Never Count Out Those With Gray Hair

Being Out of Touch Has Nothing to Do With Age

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Bart Cleveland Bart Cleveland
When I left my first job in advertising, the agency prepared a little going-away book with advice about how to succeed in advertising. It was tongue-in-cheek, but there was a lot of wisdom tucked in with the laughs.

One of the agency's partners, who was probably in his early forties at the time, wrote, "Never forget ... old age and treachery will always defeat youth and skill." I remember laughing at his audacity, but thinking he was probably right. Today I know the truth in that statement: Don't count out those with gray hair.

There's been some banter in the industry pubs lately about an uncommonly large number of older professionals being put out to pasture because they just don't get it anymore. While this is true in certain cases, I suspect that when examined critically, this blanket assertion is someone's attempt to sell papers.

It has always been true in our industry that the best work comes from those who are not only in tune with the latest cultural practices but also keenly aware of what is over the horizon. In fact, they are shaping future culture by putting this knowledge to use in the marketing of their clients' products. It has always been the case that there are people who are hopelessly out of touch. Over my career, I have seen my share of middle-aged senior-level creatives canned due to "cutbacks." Truthfully, the financial reason was just a good excuse for trimming dead wood. The reason they were canned wasn't their age, it was their attitude. And that attitude is one of laziness. Frankly, I've worked with many young people who are just as stuck in the mud as someone 25 years older.

To suggest that people who are a little older are obsolete as a group is naïve. There are many "senior citizens" in our industry who are moving the industry forward. Chuck Porter, Lee Clow, Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein are examples of leaders who are still plowing new ground by using their considerable experience as a springboard to what's next. Why do they "get it" at such an advanced age while others do not? Passion for what we do, that's why.

When I attended my first ad class in school, I noticed my instructor was a fairly "old" guy. He was in his mid-forties. After that first class, I was blown away by his attitude. He taught me that our business was about the future and that anything new was an opportunity to create something fresh. I'm glad I learned early that you could be hip to what's going on and be a little gray. Otherwise, I would have missed out on a lot of wisdom from my senior-level peers.

I took the articles I've been reading on this subject with a grain of salt. Perhaps there is more validity to it in the mega-agencies. Certainly, it's relevant to note that some workers have been released from employment due to their lack of "new media" acumen. But to assert that it's an age-oriented problem suggests a lack of depth in investigation or at least an over-simplification of the issues. To create such a bias is short-sighted. We need the experience of marketing as much as we need the younger generation's adeptness with new media.

Young or old, anyone who isn't thinking ahead of the curve is bad for the industry. Good riddance. Being out of touch is a malady that can afflict those of any age. I hope we will not hurt our industry by discarding relevant experience in the pursuit of being fashionable.
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