Artistic longevity is a funny subject.
Despite the fact that we have many examples of artists who have remained vibrant beyond the age of retirement we are often surprised at this, as if the ability to express yourself creatively must wane with the passage of time.
The example I find most interesting is that of the Rolling Stones, who are often cited as the best defiers of old age. The fact that they continue to exist in the world of rock and roll seems paradoxical because the genre was a young man’s game for so many years. There were no septuagenarian rockers in the fifties and sixties, leaving us with an ingrained impression that the people who write and perform that music ought to be young. So as the Stones grew older many of the public saw their advancing age as inappropriate for the music. Their generation is the first of the ageing rock musicians, but there’s no reason why they shouldn’t keep going. Obviously they are self-employed, so there’s no one but the public to tell them to jack it in. If they’re enjoying it, their audience is still hungry and they continue to be artistically viable, then why not?
But they’re far from alone. Picasso, Michael Frayn and Lucien Freud are examples of people who have been at the top of their game long after supposed retirement age. In popular music alone we’ve just had great new albums from Bob Dylan and Neil Young that have compared favourably with their very best work.
So if we can accept that, why is advertising such an ageist industry? It exists as a pyramid, full of young people at the bottom with progressively fewer oldies closer the top, and that’s despite the huge amount of purchasing power contained in the grey pound of the baby boomer generation. It is fundamentally neophiliac, with novelty prized above all else and occurring as a matter of course. You have awards that are heavily based on originality, marketing managers who throw out their predecessor’s successful campaign because it reflects badly on them and accounts being put up for statutory pitch so the procurement department can save a few quid: new, new, new. And with so much churn and a financial imperative to pay more younger people less than fewer older people, the industry continues to age like Benjamin Button.
But there’s an odd tacit admission in all this: almost all the people in advertising management are older. They are supposedly the best people in the business, able to judge the work of others and usher the entire agency in the direction required for greater success. So why aren’t more older people kept around to increase the overall level of quality? The answer, of course, is money: with cheap quantity prevailing over expensive quality. But what are we losing because of that? Lots of people leave the industry before they reach middle age, a time where they might be getting to their best, perhaps because they are deemed too expensive. Perhaps they threaten their boss’s job. Perhaps they leave by their own choice, but that has to come down to the fact they find another way of expressing themselves creatively for money to be more attractive. Shouldn’t we make them feel more welcome?
When it comes down to it the bottom line always seems to win, but we may never know how many Dylans, Picassos or Frayns we’re losing.