This was just published in Adweek, and very happy I had the courage to write it.
It all depends on your personal outlook and willingness to change
I recently moderated a panel discussion of creative directors from several ad agencies at an industry conference when a difficult but important questions arose: How old is too old for the ad game?
No one on the panel came up with a credible answer, but it certainly got everyone thinking about an issue that our industry is certainly conscious of but that fails to garner the same amount of attention as other hot button topics.
There’s an old cliche that advertising is a young person’s game, and the statistics I’ve seen seem to bear that out. In 2016, the U.K.’s Institute of Practitioners in Advertising—the leading trade group—said the average age of employees at all IPA member agencies was 33.7 years, a figure the IPA said has remained static since 2009. I’m not aware of any statistics citing the age of creatives in the ad business, the arena that is most familiar to me, but my guess is that it skews even younger.
The situation reminded me of my own early days in the business when I was a 20-something president and creative director at the old Hawley Martin agency (later to be acquired by Arnold Communications). Whenever I complained that clients weren’t taking me seriously because I was so young, my mentor and agency founder, Dave Martin, would say, “Matt, you will go from being too young to too old in a day.” Wow, was he ever right.
So the question remains: Is there a right “age” for this business I so passionately love? In my mind, the answer is simple: It all depends on your outlook.
After 36 years in advertising, my outlook is still that of a 20 year old. My affection for and commitment to this crazy business is deep. I am truly thrilled to wake up in the morning and go to work. Even my other passions have the thread of marketing running through them.
The question remains: Is there a right “age” for this business I so passionately love? In my mind, the answer is simple: It all depends on your outlook.
My understanding of, experience in and commitment to advertising is very real and genuinely deep-seeded. But herein lies the difficult part of this commentary: Does the business respect and love me back? Most indications are that it does not, so what are aging professionals who still love to work supposed to do with the rest of their lives?
The answer is that it depends on several factors.
I’m lucky. I’m 59-years-old but still very active because I have my own agency that I started when I was 43 after working at big agencies for many years. As long as my name stays on the door, I can call the shots about how much work I do and how long I stay in my current role. But not every creative in this industry has that luxury. What about a creative director at a big agency who’s pushing 40 or just passed it? Where does their future lie?
I don’t have a definitive answer, but I do have some ideas on how they should approach the inevitability of growing older in an industry that favors and rewards youth.
Basically, it’s about embracing change. If you want to keep going in this business, you simply must possess the ability to objectively look forward and say, “I’m willing to try that. I want to try that, and I will try my best to learn from it.” No matter what “it” might be.
That’s easy to say, but not easy to do. I’ve found that as we age, we tend to allow ourselves to become comfortable with our success. We’ve learned much from our years of experience, from our achievements and accomplishments as well as our inescapable failures. We’ve developed a certain degree of wisdom that tells us we know how things are supposed to be done in order to make them work. But I believe that so-called wisdom sometimes prevents us from trying something new. And guess what? When that happens, that’s when you become too old for this game.
We’re in a business of change. Time changes things, culture changes things and those changes can come on a daily basis. Sometimes hourly. So how old is too old? When you decide that you’re too old to change
When you sit behind a screen all day, it’s a good idea to get up and stretch. But planking? It’s becoming a thing here. What ever it takes I say. We havn’t entered any award shows for the past several years for some reason. Not sure why? Well, our client did in New Jersey and we did rather well with 10 Addy’s for just one client. mmmm maybe we should enter some more. Congrats to the team. Now plank some more.
Usually when I write an essay like this I try to make a point or an argument about an issue facing the advertising industry. More often than not the issues I address are something that’s been on my mind for a while, something that I’ve been trying to come to terms with and reach some kind of conclusion. Not this time. This time I only have questions and the answers are simply not to be found.
Are we trying too hard? By “we” I mean creative executives in the advertising industry. Are we trying too hard to entertain our audiences (and maybe our clients)? Are we so desperate to win new business, engage audiences and get consumers to pay attention that we’ve lost sight of our primary responsibility?
I know the ad industry has been trying to entertain audiences for a long time using a toolkit that includes humor, sentiment, drama, pathos, et al. But at the same time, we’ve also been diligent about trying to inform and, ultimately, sell something.
But I’m not so sure that’s the case anymore. My fear is that too many of us are acting like screenwriters and television showrunners. The endgame now seems to be to entertain above all else, even when it comes at the expense of delivering impactful messaging about a brand.
This especially came to mind recently as I watched the Super Bowl. In the aftermath of the game, industry pundits lionized the Tide spots as amazing work, but I beg to differ. Entertaining, yes, to a degree. But effective and commercially impactful? I think not.
Why? Because when we have to mock the very concept of advertising in order to advertise our client’s products or services then I think we’ve gone off the rails. And that’s what the Tide ads did. Make fun of beer commercials and then launch into a jarring segue about Tide. Mock traditional car ads before an awkward push into a Tide message.
Here’s the key question I want to ask: Have we, as an industry, jumped the shark? For those of you who don’t know (or forgot) what that phrase means, here’s what Urban Dictionary has to say:
“Jump the Shark: a term to describe a moment when something that was once great has reached a point where it will now decline in quality and popularity. Origin of this phrase comes from a ‘Happy Days’ episode where the Fonz jumped a shark on water skis. Thus was labeled the lowest point of the show.”
From where I sit, the Tide ads were little more than a horribly snarky and sarcastic shot at traditional (and effective) advertising. They made fun of some iconic marketing and laid to waste decades of solid strategy and creative work.
This happens because agencies and creative executives get cocky after they enjoy some degree of success. They think, like the Super Bowl spot for Febreeze, that their “bleep” don’t stink. So they cross a line. It’s happened a few times before and will doubtless happen again.
The influence of this kind of advertising can be pervasive, but it doesn’t do our industry any good. In fact, it can cause enormous damage because it’s not doing what marketing is supposed to do—sell products.
And that’s the bottom line. Yes, advertising should entertain, but that is not its first (and foremost) responsibility. And that’s especially true when your client is paying $5 million for 30 seconds of precious airtime like the Super Bowl LII advertisers.
Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe I’ve just been in this business too long to appreciate newer trends that younger audiences not only enjoy but genuinely want. As I said, I just have a lot of questions that I find difficult to answer. But they bother me.
The trend on this year’s Super Bowl was to make fun of marketing, and it reached its zenith with the Tide spots. But I know our industry can do better. I know because one marketer actually delivered great advertising, and they did on the Super Bowl. Which one? This one.
Now that’s classic good work!
Just like the current trend in creating six-second TV spots, this will be brief.
Everyone’s heard about six-second ads. OK. They make sense—to a degree. I get it. The TV networks can sell more ads in a 30 second pod, etc. It’s a way to maximize time, and there’s a justifiable argument for it—consumers online don’t watch content longer that 10 seconds. Those annoying lead-in ads on YouTube only get five seconds of play. Our world has a shortened attention span, probably brought on by millennials.
But I believe there’s another reason why no one watches more than five seconds of TV or video ads. Maybe, just maybe, it’s because the ads stink. There, I said it. In my opinion, the vast majority of video ads are terrible. Not interesting. Not engaging. Not clever. Not informative. Not entertaining. (I actually wanted to say that 99 percent of all advertising is crap, but my PR guy wouldn’t let me.)
The cynics out there will no doubt push back and indict me for being an old geezer dribbling on and on and offering nothing more than a clichéd argument that everyone’s heard before. Maybe so.
But let me ask you this—why is it that we won’t watch more than a few seconds of an ad but will gladly spend six hours a night binge-watching “Broadchurch”—and still want more? (By the way, season two is much better than season one).
It’s not impossible to make ads that are just as rewarding as our favorite long-form entertainment programs. The Super Bowl is a good example. As a society, we watch those ads and talk about them as much as we talk about the game itself. Maybe more. Why? Because they’re good. They reward us for watching them. They’re fun. They’re entertaining. They’re interesting. They’re well made.
And that is precisely my point. It’s not about length—it’s about quality. It’s about professionalism. It’s about caring enough to do the very best work we can possibly do. We have to make sure we reward the viewer. It doesn’t matter if it’s six seconds, 30 seconds, one minute, 60 minutes or two hours. There must be a carrot at the end of the stick.
Are you still reading? Just checking. Someone once told me nobody reads articles longer than 250 words. This one clocks in at 401. Hope I didn’t overstay my welcome.
HERE IS THE LINK TO THE STORY ON CAMPAIGN US
We had this insight a ways back. We looked around the two offices and noticed that everyone that’s married, has been married a while and happy. mmmmm, that’s odd in our business. But, think about it. We are all long term relationship people. We hate dating, and chasing, and love the rythem of a great relationship. We work at it, and make sure the relationship is strong. Not chasing a new spouse the second we got married.
I have always said, one of the good qualities in a ‘new business” person is that they love to date. They have the ability to actually ask some one out on a date. But get them the hell out of there after that. Not us, we like the 5th date, the 2nd year. The feeling of knowing each other over the good times and bad.
OK, just checking here, are you getting this metaphor? See, I, Trisha,Bill, Lisa…. We are the spouse, YOU! the future employee, or client are the other? See the connection. It’s in our DNA to be a good spouse? Coworker and partner. Hire some fancy flash in the pan agency that wins and looses business, and you will become one more angry divorced client! So, I ask, and it’s painful, cause it isn’t natural. Want to go out on a date with us?