How does an industry that touts “We’re a creative business" and spends millions on award shows have a culture of treating its creatives so callously?
Ageism is a product of holding companies coping with quarterly pressures from Wall Street and diminishing business margins. The easiest way to meet analysts’ expectations is to jettison older people—who are the main expense—not to mention the savings in health care costs for a younger workforce. Capitalism isn’t going to change its DNA for the creative class.
Few speak up about ageism lest they be identified as being old. There’s little being done to address it. There’s an empathy gap within the tribe itself. Younger creatives often subscribe to ageist views themselves. It’s only when they round the corner at 40 that they wake up to the reality that awaits.
As I traveled in Asia, I saw creatives still working well into their 60s and thriving. The reasons weren’t just cultural. Apart from tougher labor laws, there was one huge factor affecting the longevity of creatives: the limited talent supply.
Asia is more STEM-focused with very few art and writing programs relative to population size, which results in a very limited supply of creative talent. Advertising is not on anyone’s career radar. You fall into it by accident.
The U.S., on the other hand, churns out a ton of art, design and writing talent through hundreds of universities and schools. And then there’s the importing of talent.
Once, the only way an ex-pat creative could land a job in the U.S. was by winning a One Show pencil or going through school here. They still had to find an agency to negotiate the nightmare of U.S. immigration for an H1B visa and green card.
That changed when the networks turned Cannes Lions wins into the common currency of the creative world. Suddenly, any creative could pursue the dream of becoming the next David Droga here—the world’s biggest ad market—by winning at Cannes.
U.S. agencies figured out how to use O-1 visas to import talent and started actively recruiting from the vast pool of hot award-winning talent at Cannes. It put ageism on steroids.
While creatives can’t change these dynamics, they are not without strategies to fight them:
Speak the truth, starve the beast
A campaign to speak the truth about the business could cut the supply of talent to the business, forcing it to value existing talent. Art school costs approximately $180,000, portfolio school $90,000—ridiculous tuition considering that the starting pay at agencies is approximately $50,000 and you’re kicked out at age 50.
Not to mention that most creatives are lucky if they get to produce one good thing a year. The business is plagued by burnout, overthink and projects that go nowhere as the focus is on billable hours.