Agencies look for rising stars, not waning ones


Advertising Age's cover story about 55-year-old creative director Dave Shea's trials and tribulations in finding full-time employment should be a cautionary tale to any reader of any age.

Shea was a successful copywriter and creative director at such blue-chip advertising agencies as the legendary Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, the equally legendary (and the original) Saatchi & Saatchi, Campbell-Mithun and, most recently, Geppetto, a small agency within the vast WPP network (where Ed and I once toiled).

Geppetto canned Shea (and refused to tell Ad Age why) about 15 months ago. He's been high and dry ever since.

Shea's epic odyssey to find full-time employment is a positively spell-binding story. According to Ad Age, no matter how hard he networked or how many cold calls he pursued, Shea simply couldn't get to first base. Every agency ignored him because, at the age of 55, Shea was untouchable. His gray hair was a red light.

Source after source told Ad Age that firms turned a blind eye to the eminently qualified Shea. One summed it up beautifully by saying, 'Agencies look for rising stars, not waning ones.' (Ouch. I hope you have a nice day as well).

The Ad Age article confirmed what I'd already suspected: advertising agencies are positively spellbound by the digital revolution, Mark Zuckerberg and the next, bright shiny object. As a result, they mistakenly believe Millennials are the ONLY ones who get the hottest trends, technologies and talk. As a result, experienced veterans like Shea have no chance whatsoever of landing a decent job.

The article was a show-stopper for me for a variety of reasons, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • Ad agencies STILL don't get that social media, digital, Web 2.0, or whatever one chooses to call it, is nothing more than a communications channel. Guys: Hello! It's not about the technology. It's about the conversation and how best to engage in it. Happily, that's what PR firms do best. It's also why we're winning more and more of the client's overall marketing spend.
  • However gifted and uber cool they may be, Millennials lack the broad perspective and innate understanding that's fundamental to deciding what to say, when to say it and to whom. Sorry kids, but you don't get it. Not yet anyway.
  • Age discrimination is not limited to advertising agencies. There's no doubt in my mind that PR has just as many 55-year-old Dave Shea-types who have been shown the door by WPP, Interpublic, Omnicom or Publicis, and find themselves permanently unemployed. PR trade publications simply choose to ignore it:

Reporter: 'We really should do a Dave Shea-type story.'

Editor: 'Age discrimination in PR? No way, Jose.  So, how many new accounts did Edelman win this week?

Reporter: 'The usual. One every 13 seconds.'

Editor: 'Great. There's our headline!'

I count my blessings that, unlike Dave Shea, I decided to bid adieu to my holding company mother ship in 1995 and, along with Ed, build my own thing. If I hadn't, the odds are good I'd be just like Mr. Shea; mailing my resume, placing phone calls and sending e-mails to headhunters and holding company recruiters alike. And, there's no doubt I'd receive the same response as Shea: deafening silence.

A quick after word for my Millennial readers: you'll be dealing with your very own age-related issues faster than you can say Father Time. So, enjoy your time in the sun while you can.

As Sir Mick & The Boys once sang, 'Time waits for no one, and it won't wait for me.' Or, you either.

11 thoughts on “Agencies look for rising stars, not waning ones

  1. I fear that trend isn’t limited solely to the PR trades, Julie. But, it does account for the superficial trade journalism we’ve been reading the past few years.

  2. Maybe the trades might cover the “real” industry stories if they had seasoned reporters on staff. I’ve read that most of them have taken buy-out packages and are being replaced by Millenials.
    It’s a sad day in America when experience is considered a bad thing.

  3. You can’t have my red stapler, but my red 5-drawer Sears Craftsman portable tool chest is for sale. Be just like the NASCAR mechanics! I’ll avoid the shameless commerce link to Craigslist.

  4. Yeah, um, so I think Cole’s hair was still blond when the movie was made so, um, yeah, I’m gonna have to take that stapler from you, PEngel.

  5. Thanks for the very candid comment, A Facebook User. Clearly, you’ve dealt with far more than mere age discrimination. It’s a testament to your personal drive and ambition that you’ve been so successful. Also, I’d hate to think that any interviewing panel would chuckle after hearing your story. I know the holding companies are filled with impersonal automatons, but they must have still possess some degree of humanity, no?

  6. Great comment, PEngel. I count my blessings every day that, unlike Dave Shea, I didn’t overstay my welcome at a large holding company. Gary hair is a real career killer unless one is either an entrepreneur or self-starter like you.

  7. Good post & response to a solid if unnerving article.
    Unless you’re in politics,one day you wake up and you’re no longer “the kid.” Nowhere is that more true than agency life.
    Just a few days ago, the guy I partner with in selling creative services to small- to mid-sized businesses discussed this. We agreed that unless you are a great salesperson who brings $$$ and strong client relationships to the mix, your talents as a designer, branding guru, writer, media relations pro, etc. are essentially considered commodities, especially after 40.
    The only exception is if you rise through the ranks of account management. Even then, an economic tremor like the last one makes you expensive and expendable.
    After a bad move four years ago, I woke up to the reality that lightning can’t be captured in a jar twice. Since then, like A Facebook User, I’ve focused on creating my own projects. Nowadays, when I contract out to agencies and see my contemporaries still looking for the agency to be the Big Daddy and take care of them, I feel fortunate.

  8. Good one! Try “61 years old and four brain surgeries…” It equals stoney silence (and probably a few chuckles by the interviewing panel after you’ve left the room.) I have learned that my only avenue for activity is to seek and create my own projects. It is not easy, but can work with perseverance and attitude.

  9. Bingo, Keith! Our trades only report the positive and superficial news. There’s a tremendous opportunity for some journalist/publisher to step up and fill a very real void. I’d love to see a PR version of Ad Age that isn’t afraid to provide a balanced look at our industry’s real-world issues.

  10. The line du jour:
    “So, how many new accounts did Edelman win this week?
    Reporter: ‘The usual. One every 13 seconds.'”
    Sounds about right for what most (all?) of the PR trade publications are still focused on covering despite the fact the vast majority of their readers could care less about AORs and agency wins. Let’s hope this AdAge piece is a wake-up call to the trades that there are far bigger issues to cover and analyze than how many times HP changes PR chiefs or which agency is up in the annual AOR battle. Sadly, I don’t put much stock in that happening any time soon.