Ageism & Arrogance

Look closely and you will find the people often marry those that look somewhat like themselves. Think of Mick and Bianca Jagger, Nate Berkus and Jeremiah Brent, or LeAnn Rimes and Eddie Cibrian. It is not just a caricature that often the dog and the owner share similar visual traits. Blessing or curse, we are easily attracted to that which is like us.

Similarly, people tend to like to work with people of their own age. It’s easy. People of the same generation share common musical history and interests, social status, place in the economy and hope or concerns for the future. Their conversations have not just a good deal of shared room to move in but are spoken in the same patterns and use the same jargon. Working with someone a generation apart is the difference between Billie Eilish and Bruce Sprinsteen. You might know of both of them, might actually be well versed in the who and what of them, but each is more important to one generation than another. You may know some of the lyrics to “Bad Guy” or “Born to Run”, but probably not both.

The primary benefit of hindsight is clarity. Being old enough to collect Social Security but thankfully still able to make a buck doing what I love qualifies me as an old guy. The thing about old guys, though, is that we were once young. The thoughts here are based in a career around advertising but applies to most hierarchical employment situations.

From about 1985-2013, age 29 to you figure it out, I got to roam the halls of some of the top agencies and design firms as an agent for top level automotive photographers. We worked with some of the best creatives in the business and, not so oddly, most of those creatives we worked with were of about the same age as myself and the artists I represented.

There were some older art directors and designers that, for whatever reason, I didn’t connect with so well. They came to portfolio shows, made nice comments, sometimes joined for a lunch but generally had photographers that they regularly worked with, all of about their generation. Some of the older photographers that were with a larger studio earlier in my career worked with those older art directors and they made great images together, but they also typically had older reps they worked with.

Most of the agency creatives that I worked with were simply nice people trying to bring their idea to fruition or make something pretty. Creativity and design were incredibly important to them as was the right restaurant and wine. I’ll admit the right wine was my preference, too. We did have a good time while making great photography.

There are certainly different personality types in any given population, and ad agencies are a volatile stew of business types mixing with creatives. Some of the art directors and creative teams were, how to put it politely … Brash? Aggressive? Arrogant? … and extremely well received in the competitive agency environment. This was entirely intentional on the part of the creatives. They were playing the role of agency creative, and damn the torpedoes, creative was The Most Important Thing in any meeting.

To that point, not only were account people merely minions to carry the case, but competitive teams were to be conquered, and the old folks most easily and simply dismissed as old. (The exception being the Creative Director who was often the old guy mentoring the young guns in the art of arrogance but the CD wasn’t competition, they were boss.) While appearances of nice were the norm, the passive-aggressive (ant not so) back stabbing was endemic. Names are left out here to protect the guilty. Politely fierce competition was the norm, often exceeded and, if not cherished as ideal, accepted as part of the creative process.

Not surprisingly, and this is totally a hindsight thing, the older folks that are still working well at the agency level are those that didn’t play the aggressive game too much, played it extremely well, or learned how to temper it. Those arrogant ones that didn’t temper it either made partner or have been on the streets for some time now. Sadly, some of the super talented and wonderfully nice folks I know, once they hit their mid-50’s and had only made it to the CD level, not partner, were let go and can’t find a full time job at the level they deserve.

The moral of the story is two-fold.

For anyone young-and-up-and-coming: Be nice, be really good at what you do, and look for mentors above you. Listen to them well and bring the occasional gift. Create a relationship of value for them and for yourself. But know this, even with the perks of 40+ hours/week, medical benefits and profit-sharing, your days are numbered unless you are really good, and really fortunate. Even the exceptionally talented need to look at the path available ahead of them within the agency, who is retiring (or leaving) and when, and who is likely to fill those shoes. Be aware of the decision makers above who need to be aware of your skills to help you onto the next rung of the ladder. Build a positive and authentic relationship with them. This isn’t something you can do on short notice.

For those on the plus side of 50, you know it already (and young’uns, listen up because you are there before you know it): for most of us, there is no such thing as a full-time lifelong job. Companies hire people to do jobs, sometimes promote them, in rare instance give them real participation of ownership, and usually replace them when the same work can be had for a lower price. Welcome to capitalism, and be thankful, dangit, because you can do the same.

Regardless of your age, recognize that you are the boss of your own company. Whether you work full time for an employer or go from gig to gig, you are in charge of and responsible for your own future. Build relationships of reciprocal value. Find clients (or bosses) and bring more to the meeting than they expect. Agencies can be clients. Even better are small company owners, people who have their livelihoods on the line every day just as you do. You will find common ground along with a smaller budget and a more relaxed work environment.

Better still, you’ll find out just how far your good creative can go in a market you define.