Come on! Let’s just get it out there: older people are icky and lame. They are often covered in a layer of dust. They need help going to the loo (which is why so many smell of wee). They have no idea what Zoom, Twitter or Charli D’Amelio are. They talk about things that happened in the last century. They look at you funny when you insist on creating an 80-page deck to convince a fifth-rate director to take on your 6-second blipvert. They don’t know how to create DAOs, and they think crypto is a pyramid scheme for the terminally credulous.
But on the other side, look at the kidz: their faces are buried in their TikTok feeds instead of an old One Show annual. They have no idea how to craft anything, or what ‘craft’ is. They think ‘Create The Future Together’ is a great endline, or maybe a great strategy, or possibly a great campaign idea. They spend more time comping visuals than thinking about why they’re comping those visuals in the first place, and they think that a Cannes Bronze is actually something of value.
In short, both are making advertising worse. One is too expensive while the other is too ignorant. One is too stuck in their ways while the other flits from fad to fad. One thinks everything was better in the 1990s while the other has no idea what happened in the 1990s.
But other than the people who are 30-35, everyone is too young or too old, so maybe we should try a bit harder to make the best of both worlds rather than condemn the worst.
As luck would have it, I just read an article that might help us with that. Although the title is ‘The kind of smarts you don’t find in young people,’ it’s really an explanation of how the brains of younger and older people have separate specific abilities, both of which are essential to the creative process:
In the mid-20th century, psychologists set about finding an explanation for a great mystery. Researchers had long noted that some skills—analysis and innovation, for example—tend to rise quickly very early in life and then fall through one’s 30s and 40s. Meanwhile, one’s knack for combining complex ideas, understanding what they mean, and relating them to others rises throughout middle age and can stay high well into old age.
The two groups of skills originate in two basic types of intelligence: fluid and crystallized. The first is essentially the ability to solve abstract problems; the second represents a person’s knowledge gained during a lifetime of learning. In other words, as a young adult, you can solve problems quickly; as you get older, you know which problems are worth solving. Crystallized intelligence can be the difference between an enterprise with no memory that makes lots of rookie errors and one that has deep experience—even if the company is brand new.
In a neophiliac industry like advertising, new stuff is always highly prized. From Second Life to NFTs to the latest bands, influencers and pop-ups, adland always likes to jump in first and ask questions later. Is it right to recommend the latest fashion to a client? Sometimes, but many agencies feel compelled to do that without considering or waiting for the consequences; after all, by the time you’ve done your due diligence, your new thing is longer new.
But older people are more predisposed to seeing the patterns that point to the mid- and longer-term futures of what is currently untried and untested. Sure, it’s not as whiz-bang to move slow and fix things as it is to move fast and break them, but older people have seen the fashions come and go, so they tend to have a better idea of how your current circumstances might play out in the weeks or years to come.
The point is, as a general rule, using the old to optimise the implementation of the new makes a lot of sense. Yes, that might seem like clipping the wings of the crazier ideas, but it also might mean that strategic or creative rigor is applied, leaving less chance for errors or problems further down the line. As that article says:
Companies would do well to install master teachers throughout their business. Don’t target people who pine for the “old days” in their careers and abilities. Instead, look for elders who recognize that it is healthy and normal to see some of their capabilities decline with age, and that this presents an opportunity to foster those abilities in others. Older leaders should be enthusiastic about making great teams, developing others’ ideas, sharing knowledge openly and generously, and making prudent judgments based on their own deep experience.
Obviously, doing this requires hiring or retaining more older people, and I’m fully aware that such a practice is heresy for many agencies. Even though St Luke’s recently took on my friend Mark Denton as the Oldest Intern In Advertising for a month’s placement, that was still unusual enough to be worthy of lots of ‘How’s That Ker-Azy Idea Going To Work Out???’ articles, while further agencies giving it a go seem to be thin on the ground.
But oddly enough, it’s one of the closest things I’ve seen to the ‘master teacher’ suggestion in that article. Mark’s conclusion, ably assisted by another elder statesperson, The Ad Contrarian, is that he could be a ‘Brain In A Bottle‘, a kind of Yoda, sitting in the corner of the creative department as a wisdom resource for his more callow colleagues. We saw how things worked out for a month, but what about a year? Twelve months where course corrections could be made and feedback could be taken on might well add more value than whatever a ‘Mark’ might cost. Advertising is always exhorting clients to be brave. Shouldn’t we take our own advice occasionally?
One other factor might be the fear and competition bred by the situation: young people have to use whatever edge they can to get their job, and when that happens they know that they only succeed by having their idea chosen over that of the other team on the brief. So may the best team (or the team that creates the most sellable idea) win, which means that the other team loses. That is the implication of every day in the agency.
For the older ones, you know that every raise increases the size of the target on your back and the number of knives aimed towards it. No one says no to a raise, but we all know that the higher the salary, the more you stick out to the network CFO in Manhattan, who just needs to cut costs by 8%, and can see that one easy way of doing that is to delete the names of you and your partner. What is the magic danger-number, and when does the axe-person start looking around? Nobody knows, but your career is generally spent inching closer to the guillotine, and it’s coming for us all.
So if you take those two situations and run them simultaneously, you get fear and competition instead of something that might be far more useful: collaboration. We’re taught from the start to try to be the last team standing, but an atmosphere that gets us all to try to improve each other’s work would surely be better for both the work and our mental health.
Instead we take our place on the conveyer belt, watch as the people some distance ahead fall off the end of it, and brace ourselves for that inevitability. But if the more experienced people were retained and given the chance to continue contributing to the young, that might improve the system and the advertising for everyone.
Mentors, mentees, education, growth, improvement, success.
It’s not exactly a new idea, but then sometimes the things that stand the test of time do so for a reason.