Confessions of a Gen X T-Rex
By Brendon Guthrie
It first struck me at the Royal Saxon Hotel more than half a decade ago. From memory, DDB Melbourne was on the verge of winning the Westpac business. Not that the specifics really matter.
After spending more than half my life in advertising agencies, these things bleed into one another and the crimson tide usually flows out the door a few years later, carrying half the staff with it. Threading through the already fraying fabric of the crowd, I found the tab card, the bar and a fellow DDB CD, in that order.
Neither of us were averse to a drink with colleagues, but at the DDB of the day, we were working too hard and too long to raise much enthusiasm. Even for free beer. And we weren’t alone. For a senior whatever-you-are in twenty-first century advertising, the candle that our 1980s predecessors burned at both ends is now more an unstable stick of gelignite with opposing short fuses.
Anyway, after a pot or so’s worth of shop talk, we fell to leaning back on the bar and surveying the emotional carnage created when you add alcohol to a crowd of mostly young singles whose antisocial working hours mean the only chance they get to get off is with each other. As the chaos unfolded, my fellow CD drained his beer and with twelve words, eloquently ended my first twenty-two years in advertising.
“You ever get the feeling we’re living through the end of days?”
Obviously, it didn’t end right there and then. Like the frog in the steadily warming pot of water or a recently decapitated chicken, it took me a while to realise that the business I’d somehow scored a gig in during the ‘Recession We Had To Have’ was dead.
I took two more jobs, half-heartedly tried to leave the business to write (properly, like) and even shimmied the greasy pole to an Executive Creative Directorship with a global network. But that night at the pub had permanently altered the connection between what I saw and what I thought. And over time, it forced a reassessment of both who and what I thought I was.
Not because I’d changed. Adult humans rarely do. But because my professional world had. Profoundly. And if I wasn’t careful, despite my placid nature and disproportionately long arms, I was going to end up just another Gen-X T-Rex in a flannel shirt.
An irony not lost on someone who, in his youth, joked that most Caxton Award weekends were held on tropical islands because three-quarters of the delegates belonged in Jurassic Park. The digital (and latterly, big data) evangelists who’d for years been promising they were ‘the future’ were now very much the present and like courtiers desperately covering connections to a freshly guillotined monarch, agency heads were loudly proclaiming their new loyalty to any hungover Cannes delegates who’d listen.
“Traditional advertising is dead! Long live…whatever replaces it that we can get anyone to pay for! And hurry, because the shareholders are reaching for the pitchforks and flaming torches…” But back to me.
Whether the big data Bolsheviks occupying the networks’ winter palaces were right or not was not the point. They were now in charge and creatives of my vintage were wondering when we’d be handed the blindfold and guided towards the first available pockmarked and blood-spattered wall. So far, I’m still waiting.
Because, unlike the original T-Rex, who glanced uncomprehendingly at the big glowing ball in the sky before diving back into the Stegosaurus carcass, both my bank manager and I decided it was a little early to become a footnote in the fossil record.
Besides, I’d inherited my genes from uppity little apes who’d tamed fire, domesticated wild animals, developed agriculture and invented Space Invaders. I had everything I needed to fight back.
Despite living in a universe that’s expanding in every direction and arguably across several dimensions simultaneously, we humans remain stubbornly linear creatures. Indeed, we’re taught that history is a logical progression from one event to the next, as if it’s some gigantic cosmic relay where every runner has the baton changeover down to a fine art.
In reality though, history is less inspiring Olympic spirit, and more liquored up Alabama demolition derby. A terrifyingly loosely regulated event, where cars of every vintage roar around randomly, locking bumpers, crumpling into grotesque new forms or getting pushed to the sidelines and bursting into flames, only to somehow restart and keep driving.
And I suspect that’s why I can still make a living in this business, despite closing in on 50 like one of the aforementioned junkyard Cadillacs, piloted by someone named Jethro with no qualifications beyond a mullet and meth-fueled enthusiasm. That’s because for people in advertising, survival is not about being fit (thank Christ). It’s a matter of adaptability and resilience.
And as I keep telling my 4-year old niece and the occasional panicking millennial, they’re learned behaviors, not ones you’re born with. The best example of that truth I’ve heard comes from a related industry and it’s one I stumbled across so long ago, I’ve forgotten the source.
But from my increasingly unreliable memory, it went something like this.
Back at the dawn of the intertubes, a young journalist asked Rupert Murdoch how a man of his age could even understand the technology that was changing his business model, much less keep up with it. I’ll give you a moment to imagine Rupert arching an eyebrow before he replied.
“I don’t need to know how it works. I only need to know what it’s capable of doing.” While I imagine that exchange destroyed any chance the young writer had of a career with News Corporation, it’s certainly helped me preserve mine in the advertising business.
Staying current doesn’t mean you have to be the resident expert on everything new.
As a creative, you just need to know enough to use it to your client’s advantage. Because when it comes time to submit your invoice, expertise in a particular medium is not what they’re paying you for. Rather, it’s your talent for the message that’s of value – and the thing that confers longevity as a copywriter, art director, designer or whatever other title gets applied to those who come up with unexpected solutions to common problems.
Ideas, to use another word.
Those wonderful, infinitely flexible things that have fueled every new communication channel since humans started painting on Kimberly rock faces sixty-odd thousand years ago.
The daily opportunity to share ideas is what attracted me to this business in the first place. And despite being part of the generation that turned up at the station as advertising’s gravy train disappeared into the distance, I can’t think of a more interesting way to have spent my twenties, thirties and now my forties. And thankfully, I’m in like-minded company of all ages.
As a former ECD and now creative geriatric for hire (according to advertising’s doglike ratio, I was 343 years old last birthday…do the maths and send me a card next May) I spend time in a different creative department every other week, surrounded by - and often working for - people barely old enough to remember their parents listening to Nirvana.
And you know what? Provided the hearing aid batteries are charged, I catch the same familiar words and phrases repeated over and over and over again.
“Why don’t we..?”
“Have you ever noticed how..?”
Along with “Who the hell forgets to fill the beer fridge on a Friday?” they give me comfort that, for those passionate about the ideas that are advertising’s sole reason for existence, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Having lived through the end of days and emerged, sort of solvent, mostly sane and vaguely agile other side, I have to say I’m optimistic about the future. Both for myself, and for a business that’s been (fairly and not) compared to a dinosaur over the last decade or so.
For as any paleontologically-obsessed eight-year old will tell you at great length, despite countless cataclysmic shifts in their world after the asteroid that supposedly finished them off, the T-Rexes never really disappeared. They just became birds.
And given the opportunity, even those with greying plumage can still fly.
Brendon Guthrie still has all his own teeth and hair and scribbles down the occasional idea that can be turned into an advertisement.