Only a matter of time: creatives get better with age

Driven by cost-cutting, a ‘disgraceful ageism’ operates in many advertising agencies, and the work suffers immeasurably because of it, argues Paul Belford


First, Ancient Greece. Then some ancient advertising.

The ‘Sword of Damocles’ is a moral anecdote by ancient Greek historian Timaeus. According to the story, Damocles was offered the chance to sit on the throne of King Dionysus, surrounded by wealth. The only catch was that there would be a sword suspended above his head, held by a single hair of a horse’s tail. The moral being that with great fortune and power, comes great danger. The phrase has also come to be used to describe any situation infused with a sense of impending doom.

This month’s ad features not a sword, but a Volvo 740 precariously hanging over an advertising copywriter. It serves as an unintended metaphor for the dire predicament ad creatives find themselves in these days. And it’s all down to the holding company bean counters of course.

Since most big agencies are now owned by holding companies, that’s a lot of employees under the cosh. I wonder how many juniors fully appreciate quite what an insanely brutal conveyor belt they have scrambled onto. And I feel for the middleweight and senior creatives wondering if today’s the day they get that call from HR.

If you’re good and lucky, you may have ten years before some soulless bastard with a spreadsheet suggests that the agency could pay much less for a malleable junior to churn out the kind of fodder that keeps big clients paying the fees. I could reel off a long list of brilliant, experienced people in their 40s and 50s who struggle to get work at the moment. Yet there isn’t an agency in the world that wouldn’t be improved by any one of them. It’s crazy.

Guess what? Creatives get better as they become more experienced. Obvious isn’t it?

A disgraceful ageism operates in many ad agencies. And the work suffers immeasurably because of it. Sure, the odd good ad pops out occasionally. But wouldn’t more great work make for more successful, happier, higher-spending clients? What a virtuous circle that would be. Because guess what? Creatives get better as they become more experienced. Obvious isn’t it?

The work on this page proves the point. The writer, lying rather nervously under the car, is the great David Abbott. He had already been working for 26 years when he came up with this brilliant ad (no logo, no endline – please note). And by creating wonderful ideas like this, he grew his agency to be the biggest in the UK.

Seen a car ad as good recently? Hmm … wonder why.

One of Abbott’s quotes that I love is: “You should care about quality in everything you do. From the chairs in reception, to the way you answer a phone, to a piece of typography, to the ideas you have, to the research you put your name to, to the meetings you hold, to the way you hang a picture, to the way you crop a photograph or write a line.”

A view diametrically opposed to the typical holding company philosophy of ruthlessly stamping out anything that can be done cheaper. Where will it all end? Surely it’s only a matter of time before more clients get wise to these cynical attempts to boost short-term shareholder value at the expense of the quality of the work. Which takes us neatly back to that dangling sword.

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