The Seven Ages of the Advertising Creative

As You Like It suggests that there are seven ages of life. With apologies to William Shakespeare I’m going to explore the seven ages of advertising creativity.

Before I start, a caveat: this is very much a generalisation. Of course people start agencies at all sorts of stages of their careers, and many people, by their own choice or otherwise, never become Creative Directors. That said, I believe there is a broad path that takes most of us from education to maturation.

So let’s begin with the first age: College. At some point you decide to pursue advertising as a career. Sure, you can start in the dispatch department and make the move from there, but you’re more likely to go to some kind of college where you’ll meet your partner and learn the basics.

The point of this age is to enjoy some time with no client comments and an infinite (theoretical) budget. Stretch your legs, make mistakes, eat Pot Noodles and try to make your parents understand why the TV ad they love is actually rubbish because it has a weak concept, and lacks originality.

Your next age is Placement, the first step into the corporate world. A real ad agency is happening around you so you have to juggle doing good work with being the kind of people the agency would like to keep around.

It’s all about converting this strange state of purgatory into an actual job, so you have to keep your eyes on the prize while you continue to eat Pot Noodles, but at least some of your new colleagues will buy you drinks in the agency bar.

From there you become a Junior. At last! A real job! Of course, you will have to do all the less glamorous briefs, but that doesn’t matter because you soon realise that a radio ad means casting, and therefore hanging out with, your favorite comedian. It also means you can order from the giant book of takeaway menus and eat/steal all the Celebrations. Hooray!

But you want to move up, and to do that you’ll need a bigger brief or two, and that means navigating the fact that more powerful creatives in your department would also like those briefs. You’re going to have to beat them at some point, and the sooner you do that, the sooner you get to move into the mystical hinterland of the Middleweight Creative.

(By the way, if you’re reading this in America, a UK middleweight creative is basically an ACD, although I suspect the American love of title promotions has very much made its way across the Atlantic.)

Middleweight is a weird place, in that you never really get formally promoted to that position. After a few years of being a junior you just declare it, then you discover that no one cares. You just keep ticking along with slightly better access to slightly better briefs.

But then you become a Senior Creative, or perhaps a CD. You now need client-facing skills that no one taught you in college. You’ve probably had a few client meetings before this stage, but you didn’t contribute much just in case a cheeky slip of the tongue lost your agency its biggest client.

You could well be ‘in charge’ of a piece of business, helping to shape it for a year or two, and you might well have younger teams working into you, so you now have to evaluate work, give feedback and try not to let the power go to your head. 

The next stage is some form of CD. In a network agency that might involve running one big piece of business or several smaller ones. In a medium agency you get all the responsibility your boss doesn’t want. In a small agency you might well be the boss.

At this point you will be looking to make enough of a name that you can make it to the next stage of being properly in charge. You might write a thought piece for Creative Review, or move to an agency where the path upwards is a little clearer. You might also stay at this age for quite a while, because unless you start your own place, you have to wait to be invited to the top table…

And there it is: the final boss (but not the final age). At this point you are either some kind of ECD/CCO, or you have launched your own agency with some pals you picked up along the way who work in the other departments.

This position can take many forms depending on the size of agency, its location and whether or not you were promoted from within or poached from somewhere else. You are now almost certainly in your 40s, and have to balance all this stuff with a more substantial family life. Good luck with that.

If you started your own place, that work/life balance will be tilted very heavily towards ‘work’ for a few years. Hopefully your agency will thrive, but the odds are not on your side. That’s why you might bounce around between senior agency jobs and optimistic start-ups. Find the one that suits you best and, like a rodeo ride atop a merciless bull, try to stay on as long as possible.

At some point you will find yourself surplus to requirements: perhaps too expensive, or merely a victim of advertising’s love of the new. You might pop back to one of those top jobs, but you might not, so what do you do with all those years between 48 and retirement?

Some people choose this point to launch that start-up, and sometimes that works, but it’s a lot of effort for middle-age, so you might try to be a consultant, or some version of a freelancer, sliding back down the mountain to do the work of a CD or senior creative. Depending on your finances, you keep it going as long as you can, while staring the industry’s ageism right in the face until you inevitably blink first and it casts you aside forever.

Whichever age you’re in, there’s always fun to be had, but you also have to earn your place. Just work hard, be nice and see where the ride takes you. Best of luck!