Mind The Generation Gap

Some facts:

1: Advertising likes new things.

2. Advertising does not like old things (staff, consumers, media channels etc.)

3. Advertising is now run by the money people.

4. Older members of staff are usually more expensive than young ones.

5. Most people in charge of advertising aren’t that good at it.

The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed that some of those five facts are interrelated. The facts that advertising is now run by the money people, and that older members of staff tend to be more expensive than young ones kind of lead to the fact that advertising does not like old things (staff). The fact that most people in charge of advertising aren’t that good at it (by which I mean good at producing excellent work) is not unrelated to the money people and not liking old things facts.

It’s not so much a vicious circle as a vicious vortex, with winds coming in from several different directions to destroy what was once substantially more attractive, respected and enjoyed.

But there’s one central breakdown, fueled by the above, that multiplies all those effects simultaneously: a removal of senior staff in service of financial savings has led to a gap of talent and experience, which is currently filled, more often than not, by the victims of that gap. The fact that advertising in general prefers new things to old has helped to accelerate that process, but it’s the generation gap that represents the biggest, darkest, most problematic hole in the health of the industry.

When I were but an AMV junior copywriter, I could come up with a fairly mediocre ad, then go upstairs to show it to Steve Hudson, Victoria Fallon, Paul Briginshaw, Malcolm Duffy, John Gorse, Jeremy Carr, Peter Souter, Sean Doyle, Dave Dye, David Abbott, Tony Cox, Tom Carty, Walter Campbell, Guy Moore, Tony Malcolm, Tim Riley, David Newton, Richard Foster, John Horton, Mary Wear, Damon Collins, Andy McKay, Rob Oliver, Dave Hieatt, Paul Belford, Nigel Roberts, Ron Brown, Tony Strong and Mike Durban (apologies to anyone I’ve forgotten). They would then improve said ad, and I would learn from their suggestions. This made the ad better, but it also made me better. It was like being paid to spend eight years at the greatest advertising school in the world. 

Although I fully admit to being something other than a genius, I have passed some of that wisdom on to people who then worked for me, who then went on to become ECDs, award-winners, and employees of some of the best agencies in London. 

However, some of the best of those best have now left the industry, weakening the chain of education. On top of that, many of the names I mentioned two paragraphs ago are either no longer in the industry, or they are freelancers, and not in a position to impose their creative greatness on a department that might really need it. Every one of them could improve literally any creative person working today, but it won’t happen. The industry has discarded most of that generation, and most of mine, leaving a younger group that could benefit from the kind of experience that is rarely available.

I’m not saying that advertising has an obligation to keep its best practitioners on in perpetuity, but the better people you attract and the better people you keep, the better the work, and the happier and more grateful the clients. Instead we have a situation where the standard has slipped, sending clients running to the arms of GoogleBook. Why would you pay top dollar for a product that is obviously worse than it was ten years ago, especially when there’s a measurable way of making up the shortfall of effectiveness? We’ve traded incredible engagement for incredible targeting, and the bottom line has improved. Sure, way more people (ourselves included) hate 99% of advertising, and it’s led to some little problems like the end of functioning democracies, but, hey, some rich people are richer, so what’s the problem?

Here’s the bit where I turn to the solutions, and the good news is a couple of them do exist. First, there is far more online education than there used to be (there was no ‘online’ when I started, so I had to save up for D&AD and One Show annuals). Anyone inclined to do so can visit Dave Dye’s imperious blog, and listen to his peerless podcasts. It’s a free starting and finishing school that still teaches me a thing or ten. You can also find all the great ads for nothing on D&AD’s online archive. Beyond that, even I’ve managed to record the wise words of some true greats on the ITIAPTWC podcast, and you’ll find similar excellent stuff at the A List podcast, Dave Trott’s blog and in books like Hey Whipple, Squeeze This and The Copy Book

I would also imagine that any enterprising young go-getter could track down any of the best practitioners of the past and present and work out how to flatter them into giving you whatever advice you need. If you’re polite and grateful and willing to work hard you can use that vehicle to travel a long way.

The other solution, which is more theoretical, is this: if advertising as an industry could get over its antipathy towards anyone older than 25, it could find ways to retain those great, slightly older people that would suit everybody. I understand that some older creatives are on their ninth divorce with six kids in public school, but in general, the older you get, at a certain point the more likely it is that your expenses go down. Perhaps advertising salaries could go in a kind of inverted V shape, where you earn the most in the middle of your career, but suck up ongoing pay cuts afterwards. So instead of being too expensive on £150k, you could be just right on £100k, then £75k and so on. Mortgages are going down, school fees are replaced by kids leaving home… Perhaps senior people on less senior salaries could retain proven talent, knowledge and experience without breaking the bank quite so substantially. Just a thought… And if you think that would be sad, it’s kind of what happens now anyway, only you have to keep looking for new jobs, which are often less enticing. At least this way you could have some more security and feel you’re contributing, in an additional mentor role, to an agency you’ve done great things for.

And if you’re an ECD or CEO reading this, feeling a bit icky about having people in their forties hanging around your ping-pong playing Millennials and Gen X-ers, consider this: at some point, we all find ourselves on the wrong end of a financial reshuffle (yes, I know some leave by choice, but a lot of them end up coming back, too). When it’s your turn in the woodshed, you might find things easier if you’ve already instilled a culture of valuing your older members of staff. You might then get to choose a 20% pay cut instead of a definite redundancy. It’s also worth remembering that older people have more spending power, consume more media and like to be spoken to be people of their own age, so older creatives might actually be something of an asset.

Your staff might win, your clients might win, your agency might win, and the whole darn industry might win. 

What have you got to lose?