Where have all the cowboys gone?

I came across an interesting post on LinkedIn the other day that got me thinking. A question by a Creative Director, who has been freelancing as an Art Director from Toronto. What really happens to Ad Land’s old creatives? Why is it so challenging for these creatives with years of experience to get freelance work today? While it is true that technology has re-written the rules on how we advertise, the more that changes, the more the core concepts still hold true. So why then do advertising’s creatives fade away like desperadoes into the sunset, obsolete good old cowboys of yester years? Are they being undercut and undervalued by younger fresh talent as they grey? It’s just not just traditional talent. This is equally true for digital talent, who might find their skill-sets becoming obsolete faster than their traditional counterparts. At the crux of the matter is, if you were a junior creative when you joined Ad Land and if you are a ‘silvered’ creative today, how many of your peers that you joined with are still in advertising today? 

This is hardly a new question or issue. Yet this is something that I’ve been asking myself almost ever since I got into the business. Perhaps because during one of my first advertising internships I came across an elderly copywriter with Snow White hair and who looked like he was well due to retire. While it was evident, what kept him coming to work was obviously the love for his craft and the freedom to have umpteen number of smoke breaks, he was an anomaly. Just a quick look around the agency and you would realise that his peers were obviously younger than what he was. Which begged me to ask, where were the other peers his age?

How old is old in advertising anyway?

While the rest of the world has a very different standard for defining old & senior, the fact is, if you are above 30 in advertising, you are old. This is pretty much black and white. So much so that you can’t participate in competitions that are for ‘young’ agency talent when you cross 30. I’ve even put this question to one agency head at an Ad fest who agreed vehemently that such was the case. I mean look around and you find that there are truly few senior creatives who are entering their silver years in the upper echelons of agencies around the world. Yes there are those few who you see in Campaign magazine, always in the limelight. But if you were to look at the numbers you need to wonder what has really happened to the rest of the talent? The masses that at one time would have been doing the bulk of the agency work. Compare for example a bank to an agency. There is far more visible senior talent that has grown from the ranks in banks across the world than there are in advertising agencies.

One obvious answer I would think is that a lot of talent leaves advertising to diversify into different careers. Creatives turned into authors or film makers are not unheard off. But these are more so the exception than the rule. I remember a documentary someone made about this, called Lemonade The Movie.

It’s focus – agency creatives that are let off and how they went on to live fuller lives post advertising. Truth is that the pace of the advertising lifestyle, the odd hours, the irregular meals and sleeping habits, smoking and alcohol, all influence an exodus of Creative talent who have just about had it being the bottom feeder of what is largely a fun yet  ineffective system. Not quite sustainable as a balanced life in the long run. So while it seems to be obvious that creatives will eventually move on from being full-time creative talent in Ad Land, it’s not as clear why they are unable to support the existing industry at the same level that leave as freelancers.

Is it just age?  There is a generation divide between the young and old where experience and creative output is concerned. Perhaps a similar parallel can be drawn from the software industry. A while ago, one of my cousins quipped that he dyed his hair just so that he didn’t look as old he was because he would otherwise be swamped by younger digital & IT folk who had little respect for the old folk. This is somewhat true within agencies as well. In agencies there is Creative exuberance by young creatives on one end and the tempering by those who have survived the battlefield of rejection and failed ideas and close calls at the other. Yet in the mind of Ad Lands young creatives, seniors strive to constantly justify how their approaches and creatives are relevant to the world of today.

How the world has changed for advertising creatives

After all its not just about how digital and social has changed the world, it’s about how the world keeps changing. The rise and fall of the mighty millennials and ever fluid economies and politics around the world continues to re-write the rule book everyday doesn’t it? With young creatives being able to wrap their heads around taking apart and exploiting technology at the core and marry it to the latest social influencers and trends, they develop a degree of contempt when they see ideas that merely use rehash existing campaigns as their base for new executions. Look at marketing and you’ll realise that over the years the majority is still young. It is a paradox of the times that we focus so much on Millennials and Gen-Z while the majority of the spending power is probably with ageing Baby Boomers who have very different product needs and different messaging requirements. Yet marketers hoping to cash in on volume sales chase down a younger target audience and younger agency folk to churn out the work for them to reduce the gulf of a generation gap. While they may be more likely to push the envelope, they are also more likely to dream up something an agency may not be able to deliver against. But being digital natives could be a reason why younger talent is more coveted today even outside Ad Land as freelancers and experts.

Look at agencies today. Even the most cursive of looks and you will realise that most of the Creative talent that churns out the bulk of the daily work is young blood. Agencies just can’t do without them. They come up with contemporary concepts and burn midnight oil bringing those ideas to life and in front of their seniors who give them the needed “direction” to ensure that they stay true to brand tonality that was defined ages ago. Truth is agencies ask clients to pay premiums for Creative talent. Yet the very same Creatives often fail to see these premiums gracing their pay cheques. Any agency account manager of finance person will testify to this if cornered. 80% of the most productive work is being churned by those who are most likely earning 20% of what the agency is earning in revenue. If that is the case, is it any surprise that there are no old creatives. All the young talent jump ship as fast as they can, often lured away by Millennial friendly companies like Spotify, Airbnb and so on. 

How much is your creative really worth? 

It all boils down to how much the market collectively values the Creative end product. Do they really value your years of creative experience that is able to churn out award winning creatives. The fact that the art of creativity can’t be distilled down to a quantifiable formula is part of the problem. Clients opt to freelance to save money, they can’t quite afford to get a full service agency on a retainer. The agency on the other-hand decides to pull in freelancers to take on pitches and sudden fluxes in workload to ensure that they can operate with as lean a team as possible on a regular basis. Into this entire mix add a dash of psychology. What I call the creative perception problem. I’ve always felt that copywriters have had it tough. Everyone believes in their mind that they can write copy because they have studied English in school. This is not true with art because after a given age almost everyone feels that they can’t draw. Coding is too much of a science, though ignorance can often lead to clients failing to understand why they would possibly need to pay for a HTML / CSS specialist and a PHP  or bootstrap specialist as well. But coders I believe can still charge premiums. The end result for the creative folks is that getting freelance copywriting jobs at a premium that matches your experience is most likely going to be challenging. Nobody is going to want to spend the extra dollar on what your copy is worth, especially when they are tempted to have a go at editing your copy itself. Cost is perhaps the only reason they are looking for freelancers in the first place, because marketing budgets are shrinking and they are looking to maximise their ROI with the cheapest option available.

Sunsets and Sayanoras

So where can creatives head off too? Where are senior creatives able to earn their keep doing what they love, on their terms and at a decent pay? I mean we aren’t living in the Mad Men era anymore. I’d wager a guess that even existing senior creative talent just doesn’t make as much as they used too. Making the competition to stay within the agency environment equally competitive. What’s more agencies ensure that the pressure are immense to deliver more for the buck you are currently earning. While their Account Management counterparts can go on to take up client side roles running marketing departments, its not as easy for their creative brethren who are nearing their sell by date and lack the necessary business acumen. Creativity at the end of the day is often seen to be the icing on the cake, fluff and not substance and this rubs off on the practitioners of the field.  The lucky few who may still move client side to take up roles that are similar yet saner to a larger extent. A move that is catching on as a way to cut marketing spend budgets and bring in costs internally. Some will make internal career shifts within the agency itself. Others join marketing departments in companies or as consultants where they flex their creative muscles by telling key clients and other business stakeholder what to demand from their agencies. Freelancers have it tougher as they find themselves faced by a highly competitive market where they can’t possibly win on price. There is always someone younger out there, probably moonlighting and wanting to make an extra buck on the side who will do it cheaper and maybe faster.  Digital has also turned freelancing into a buyers market with easy access to talent and the opportunity to crowd-source creatives even from digital platforms. Digital creatives find it extra challenging as they need to try harder to stay relevant as tech cycles re-write the rules every ten years or less. 

The answer to what happens to advertising Creative talent this writer thinks lies in the ability for creatives to be able to re-invent themselves constantly in manners that stay relevant outside the realm of advertising. Whether it is about using existing skills in new areas like writing fiction and getting published or investing in personal branding by talking at TED talks and being seen as a subject matter expert to earn consulting opportunities, or it is layering on additional skills, banding together and starting up their own small shops to compete on price, taking the fight to the very same larger agencies that are no longer fit for their Creative talent.

Speculation at best, agency of folk do confess that there are germs of truth in my observations. But the truth is out there. Being lived out by the creatives from yester-year and being prepared for by the creatives of tomorrow.