Over30Under30, a New Project That Addresses Advertising’s Ageism Problem
Interview by Mike O'Donnell / Editor
At this point, “30 Under 30” lists are a widely-accepted creative industry norm. But by collectively celebrating people for being a certain age when they accomplish something, we’re admitting to a pretty narrow understanding of the timeline and lifeline of creativity. We’re also excluding the very people who paved the way. If anything, with ageism as insidious as it is, overcoming biases and youth-culture obsession and still delivering great work in this industry is more commendable than great work measured against how few birthdays you’ve had. It’s amazing that Bob Dylan had just turned 22 when he released The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. It’s no less amazing that Toni Morrison published her first novel The Bluest Eye when she was 39 while raising two kids. Choosing 30 as the cutoff age for impressive accomplishments is as meaningless as reducing the winners down to the same number for clickbait symmetry.
Started by WNW Members and advertising veterans Susan LaScala Wood and Rob Rooney, Over30Under30 is an interview project that balances the conversation by celebrating a demographic that the creative industry is simply not supporting or promoting enough. It highlights the work, stories, and experiences of creatives over or approaching 50, and provides inspiration for those who will someday get there (ie, everyone.) In our interview below, Susan and Rob share their first encounters with ageism, misconceptions about experienced creatives, and the nonexistent support system for these creatives…until now.
When did you first start noticing ageism in the advertising industry, either firsthand or toward others?
ROB: There’s a line in Pulp Fiction that’s appropriate here: Boxers don’t have an Old-Timers’ Day. It’s the same for our industry; there’s this slow awareness of, “Hey, it’s kind of weird that I’ve never been to a retirement party. Right?” Then there were other things: I worked at an agency where there were these two creatives who had clocked in over 25 years and every time there was a new CCO, there was this dance that started with “talk” of them being fired, the CCO realizing that the client wouldn’t allow ‘their team to be fired, and finally, them being left alone to do their jobs (which they did rather well, by the way). It happened to them about 8 times and they just kept at it. Other creatives weren’t so lucky.
The first sign of “ageism” in regards to myself was when my new CCO changed the seating arrangement of the Creative Department. I walked over to my new desk and saw 10 other people sitting there over the age of 40. We all worked on different stuff but we were clumped together. I remember thinking, “Welcome to the Elephant Graveyard.”
But it really hit home when I was let go early last year. Being a freelancer at the tail end of 40 felt much different that being a freelancer at the tail end of 30. The calls and emails were not getting returned as frequently. It was a wake up call.
SUSAN: I really didn’t know it existed until my early 30s. My first job was at Riney, where Hal was still very much involved… in his mid 60s. And we, too, had a couple of “older” guys with 25-30 years experience – Paul Mimiaga and Jerry Andelin – who preferred to concentrate on the work rather than manage big teams and who were both highly respected. Different guys than Rob’s, I’m pretty sure, so I guess that’s proof that that sort of thing used to exist. After Riney, I took a job at a Goodby spinoff working for Grant Richards and Scott Aal. Grant was 40 at the time, and it felt as if he was just getting started.
When I moved to NYC, it was a much different story. I took a job at Kirshenbaum Bond, and at 31, surrounded by 20-somethings, I suddenly felt very old. It really is a very strange thing, going from junior to senior citizen. But according to our site, it’s something that’s hardly unique to me. And of course, these days it’s certainly become the norm.
How did you respond to it as it became an increasing part of your experiences as a professional creative?
ROB: There’s only one way to respond to it. By plugging away. Keep your creative juices flowing. Do side-projects. Say YES to every little thing that comes your way. All of this sounds trite but sometimes trite is also true. Realizing that your age--something you have no control over--is keeping you back—is a kick in the fucking teeth. It is profoundly unfair. That said, so fucking what? It’s up to you to fight it. And you can do it by staying positive. By constantly emailing, calling, meeting for coffee. By being excellent at what you do. By being kind and maintaining your professional relationships. And resisting the urge to throw yourself off a bridge when the phone isn’t ringing.
SUSAN: After Kirshenbaum I freelanced for 8 years, quite happily. I love doing the work—I love to get my head around a problem, craft a concept, get the words just right. Then Grey reached out. I had never been a CD before and wasn’t quite sure I was prepared to make what I was sure would be a drastic change. And of course I had tremendous fear of failure, knowing there’d be a steep learning curve. But I knew I’d be crazy not to take the job—my bosses were brilliant and were willing to take a chance on me, I’d have a partner, and I knew very well that the experience could help lengthen my shelf life. It was the right decision—I became a sponge again and learned so much. That’s definitely inspired me now that I’m freelance again: to take chances, venture into the unknown. I’ve written a book (a lot of it on the Metro North as I commuted to that full-time gig), so now I’m learning all about agents, editors, and self-publishing. I’ll get it out there one way or another. I’m also really, really enjoying the Over30Under30 project. I love connecting and reconnecting with amazing people. And I’m inspired to keep finding more creative outlets.
Do you think that with the “age of information,” there’s a perception that the value of individual wisdom and experience has been diminished? Or is it more just financially motivated to hire the younger creative with a lower day rate? Any ideas as to what might have caused or awakened ageism in the creative sphere?
ROB: There are so many contributing factors to ageism; it’s dizzying. But I definitely think ours is one of the only industries that places little to no value on experience. Especially when it comes to creatives. We just have the wrong priorities. We fetishize every shiny new thing that comes down the pike, rather than the people who can look at that shiny new thing and use it to solve a business problem. As an industry, we love process, but people? Not so much. Advertising desperately wants to be a 100% rational, number-crunching business. But the fact is: it can’t be. Because we are marketing to human beings and human beings are irrational and emotional. Here’s another funny thing about humans: they also happen to get older. So maybe having some creatives who understand that would be beneficial?
The financial part of the equation isn’t black and white either. Yes, older creatives are more expensive. Yes, your salary puts a target on your back for the bean-counters. But if the question of retaining experienced creatives was solely financial, how come you never hear about people being offered to keep their job but at a lower salary? I know of so many creatives that would take that deal in a heartbeat, and yet it’s never an option. I believe it’s not an option because it’s not solely about money. It’s about perception.
Firing aside, there’s a stigma that permeates even our hiring practices. Read any job listing and there’s this secret language of horseshit phrases like “Digital Native,” “culturally connected,” and “cultural fit.” Each one is designed to weed out people over 40. The one that gets me angriest is “digital native”: I’ve used and adopted every digital do-hickey from fucking PONG to Snapchat to Oculus Rift. Don’t tell me I’m not a digital native.
I really believe ageism is just a subset of the larger diversity problem in the advertising industry. That’s why I think you’re hearing more about ageism today—because people are finally making diversity a priority. Things like The 3% Conference and clients demanding diversity quotas all help the issue. We need more women, more minorities, more neurodiverse people, and more people of age. Our agencies and certainly our creative departments should be as diverse as America.
SUSAN: What he said.
Honestly, I’ve been so incredibly inspired by the people who’ve been brave enough to be “outed.” And yes, it is absolutely ridiculous that it’s thought of this way. The more brilliant people who’ve shared their stories with us, the more proud and honored I am to be among this group. They’re witty, wise, kind, inspired, vulnerable, strong, INTERESTING. They make me excited to reach another birthday. Okay, maybe more like a little less terrified. These are the people I want to be around, the people I want to work around and with.
When the digital age dawned, I do think agencies did go into a scared shitless tizzy. EVERYONE cared more about your ability to use Snapchat than your ability to compose words. I can’t believe the number of copywriter books I saw that didn’t have actual writing! But I do hear new complaints—mostly from managers who are now bitching more and more about people who can only produce gimmicks and have no idea how to conceive or articulate a big idea. I think that’s why you have so many older creatives now having successful freelance careers. While they can’t seem to get in the door as a full-time employee, they’ll walk through as a freelancer and the managers who’ve been struggling shout, “Thank God you’re here.”
In regards to lower day rates, I’ll say you really do get what you pay for. For smaller assignments, maybe that’s what you need. But I remember when we asked for freelance help at Grey and the Creative Manager said she could give us people with $600 day rates...and I was like, “No thank you.” Because I knew it would likely only make my job tougher.
The one potential solution I want to mention is one that came up a few times on our site: the idea of having “very senior creatives” whose main job is the work. I suppose in a way they’d be in-house freelancers. And I have no doubt they would stay very, very busy. Would they make as much as an ECD? Probably not. But I bet there are MANY older creatives who would be willing to make a little less to keep doing what they love while having job security and benefits.
Have you encountered any kind of support system around ageism in the industry?
ROB: No. There are no AA meetings for ad professionals over the age of 40. It’s mainly just me and my friends drinking in a bar and complaining.
SUSAN: There’s definitely been a whole lot of commiseration. Laughing and bitching while crying just a little inside. But I do think our site is very much a sort of support system. We’ve gotten so many emails from people thanking us for helping them through a really tough time in their career. I have no doubt the creatives on the site have received their fair share of people thanking them as well. There are also a few other really great sites that are tackling the subject—and we’ve been lucky to feature some of their founders as well.
What led you to start Over30Under30?
ROB: Funnily enough, it started with an article I wrote for WNW about being 40ish in advertising. Susan read the article and reached out to me saying she liked it and in the back and forth of emails, I think I made a joke about hating all of those 30 Under 30 lists you see. That led to us to wanting to start this conversation among our peers.
SUSAN: That’s a true story.
I’d worked with Rob as a freelancer years back. Actually, I believe I actually worked “for” Rob. I’d said things about those silly lists many times, so we definitely related. (In fact, I think we are the same exact age!) We met over wine a couple times, as you do, and really had to figure out the angle we wanted to take...and how we were actually going to do this thing. As I touched upon earlier, creatives aren’t exactly jumping to tell everyone how old they are. Luckily we knew some talented people who were secure enough in their own skin and passionate enough about the topic to go first. That was everything. Bill Oberlander, Sandy Greenberg, Terri Meyers, Dave O’Hare, Amy Nicholson, Tim Roan. These were people who participated before we even had a site created (and way before we had one that was palatably art directed -- shout out to Erin Alvo-Zerega!) With every person we added, it became much easier to get not just yeses but hell yeses. We also started getting more and more people approaching us, which has been pretty amazing.
What have been some of your biggest takeaways so far from your conversations with these creatives now disqualified from ageist lists, awards, or features?
ROB: My sunshine-and-rainbows-answer would be: I think the biggest surprise is how uplifting all the interviews are. They are so inspiring and full of nuggets of wisdom that creatives of any age would find useful. I was honestly expecting a lot more bitching and moaning, since the subject is such a downer. I really look forward to seeing everyone’s answers because I find something fascinating in all of them.
The non-rainbow answer? We ask each person if they have any potential solutions for ageism in the business. There has been precious few enlightening answers from our group. That’s telling. And depressing AF.
SUSAN: Seeing all these insanely talented people go through struggles yet persevere has been incredibly inspiring, not just to their peers but to much younger creatives coming up. We all want mentors, people we can look up to. The biggest thing we have to tackle is perception; that “older” is somehow “lesser.” I think things like this site (and others like Madeleine Morris’s “Very Senior Creatives”) is helping with that. We need more of it. We need more older creatives not just bitching (though we do get to do that) but sharing their wisdom. We need more platforms like it—Cindy Gallop is certainly helping there. And Jane Evans. Let’s keep going. We need to keep hearing about older people killing it out there. So instead of being afraid to become them, younger creatives have something to aim for.
Aside from that, c’mon agencies, start hiring some very senior creatives to show how great work gets done.
Do you sense an overall frustration about changing the system? Or a sense of hope about things getting better? Or a combination?
ROB: It’s definitely a combination. I think the hope will always be there, because I think hope just so happens to be fuel for creatives. I mean, why get out of bed in the morning if you aren’t hopeful that today is the day you’ll make something awesome?
SUSAN: I think we go through stages of grief. Older people get laid off or can’t find a place to call home and we feel sad and vulnerable. Then we move to complaining and blaming the system (and the system does deserve to take quite a bit of the blame), then we get angry...and then we ask ourselves, “What next?” For too long the answer has been to just give up. But now that the topic is getting a lot more attention, I’m much more hopeful. We may have to rearrange our priorities a bit, but I think more of us are trying our damnedest not to play victim, not relying on someone else and instead creating our own outlets to pursue our passions. For us this site is an example of that. We did this on our own, the way we wanted to do it, and we’ve been rewarded—with new connections and a feeling of actually making at least a little bit of a difference. But we’re still probably a bit far from seeing agencies and clients excitedly getting their hands on the experience of a talented and passionate 60-year-old. My God, Frank Gehry is 90 years old. If he wanted to build your dream home, you wouldn’t question his age; you’d question how you could be so lucky.
Any other challenges or surprises since launching Over30Under30?
ROB: We’ve received a lot of positive feedback about the project, but there are people who believe that ageism just isn’t a real thing and I’ve heard from those people as well. That’s the big shocker to me. That there are those who think ageism doesn’t exist. When I press these people there’s a sentiment of “survival of the fittest”, and “ageism” is just the system weeding out shitty creatives. Now, over the years I’ve known my share of creatives who stopped trying—trying to grow, trying to learn new things, trying to stay relevant. Burnt-out creatives like that, the ones who are hiding in plain sight, the ones who refuse to work on new business pitches, the ones who come in at 10 and leave at 5, yeah, those people should be weeded out. They’re bad for business and a drain on an agency. But when you look at an agency with a staff of hundreds of people and you can’t find a handful over 50 and zero in the creative department? It’s statistically impossible.* I refuse to believe you stop being creative at the age of 47.
*I know nothing about math.
SUSAN: To draft off Rob, you don’t exactly catch someone in the act of being ageist. It’s something that happens behind closed doors—mostly for legal reasons. Or it’s just a subliminal thing. But it most definitely exists. And while yes, perhaps it’s time for some creatives to leave the industry, there are so many more who were dedicated to it, continued to get better and better...and who deserve to have a place in it, somewhere, somehow. We have to take care of the people who helped build the industry and helped make successful agencies and brands what they are.
What advice do you have for creatives nearing or over 40 in the creative industry?
ROB: Read the profiles on Over30Under30. We ask this very question and there are tons of answers way better than any I can come up with.
SUSAN: Oh, gotta agree with Rob here.
What advice do you have for creatives in their twenties and early thirties?
ROB: Save your money. Be aware that the clock is ticking. Stay engaged. And this is the big one...swim in the revenue stream. By that I mean: build your client relationships! A loyal client will fight for you, more than your own agency. Also, team up with an older creative. It’s the perfect symbiotic relationship. You’ll get the benefit of their experience and they’ll be energized by your youthful enthusiasm.
Last thing: before you start complaining about the geezers in your creative department...don’t. You are waging a war against your future self.
Ok, I lied, this is the last thing: if you happen to get offered a place on a “30 Under 30” list, turn it down. And tell them you think the concept is ageist and you won’t participate. Admittedly, this is a lot to ask.
SUSAN: With a little luck, a healthy diet, watching both ways when you cross the street, you will turn 56 one day. But right now, chances are you won’t still be working in advertising. So help change that. Grab a coffee with an older creative. Be inspired by them, then sing their praises. Help change perceptions so when you are older you’ll have changed the possibilities.
How can creatives get involved with Over30Under30?
ROB: Just reach out! To suggest an "experienced" creative who has a thought or two (or 10) on the ageism topic, hit us up at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
What do you have your creative sights on in the near future?
ROB: In addition to working with Susan to keep Over30Under30 going strong, right now I’m working on launching a new project about raising awareness of Mental Health Stigmas but in a fun and comedic way.
SUSAN: This site has been a ton of work that doesn’t feel like work. Writing a book felt the same way. If I can figure out a project that makes me feel this way AND actually pays, that would be success.
What’s something you feel equipped to take on now that you couldn’t have in your twenties?
ROB: Understanding how escrow works.
SUSAN: Juggling three different freelance projects, an ageism website, four Instagram accounts, two kids, an only child artist husband and a dog who attacks the front window every time the mailman passes. In my 20s, I’d have hyperventilated.
Illustration by WNW Member Rob Dobi