The Age of Confidence - why creativity has no age limit
I don’t remember ever seeing a picture of a “young” Picasso but I do know that his early paintings aren’t as talked about as, say Guernica which he created when he was 56. I don’t remember seeing a “young” Einstein either - even though he was only 42 when he won the Nobel prize for physics, the image people have of him is of a white-haired old man. Ernest Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize for The Old Man and the Sea when he was 52.
In my (many) years in advertising, I have seen thousands of student books, almost all of them derivative, unoriginal and bland. It felt like the students had studied advertising and copied it. There was a safety in writing a clever-clever headline or a TV spot with a gag at the end. I would tell these wannabes that they were creating the kind of advertising that their parents would have made had they been in an agency 20 years earlier. It was all so conservative. Almost no one seemed fearless about breaking rules.
Those who did I usually managed to get into HHCL. I can count the good ones who I couldn’t persuade my bosses to hire on one hand: Alex Wilson Smith who is still brilliant yet has almost never worked at a mainstream agency and who (with Sergei Ivanov) was responsible for the Cadbury’s spec ad above back in the 90s. Joe D’Souza and Matt Fox who had a whole folio of phone boxes and photos of them taken by famous people and who went on to win D&AD gold for Brit Art. Remco Graham who attached a specimen bag of dead bees to a toothpaste ad as he “didn’t have any toothpaste”. There may be more but these are the ones who stuck out and who, unsurprisingly are still in the game twenty years on. Another who stands out is Andrew Joliffe who used to run his own fireworks company and didn't bring his book in until he was around 40 by which time he was confident enough to wrte the ads he wanted to see, not the ones he felt would get bought.
The argument that young people have the best ideas just doesn’t wash with me. I’ve never equated youth with originality. It takes huge confidence to do the opposite of everyone else and it’s much safer to follow the crowd. It’s why kids on non-school uniform days all wear the same clothes. Very few people have the courage to stand out until they get to an age where they stop caring what other people think about them.
That’s not to say that all older people are Einsteins, Picassos, Hemingways (or Joliffes!). There have always been older people in the industry who seem out of touch with the current climate, who hanker for the good old days, who struggle to fit in to the new agency models or get to grips with new media channels. People who can't adapt or move with the times are a burden and when budgets are tight there is no room for dinosaurs.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about ageism in advertising. My feeling is that “old” has nothing to do with the age of an employee. I believe in an “age of confidence” which is the age where people stop worrying about everyone else and start experimenting with what’s possible. There’s no given age where this happens but it's something you grow into. Maybe it's after the 10,000 hours Malcolm Gladwell and others talk about. The age of confidence is a cruising altitude that is reached after a lot of hard work and experimentationand there's no reason why a truly creative mind can’t keep being creative indefinitely.
Agencies which are overly concerned with the average age of their personnel and who continue hiring the young in age but conservative at heart seem to have missed the point. Creativity and effectiveness are not age related. There are some hugely creative mavericks in their 40s, 50’s and 60s floating around in the giant freelance sea simply because agencies think they're over the hill or just don't want to pay twice what a 25 year old will cost them, even though that 25 year old may take three times as long (and a huge amount of creative direction) to get there.
It’s no surprise that Apple used Picasso and Einstein in their epic "Think Different" commercial (as well as Hitchcock, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Buckminster Fuller). When it comes to creativity and imagination, there’s no age limit.