The Ages Of An Agency And The Longevity Of A Career

I heard a podcast recently that compared the ages of companies to the ages of humans: in short, when they’re babies they need a lot of help and attention; when they’re teenagers they’re prone to making errors as they attempt to transition into being grown up; as they get towards the end, they need to downsize and, well, prepare to die.

Interesting enough, but it was the corollary that really caught my attention.

Each one of these different phases of growth needs a different set of people. Maybe not 100% different in every department, but enough to make the company work properly and seem appropriate for its new age.

New companies often need someone with a great vision that they can bring to life in an inspiring way. More energy and charisma can attract more investors, along with the kind of employees that will agree to work on a project that barely exists. On the other hand, older companies need a safe pair of hands to wind things down and sell off assets for the best price.

I used to work at an agency with a talismanic president. She was the kind of leader many people would crawl around the world on broken glass to please (although she inspired as much fear and antipathy as respect and love). She was perfect for a while, dragging the company from its infancy through to its teenage years, but then things had to calm down as we entered maturity. After a tussle with her network bosses and our major client, she was eased out and replaced by someone less incendiary.

Would people have followed the new president through fire? Less so than the woman he replaced, but instead of that trait we now had calm, compassion and a little more sanity, along with a happier client and more confident network management. The work was still excellent (some might say better).

Three years later CEO number two was out, along with the CCO, who had been there from the start. A new president and a new CCO arrived. I don’t know too much about them as I left as they arrived, but things seemed to be humming along well, with plenty of award-winning work continuing to flow into the usual media channels.

Considering all this, a few questions popped into my mind: are advertising creatives suited to certain needs of a company, and do those needs only appear at specific stages of its existence? Are we aware of when we change to fulfill a different need? Do the skills we develop at the start of our careers continue to make us valuable in the later years? And when so much changes, how can you predict and aim for those new needs?

I think most creatives go into advertising with the belief or ambition that they will be the ones who create enormously famous award-winners on a regular basis. No one thinks they’ll be the steady workhorse, or the pitch specialist who wins business but never makes anything. But there are far fewer awards or culturally significant ads than there are teams, so by that mathematical logic, most of us are doing a job that does not fulfill our original ambition.

Is that a problem? It depends on the extent to which you can make peace with that reality. In this day and age a creative is even less likely to produce famous work because so much of it exists in the dark recesses of the interweb. No taxi driver will be aware of the great line you just cranked out for Audi’s Snapchat feed, so you’d better be OK with sweating buckets to produce work that is seen by hardly anyone you might know, and disappears forever the day after it runs

But these lines need to be written (and art directed), so that’s now a big part of the job. If you’re able to turn great (in reality, decent) stuff around quickly, and be OK with its 99% insignificance, there is a place for you in this industry in 2022, possibly with a decent salary in a big agency. So you have the right ability for a current need, just like a CEO who is covering an apposite growth stage of a company.

If, however, you are not that person, you might now find it harder to justify a good salary.

In the mid-Nineties, you had to develop an ability in press, posters, TV and/or radio. You might have created something we now think of as experiential (much of the ‘guerilla’ categories of those days seemed to cover that kind of thing), but it was usually no more than a nice-to-have niche, often created specifically for awards.

Now you have to be adept at far more disciplines, reducing the time you have to hone your craft skills or explore the outer edges of your concepts. Distant deadlines and generous budgets are largely a thing of the past, so you now need to adapt or die.

This is especially true as younger people coming into the business have known nothing else, so they might ironically be the equivalent of the late-stage CEO that keeps the ship steady despite increasingly straitened circumstances. Clients are now more willing to pay for quantity than quality, so cheaper (younger) people who can do that to a competent level are what the industry currently needs (I say ‘needs’ knowing full well that the industry actually needs the exact opposite of that, but more immediately it needs to get paid, so here we are).

As someone who has gone through these changes, I can say that a degree of pragmatism is essential. I feel like the requirements for good quality at high quantity rather than exceptional quality on a more occasional basis have actually improved my headline writing. Instead of stressing over one great line, I can now produce larger numbers at greater speed, at least one of which is up to my former standards.

So I’m in no way the creative I was when the Spice Girls first appeared. Back then I was insecure, awards obsessed and not particularly good. Now I’m confident, entirely uninterested in awards and (excuse me for blowing smoke up my arse) better than I used to be.

The other thing I get asked to do is CD/GCD/ECD projects, where I’m client facing and have the responsibility of overseeing and improving the work of others. That might be on a production or a pitch, but it’s where my management experience comes in handy. 

I guess that makes me a little more Swiss Army knife than someone who has never been an ECD, maximising my opportunities by being able to fit into more roles. On that subject, I occasionally consider learning design and Photoshop because those skills are where the industry is currently leaning. The creation of decks, comps and social layouts are three requirements that didn’t really exist 10-15 years ago, but are now daily needs in almost every agency on the planet.

So if I want to be the right-place-right-time CEO in the next 5-10 years, adding those strings to my bow would not only improve my chances of getting a gig as a creative in 2027, they would also make me a better CD/GCD/ECD by improving my ability to evaluate the non-writing elements of a project.

But I know how specialised the writing side of things is, so I get that learning design and art direction to a CD-level, including those software skills, is something I would have to devote a lot of time to. Is it worth it? Probably. I bet my time in and around advertising has given me a decent foundation, which I could then spend a year or two building upon. And if it extends my employment by a couple of years, it will surely be a good use of my time.

I get that (possible AI contributions aside) advertising will always need human concepting and writing, but who knows what else the future holds? I am aware that I am entering the autumn of my career, and that advertising is an inherently ageist industry, so if I can squeeze a few more years out of the journey, learning along the way, where’s the downside?

You can expect the industry to constantly have a home for your current contributions, or you can adapt to fill its changing needs. Some people have managed the first option successfully, but I think it makes more sense to see what you can do to bring about the latter. It will increase your odds of employment, and thus your longevity.