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Gather a group of late-thirtysomething-and-up copywriters and art directors, throw in assurances of anonymity, and a conversation about age discrimination goes something like this: "When I started in the biz at the tender age of 23, the absence of gray hair was obvious," states Paul, 49. "The guy who ran the entire creative department was old -- he sported a goatee, wore turtlenecks and had a youthful twinkle in his eye -- and there was one senior writer who had some years on him. Oh, and once a creative director turned 50. Otherwise, it was yuppie heaven. 'This a young person's business,' they'd say. People got tired of the grind, the uncertainty. People went in-house, joining clients. Some went freelance. Others got promoted within the big agency ranks or went to smaller agencies in different markets."

Adds Scott, 37: "I always felt the same way about agency retirement plans. I wondered why they had them. In my 13 years in agencyland, I saw one person retire in the traditional sense of the word. In fact, he was the only person in his 60s at the agency where I worked. And they say we're living longer these days, too . . ."

"All of the over-50 guys -- and, out of an 80-person agency, there were probably about five -- were management," recalls Claudia, also 37. "With one exception; we had a really talented writer, a man who had a tiny little cubicle like mine. He was in his early 60s and did the same entry-level account writing as me, although I was only 23. He wrote great copy. However, I doubt he made much more than I did, and there really wasn't that much use for 'clever' copy when everyone just wanted the same old nuts-and-bolts stuff."

Age discrimination is a topic that sets anonymous tongues wagging. Some even claim to have experienced it, but, like Bigfoot, its actual existence is almost impossible to prove. It can take many disguises and forms: downsizing, restructuring, saving money by hiring someone younger and cheaper. But almost anyone who's been in the advertising industry for a period of time will admit that, with the exception of CDs and ACDs, most copywriters and art directors are young Turks and Turkettes, well-versed in the vernacular of hipness, with an "edge" on the latest alternative band, hot director, or funky typeface.

"The age discrimination in this business is incredible," asserts 66-year-old George Lois, chairman and creative director at Lois/USA, New York (see sidebar, p. 24). "If you're 50 and looking for a job, you can go broke." Many of his contemporaries, he believes, are just as tuned-in as their younger, supposedly phatter counterparts. "This is a business of big ideas. It's a matter of keeping up with culture and technology. You don't have to look sharp to be sharp."

"Clients prefer youthfulness in the appearance of their creative resources," observes Richard Kurnit, an attorney with Frankfurt Garbus in New York, a law firm specializing in entertainment and advertising issues. "They want to work with people on the agency side who are their social peers, rather than feeling as if they're about to be lectured to." Even older clients, he says, can be biased. "They want to feel like they're in touch with MTV and the Web. There's a notion that creative people need to be tuned into what's going on culturally, and that precludes gray hair."

Statistically, however, this type of thinking doesn't hold water -- and has created a marketing misconception of almost titanic proportions. According to Ageism in Advertising, a 1995 study conducted by High-Yield Marketing of St. Paul, Minn., the 50-plus crowd controls more than half of discretionary spending and over 70 percent of personal assets. And over-50 heads of households make up 43 percent of the population, with one "boomer" reaching the half-a-century mark every 7.5 seconds. By the year 2020, one in six people will be 65 and older.

Yet agency culture continues to idealize and represent that slim slice of society of Gen Xers in their 20s and 30s. And creatives don't seem to much care about what the older market wants. "Most agency professionals are most comfortable advertising to younger consumers like themselves," states the study.

"It's a lot easier for a 45-year-old to write copy for an 18-year-old than the reverse," points out Michael Rybarski, senior VP-general manager of Age Wave Communications in Oakland, an agency that specializes in mature markets. "You need something called peer perspective, an idea of the reality of the people you're trying to write for. How can a 27-year-old empathize with an 'empty nest' woman 25 years her senior? There's a psychic hangover from when the core market was baby boomers. They've aged, while the folks doing commercials haven't. And selling Kemper Mutual Funds is not the same as planning a campaign for No Fear clothing."

The general consensus is that advertising "eats its young" as one source puts it, then spits out the bones. "The nature of any business, and advertising in particular, is that people go out and new people come in," says Ted Sann, who at age 52 is chief creative officer at BBDO/New York. "A lot of creatives enter at the bottom, and not many make it. If you're not doing well after 15 years, then maybe it's time to try something else. This is an intense, tough profession."

Sann believes the best creative talent is in the 45-50 age group. Often, at that point, they are management types, or they have their own agencies. Most are men; it was almost impossible to find women in the above-mentioned category to interview for this story. "This is very much an apprentice business; it takes a long time to master. Plus you must consistently maintain the quality of your material," says Sann.

And economics do work against older employees. If a 27-year-old and a 47-year-old with similar qualifications vie for the same job, dollars and sense say the younger guy has a better shot. He's cheaper, and -- at least that's the perception -- easier to manage, not as tough to mold into the worker the agency wants.

A long parade of forty- and fifty-somethings has been on the trend's receiving end. "I managed to stay employed until 55, but it wasn't easy," says David, 57, who asked that his last name not be used. "Somewhere around the age of 50, people suddenly didn't want to go out to lunch with me anymore. I kind of saw it coming when I broke into advertising at the age of 23, looked around and saw almost nobody over 40." David has been freelancing for the past couple of years. "Yeah, it's tough, but instead of going home angry every night, I go to bed happy -- and wake up terrified the next morning. You think each project you've hustled up is your last. But last year, my second in business, I made more than I ever earned on salary." Most of his work is done via telecommuting so "clients don't really care how old I am. I'm taking care of problems their agencies can't or won't solve." Another advantage: David is free from the long hours and nonstop demands imposed by a full-time office job. Office-related stress can wear people down over time.

"This is the kind of a job where to excel, it's hard to have kids or any life outside of an agency," acknowledges Alex Bogusky, 34, a partner at Crispin Porter & Bogusky, Miami. "Younger people are willing to put in that kind of effort . . . but after a certain point, you're not so dependent on your career for your self-worth and you [might] lose interest" in this all-encompassing existence.

Also, "Nobody is employed by one corporation for 30 years anymore," observes Chuck Porter, 52, chairman of Crispin Porter. Agencies win and lose accounts all the time, and if the client goes, "oftentimes so do you." In the minds of many agencies and clients, "experience is only valuable if the future is like the past," he says.

But clients may be wising up -- to a point. "Clients meet my partner Alex, who's 18 years my junior, and say, 'Wow! This is a young, hot place,' " notes Porter. "Then they look at me and say, 'Whew! At least there's some adult leadership here.' And some clients, a bank, for instance, don't want to feel like they're being pitched by a fraternity. They identify with an agency that's either like them or their audience."

There are other signs that times may be a-changin'. Recent articles in Advertising Age and Creativity have noted a dearth in top creative professionals. "There's a real paucity of talent at the higher levels, so age is seldom mentioned," states an optimistic Don Gilbert, a managing partner at Gilbert, Farlie, Inc. in New York, a search firm for senior executives. People in key jobs are often in their 40s and up, and "60-year-olds are considered vital, with ideas and experience." The trick, then, is to have the talent, background and durability to consistently propel your career upwards.

Easier said than done, of course. Roger Silverberg, 46, of Roger H. Silverberg Advertising in New York, saw the typesetting on the wall nearly 15 years ago, when he befriended an older copywriter who'd won Clios and numerous other awards in the '60s and '70s. "His was the dreaded tale of being 'aged out' and sure enough, when his employer went under, he ended up selling men's shirts." Determined to escape that fate, Silverberg started his own agency, and he's holding on for the ride -- which can be pretty bumpy. "I'm the only one I know of from the class of '73 at Penn State who's survived in this business for more

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