Mr. Shea wondered. He said he can't help but feel that "it's probably the gray hair more than anything else," he said.

Most shops won't admit it readily, but gray-hair phobia is a reality in the digital era. With agencies continually restructuring and changing models to keep pace with the public's media consumption habits, adland is right to be digitally obsessed. But most in the industry wrongly assume that the only people who grasp digital are fresh out of college.

That presumption has spawned an undercurrent of resentment as agencies refit themselves for the digital world -- a process that often entails stripping out layers of longtime employees in favor of a newer breed of creatives and strategists believed to better grasp the increasingly complex media environment.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of the labor force unemployed for at least a year hit an all-time high in second-quarter 2010. It continued to hover at record levels even as the overall jobless rate began inching down.

But that reduction is not helping Mr. Shea and his ilk in advertising. Companies conducting mass layoffs during the recession found it easier to revamp and make wholesale changes. When jobs return, younger digital talent generally benefits.

According to the Ad Age DataCenter, agencies accounted for 189,700 jobs when the U.S. economy was peaking before the recession in 2007. By January 2010, the sector had 30,000 fewer jobs. As of November 2011 agencies had regained 17,000 jobs, but not the same ones that were lost.

It's unclear how many 55-and-over ad workers are among the long-term unemployed, but industry recruiters will tell you it's a lot, possibly thousands. The aging of the ad business in the digital era is an issue the industry hasn't even begun to wrestle with in earnest, but it's one that could be a key determinant of its future. What's the incentive for young people to enter a field where constantly changing technology is likely to make them obsolete in what should be the prime of their career? How can older employees stay current? Is more training needed?

And then there's the human element.

Unless you've been there, it's difficult to understand how being out of work for an extended period can affect a person's confidence and self-esteem.

The Pew Research Center's most-recent findings show that nearly 40% of people unemployed for more than six months report lower self-respect and are more likely to seek professional help for depression or other emotional problems. And more than 40% say the recession negatively affected their ability to achieve long-term career goals, often citing being forced to settle for a job with lower salary and fewer benefits than their previous one.

The tale of Dave Shea is worth telling because he's not a famous creative guru but a rank-and-file worker who put in his time learning the business.

For 11 months, his daily routine was to settle in front of his MacBook and comb through career sites such as TalentZoo and Krop, as well as patrol Monster, CareerBuilder,, JobCircle and LinkedIn for potential openings.

"I was going to all of them, you name it," said Mr. Shea. "I was leaving no stone unturned. Then I started following all the recruiters' tweets, but that was like chasing my tail. There are not too many people advertising for traditional ad people right now."

Mr. Shea is active on Facebook and LinkedIn and has built a personal website that gets 1,000 hits a month.
Mr. Shea is active on Facebook and LinkedIn and has built a personal website that gets 1,000 hits a month.

"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 communication.

"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 Anti-Obesity Campaign.

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 people."

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 months.

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 and iPads."

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 change.

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 Google."

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.

Most Popular
In this article: