Creative director John Messum, 55, and art director Rachel Kennedy, 31, are calling time on ageism in advertising. With twenty years between them, the pair explain why their collaboration works and how the future of advertising needs to be built together, across generations.
The relationship between old and young has always been tinged with contention. It was George Orwell who said, “Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after.” In recent years, this rift between old and young has widened and we’ve found ourselves in the midst of an intergenerational civil war; one that’s been given a re-up of new ammo in the form of political turmoil, a climate in crisis and social media.
As colleagues with a twenty-five-year age gap, we have watched, initially with humor and then in horror, as the division has grown. This is evident every day, from the snide discourse around “entitled” Millennials, to “Okay Boomer–” the phrase that launched a thousand memes, fueled as many twitter rants and even found its way into politics.
Ageism–because let’s call it what it is–has become the last acceptable prejudice.
In the world of advertising, we’re facing our own issues. We’re an industry, as John Hegarty said, that “overly worships at the altar of youth.” An industry with a median age of 39 and one that boasts a measly 6 percent of employees over the age of 50. If you’re a woman or a minority, these numbers sadly, but unsurprisingly, look even worse.
It’s embarrassing. Advertising is a business built on innovation and imagination, yet when it comes to age, we’re shockingly short-sighted. The obvious irony here is that aging is for the many and not the few. If we don’t start addressing these discrepancies and calling out the lack of representation now, then we’re going to dent, if not destroy, an essential weapon in our arsenal: cumulative creativity. A vital catalyst for innovation.
Cumulative creativity is far from revolutionary, yet it seems to have been sadly overlooked of late. Forty-five years ago, when Edwin Land, inventor of the Polaroid announced that he had discovered one-step instant photography, he explained that it was prompted by his daughter, who wanted to know why she couldn’t see the pictures she had taken right away. Within an hour of the question being posed, he had conceived of a way to make this happen. When interviewed later, he said, “True creativity is characterized by a succession of acts, each one dependent on the one that went before and suggesting the one after.” As collaborators, with a quarter of a century between us, it is this idea that fuels our work.
The act of cumulative creativity is what propels us forward. It allows us to draw from our collective experiences, merge the old with the new and take advantage of cross-generational mentoring that elevates us personally and professionally. It means
that we are able to draw on the craft and experience John has accumulated during his thirty-two years in advertising and combine it with Rachel’s innovative approach and alternate perspective to carve a new path.
Intergenerational collaboration works, and not only for us. Last April, following Billboard’s removal of twenty-year-old Lil Nas X’s song ‘Old Town Road’ from the Country music chat, Billy Ray Cyrus collaborated on a remix. That track gave the fifty-six-year-old his first number one on the Hot 100.
When fifty-year-old Jennifer Lopez walked the runway for Versace’s Spring 2020 show in “that green dress–” the same she had worn twenty years earlier–she didn’t just “break the internet,” she reportedly made Google $9.4 million in earned media. This sent Instagram–the domain of the young–into a frenzy and generated hundreds of column inches for the sixty-four-year-old chief creative officer, Donatella.
These types of partnerships spark the sort of creative thinking that boosts business–and isn’t that advertising in a nutshell? The work we produce exists to put our clients front and center in the mind of consumers, yet we also have a unique opportunity to shape and change perceptions. With that comes a responsibility to incorporate the lived experience of a diverse society, something we can only do if we have the right mix of people around the table.
Seventy-nine percent of us believe the advertising industry is ageist. So, let’s stop just accepting this discrimination as a fact and start to do something about it. Let’s create a tribe for the future. A tribe that isn’t built around a wise elder or a bright young thing, but a tribe that is built on collaboration across generations. Where mentorship does not rest on the shoulders of one, but all. In sharing our perspectives, we establish a knowledge exchange, we become more empathetic, more observant, and are able to see the world, not as it is, but as it could be.
As we live and work longer, the industry’s current median age of 39 is going to seem awfully young for its next generation. So, this is a plea to everyone, what do you want the industry to look like when you’re 53, 63, 73? The ability to change rests on us. When we phase people out of our creative teams because of their age, we lose passionate older hands with the ability to guide thinking, shape ideas and form diverse foundations that, in collaboration with others, will help bring about the type of innovation we seek. The future of our work is found in the fusion between old and young, a tribe of our own design.