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The problem with being over 45 in advertising…

This article was written in July 2018. The world has changed and thankfully, the "50 over 50" conversation has started to take place. Even Forbes have taken these thoughts onboard - read the last line of this article to see why that initiative seems so familiar. 

Ironically, it was never published in the mainstream press (for which it was written) and just 3 months later, my role at the agency was made redundant. I was 47. Made it all the more relevant.

Try Googling “20 under 20” and you can’t move for lists celebrating young tech entrepreneurs, rising stars and ones to watch. Same for “30 under 30” and “40 under 40”. But something happens with the phrase “under 50”. You get a sea of “Gifts under £50”, “Top universities under 50 years old” and a snappy flyer for a “seniors” bowling contest in Sinking Spring, Pennsylvania. There’s something about that gap between 40 and 50 where our industry seems to stop celebrating progress.

Last years’ IPA Agency Census offers a similar story. The average age in UK creative agencies is 35.7 years and there’s a steep cliff at 45. If you make it past 50 you’re in a select bunch making up only 7.8% of the industry.

Now, I’m not going to bang on about unconscious bias, midlife crisis or pay grades but there is an uncomfortable sense from the data that agencies cease to become places to flourish for 45ers. Like management beer pong, the lucky ones reach 45 and plop excitedly into one of the few management pong cups available. All the others need to make damn sure they keep current or look for pong cups elsewhere.

So here’s the thing, I’m 2 years the wrong side of 45 and unless I’m spectacularly bad at reading my situation, I’m not past it. I’m aware I look like “a dad” to the new grads, but to them and to fellow 45+ers in tech, I’d like to flag a few not-so-obvious benefits of having us around (apart from boosting the age diversity number).

Older guy, sat on a bench
A 45 year old as seen by the creative agency world

45+ers are more likely to have older kids giving them a daily audience research session of the latest memes bubbling through our next “target audience”. Put it this way, can you name another Grime artist other than Stormzy? My evening dinner table chats mean I also know how to make an entire human out of custom Snapchat stickers and just how crump Facebook is (you speak roadman right?). This is all invaluable in a brainstorm by the way.

45+ers did stuff the hard way before all the startups made starting stuff up easy. Knowing how (or more importantly, why) things actually work leads to some devious and crafty solutions others may miss. Again, this granularity and nuance is critical for the daily conveyor belt of colleagues at my desk asking “I’ve seen this thing… how does it work… can we make it better… with no budget?”.

45+ers watched the internet go through its awkward birth. They were 25 when Google was launched. Technically-minded 45+ers have seen an awful lot more of the outer extremes of the interwebs too. Although I hate it with a passion, a mantra that is nearly always proved right is “there’s no such thing as a new idea, just old ideas discovered by new people”. I can call bullshit on industry press releases, award entries and vacuous startups at a thousand paces. This has saved us from developing already-existing ideas numerous times as well as having “a bit like this?” references up our sleeves to prove the seemingly impossible is in fact, totally doable.

45+ers have grown wonderfully thick skins. We still want to win awards but realise the awards dinner is more important for others. Pride comes from watching the gradual formation of a twinkle in other people’s eyes. Succession gives us opportunity to explore new parts of our career rather than see it as a career ending threat. My favourite word used to be “cake”. Now it’s “empathy”. And I’m not even joking.

And, let’s face it, 45+ers can be used to add faux-yet-welcome gravitas when we need it – especially in the tech world where the super-bright “3 teenagers in Shoreditch” outfits tend to frighten more risk-averse clients. We can speak ‘comfort tech’ as we’ve seen the panicked reaction on so many faces over the years.  

When we look out of our own eyes, we can’t actually see our smile lines and greying hair but we do see the minefield of our industry’s future sprawling around us, clear as day. Unlike many others, we see the landmines clear as day too. We’ve trodden on a fair few over the years so hopefully you don’t have to. For those of us that still enjoy stomping on mines to see what happens, I’ll see you in next years’ Forbes 45 Over 45 list…

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