Gabberish Issue #6: Age
By Jess Lilley
Gif by Jesse Birthisel. See his work here.
Search ‘ageism in advertising’ and it makes for confronting reading. In the US, people over 50 make up 42% of the adult population and yet comprise just 6% of ad agency employees. Even excluding the post-work generation, that seems out of whack. In the UK, the average age for agency staff is 34. In an Australian ad industry survey, a quarter of respondents claimed they were turned down for jobs for being too old - which sounds about right when you consider Melbourne Creative Director, Annie Price’s, recent article recounting her meeting with a recruiter who assured her, at 44, that her next gig would be her last.
In this issue of Gabberish we look at the impact of age on how we work. And lest we are guilty of being ageist about it, we acknowledge it’s a complicated issue that doesn’t just affect the most experienced among us. At a Bloom event on the topic, young people also attested to being ignored, overlooked, exploited and generally mistreated owing to their youth.
So is our industry simply equal opportunity brutalist? Is there a mysterious window of prime between the ages 34 and 36 and damn the rest? Or do we need to stop and rethink who we anoint as our creative gurus in this strange professional landscape?
It was early in 2015 when I had the crushing sense that my age was starting to sit atop the waters of my career like a slick of suffocating oil.
It happened one day soon after I’d returned to work after a year ‘with baby’. I was working a freelance copywriting gig at an ad agency on St Kilda road – one of those jobs where short term blow-ins were common so you don’t really have to worry about conversation if you don’t want to do any talking.
I sat at my desk, completely removed from an argument raging around me about a dress (you know, the ugly one that could appear as two completely different colours simultaneously, therefore somehow capturing the attention of a world possibly starved of imagination). As every single person in the creative department engaged in this conversation above my head, I was suddenly struck by a brutal realisation: I was fast becoming invisible. More, if I didn’t change things, the job offers would dry up and my ripe old arse would be kicked to the curb.
In Brendon Guthrie’s terrific piece in this issue of Gabberish, he describes his own tick-tock moment in the face of an agency system increasingly responsive to spreadsheets and bottom lines over people. An article in AdNews earlier this year similarly argued that ageism in agencies is more a matter of economics than discrimination. With smaller profit margins, it’s the bigger salaries that are first on the chopping block. Never mind that those with experience might get things done in half the time than those still learning their way around… or that those still learning their way around might become more productive, faster, with help from those with more experience. In a full circle moment, Brendon describes finding freedom and a career extension in freelancing: full circle when you consider how much more agencies pay for a freelancer than an equivalent salary.
As we age in an industry that prizes youth, both within our four walls and in most of the work we create, we are conditioned to seeing our advancing years as more of an impediment than a guarantee of employment. In possibly one of the greatest tales of overlooked talent our industry has told, creative legend, Jane Evans, shares her story of being met with closed doors and icy attitudes when she tried to return to advertising after a hiatus. I can only imagine how brilliant it would be having someone like Jane in your corner, making me think agencies pass over experience for youth at their peril. Her story is a powerful argument for the industry to do everything we can to support programs like Creative Equals Returnships, designed to help mature creatives get their foot back in the door after a life break.
In a perverse logic, it wasn’t until I’d already spent 15 years getting pretty good at my job that I felt like my grip on it was at its most tenuous.
Unlike Brendon, I no longer felt like I could depend upon freelancing for any kind of longevity in advertising. After years loving the flexibility of the freelance life I suddenly found myself feeling very vulnerable as one of its foot soldiers.
No doubt gender played a huge role. I’d watched women over a certain age being unceremoniously pushed out of nearly every agency I’d worked at and these women played through my mind like an in memoriam montage at The Oscars. The only conclusion I could come to surveying the lay of the land was that women only survive if they have power.
The intersection of age and gender is a biggie in this issue of Gabberish. And there is no stronger voice on this topic than Cindy Gallop. She takes no prisoners in her chat with Siobhan Fitzgerald and I implore you to read every last word of it.
But what about the other end of our career? The entry years? In an industry that apparently prizes youth over experience, I look back to my early years and I’m really not sure that’s where all the gold lies. I felt like an enormous sponge at the time – broke, regularly working (or out) until 2am, completely baffled by the whole thing, making rubbish ads, maybe learning a little bit more with every step but spending a lot of it feeling entirely accidental, and making a shitload of mistakes along the way. In this month’s Team Talk, Liz Simpson and Lara Smith tell us what it’s like just starting out today in an industry that is shedding its skin so fast it’s hard to know what we actually do anymore.
So how do the young survive creative departments today? The pace at which things move now has changed the way we work. No longer can young teams squirrel themselves and their creative minds away, generously mentored and polishing gems before revealing them to the world. We expect juniors to bring a certain degree of sophistication and knowledge of how it all works before they’ve even arrived. We have less time to give them to help them get where they need to go. We want them to collaborate more openly with the people around them.
With all that pressure on their heads, it seems fair that those of us still left standing have a duty of care to expose and break the parts of ad culture that are destined to bruise their fledgling hearts and minds at one end, and cut careers unnecessarily short at the other.
In her beautiful piece on age and art, Honor Bradbeer muses that artists are able to emerge at 50. So why not commercial creatives? Our industry is shakey as it is, let’s not weaken it anymore by shutting the door to the willing and the good at all levels of experience.
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