Age versus experience

Emma Hancock on striking the right balance when it comes to agency staffing.
Emma Hancock - Headshot

By Emma Hancock

I wouldn’t exactly say I’m a nervous flyer (anymore) but for me, enjoying the flight requires a lot of things to go right.

Yet after flying 100,000 miles last year, I’ve realized it’s near impossible to control any of it, and the only thing I really care about is the pilot. Sure, free Wi-Fi and salty nuts are great, but if it ever comes time for that unexpected nosedive over the Pacific, I’d like my pilot seasoned, please.

Very well seasoned.

Should it be any different in advertising? Too often I’ve been told, “It’s not like we’re saving lives or anything.” But hey, there’s something to be said for track record. And in the new age of smaller marketing budgets you’d think experience would be paramount.

Surprisingly, I don’t think it is. A track record is now a weird liability in this holding-company era, where the accountants run the show and paying for talent is an expense, not an investment. To use a hockey analogy, it’s like promising to win the Stanley Cup every year, filling an NHL team with rookies and expecting no one to notice. Seems harmful to everyone involved.

Chuck McBride, a man with an admirable track record and an agency called Cutwater out of San Francisco, has witnessed the trend and bucked it. “You’ve helped build a company and then you get to be 50 and you become expendable. That’s why I started my own company,” he says. McBride believes the churn rate of the ECD is increasing as agencies put less experienced (and cheaper) bodies into the role, and ultimately it affects the client’s business.

“The messaging becomes less consistent and the client becomes anxious,” he says. He points out that “over the long term, they’re compromising the talent by taking away the experience. You need both young and old, wisdom with youth, or else you don’t get the right blend.”

Knowledgeable clients agree. Lynne Piette, brand marketing manager at Volkswagen Canada, also believes in “the blend,” and that one’s ability to come up with ideas actually increases over time. “As a person ages, they are influenced by multiple new sensory experiences which give them a broader perspective,” and those creative capabilities actually expand, she says.

Michel Frappier, chair of the Advertising Review Board, gave me many examples of age as a genuine propellant of creativity. However, he points out another cause for concern – the perception of age versus the reality. He believes this is because clients today are very often “terribly young and few of them are trained to appreciate any outstanding work.” They also associate age with yesterday’s news.

Therefore, the issue is two-fold: one part financial and the other, a misguided perception about youth. “Clients want to know they’re getting the freshest thinking and they automatically associate that with youth,” explains Rick Kemp, a veteran creative director at BrandHealth Communications and former ECD at Grey Canada. “Getting a fresh perspective is really cool but life experiences also come into play.”

David Cairns, a partner at Cairns ONeil, believes age has little to do with creativity or success in this business. For him, it all boils down to two things: experience and passion. “Those of us who are still honing our craft after some years do so because we love it and are good at it.”

So where does the perception that youth equals better creative come from? “I think it has more to do with the nature of our business and the impact of new technologies than it does with reality,” says Benjamin Vendramin, SVP and group CD at McCann Erickson in New York. “Truly creative people, of any age, couldn’t imagine not being well-versed and attuned to the new zeitgeist. So, it is not a question of age but of mindset.”

The truth is, at some point your brand is going to hit rough weather, maybe even severe turbulence, and who’s going to come to the rescue? You’re going to want to take advantage of the worldly, wise and slightly weathered. At 57, Captain Sully had nearly 20,000 hours of flying experience when he miraculously landed his powerless A320 on the Hudson. There was no simulator training for how he pulled it off – just decades of practice and skill. I think the ad world could benefit from keeping more of our own flying aces around longer.

Emma Hancock is a founding partner of Toronto-based Heroes & Villains Advertising. After 15 years of diligently crafting campaigns, she’s become a strong believer in the power of storytelling and its ability to turn brands into heroes.