When I started Pinwheel, I tended to get sucked into individual projects and managing contractors – a common issue for agency founders that makes it difficult to grow the business. I soon realized that older, more experienced contractors worked faster, were smarter about process, communicated more effectively with clients, and allowed me to focus on building relationships. So that became our hiring strategy as we grew. And though I didn’t talk very much about it, it was something I would mention to prospects when pitching them.
The clients loved the approach, so we leaned in
As the growing Pinwheel team and I discussed this approach with clients through the years, we saw their eyes light up. Some even shared their own experiences with agencies whereby those agencies would hire experienced creative firepower for the pitch and then stick junior-level talent on the new client’s day-to-day work. So they appreciated that Pinwheel required a higher minimum number of years of experience and only hired people who’ve already honed their craft. They also appreciated that this didn’t translate to higher prices. In fact, we were less expensive than most other agencies of our size. Nine years later, the (now larger) Pinwheel team was discussing our repositioning and this “senior talent” mantra rose to the top.
Why it works
It’s amazing how smoothly projects go when everyone knows exactly what they’re doing and has been doing it for 20 or even 30 years. There’s a beautiful synchronicity when skilled, creative, ego-free craftspeople collaborate at the highest level. Like a dance we’ve done 1,000 times before, it goes to plan, finishes fast, and comes out well.
One reason projects go more smoothly is that we have more life experiences, which translates to more frames of reference, which translates to more informed intuitions. We’re able to understand and viscerally “feel into” projects more quickly. We’re able to assess a situation and quickly make the right call. As one 55-year-old freelance creative writer, Sherri Anderson put it recently on a Linkedin post, “I have shopped, invested, had numerous surgeries, two babies, traveled the Cancer battle with my mother, seen more live comedy shows, danced at more concerts, nursed more blisters at more festivals, made more online sports bets, sunk more money on more trendy fashions, and purchased more cars than half the applicants for the jobs you post.” These lived experiences make her a more relevant and valuable creative partner.
Highly experienced people have a hard time finding jobs these days
Remember when you were a fresh-faced puppy just birthed from college and raring to make your mark on the world? Six crisp copies of your resume stuck in a folder, a smart blazer Mom got you, and a heart full of ambition. An exciting moment, right? You had almost nothing to offer but your wits, work ethic, charm, and willingness to work long hours for relatively little money. So you got a job, put in the hours, developed skills, honed your talents, and proved your worth. Gradually you climbed the corporate jungle gym. Up up up.
Flash forward a few decades. You’re a skilled artisan. A master in your trade. You've done it all a hundred times, forward and backward, up and down, and sometimes sideways. If you’re in marketing, that means you’ve worked on every kind of project, in every channel, using every kind of process and tool available. You’ve worked with corporate giants, startups, and everything in between. TV, video, interactive experiences, social, and so on. You’ve presented to CEOs and corporate boards, ridden around LA in limos, been quoted in the media, interviewed on podcasts, and (probably) had your work celebrated at industry award shows.
Yet, nobody will hire you
With unemployment at historic lows and companies fighting over top talent, ageism seems like self-sabotage. However, it’s notoriously rampant in the marketing world. A 56-year-old creative director writes, “I don’t understand why I can’t get gigs. It just feels like I’m being passed over because of my gray hairs.”
Affecting mostly those gray beards in their 50s, 60s, and 70s, ageism is defined as “prejudice against someone because of their age.” It shows up in job descriptions, interviews, and throughout the hiring process. Rarely talked about, but it’s there – like an (ahem… illegal) elephant sitting quietly in the corner of the room and peeking out from behind phrases like “over-qualified,” and “not a culture fit.”
Companies aren’t as young as many people think
Oddly, while many assume that corporate America is full of people in their 20s and 30s, the prevailing data pins the average age at 40+ (and climbing). Leaders are even older: non-executive directors are over 60; CEOs average out at 59 years old; CFOs are 54, and CMOs are also aged 54. Though the data can sometimes conflict.
Marketing, and advertising specifically, has always been thought of as a young person’s game. The theory goes that young’uns are more likely to have their fingers on the pulse of the culture and possess the curious and playful minds required to dream up great big world-changing ideas. Plus, they’re cheaper and easier for agencies to mark up. All of this is broadly true, but it neglects both the many benefits of hiring more experienced talent, and it neglects the fact that the average age in the industry is 38 years old, not 25. Not THAT young.
Some get better with age, some don’t
Yes, reaction times do tend to slow a bit with age, but other functions can improve. We appear to have a greater ability to stay focused and ignore distractions. We become more conscientious, emotionally stable, and realistic. You’d think companies would be inclined to value age instead of screening more senior employees out.
In a business that’s all about persuasive ideas, there’s always been a strong bias towards youth (and against age). In a 2020 earnings call, the CEO of the world’s largest ad agency, WPP’s Mark Read (age 54 at the time), touted this bias when he said, "We have a very broad range of skills. And if you look at our people – the average age of someone who works at WPP is less than 30 – they don't hark back to the 1980s, luckily."
Ooops. Mark, who himself grew up in the 80s and yet somehow managed to lead the digital arm of WPP for 10 years before being elevated to CEO, was alluding to the notion that anyone who grew up at that time is effectively irrelevant for the advertising industry. An idea that his own career contradicts.
But it was true to form. The ad industry got fat by hiring juniors, underpaying them, working them ragged, and overcharging clients for their work while gleefully reinforcing the stereotypes that tend to favor this exploitative model. That is its drug and it simply CAN NOT break the addiction. Unfortunately for them, most clients are wise to it now.
Ageism is built on outdated perceptions, not reality
A bias against more senior employees is based on socially constructed ways of thinking about them. In other words, stereotypes. And, perhaps ironically, stereotypes are old, stubborn, decrepit, calcified ideas that are famously difficult to change.
The truth is that people of ANY age are as lazy, narrow-minded, and stuck in the past as they’ve allowed themselves to be. A healthy brain doesn’t decline with age and we’re as tied into the cultural zeitgeist as we want to be. Tik Tok, Twitter, Discord, Midjourney, and ChatGPT are easy to learn. For creativity to flourish, you need only feed and nurture it.
What’s also true is that being creative, with all its self-inflicted pain and suffering, becomes a deeply familiar process that you can get better and faster at over time. You become better at asking the right questions. You get better and quicker at knowing which ideas have potential and which are curdled milk. You get better at taking a seedling of an idea and growing it into a giant, game-changing brand theme. You get better at selling those ideas and navigating the complex interpersonal minefield of client feedback sessions without tripping the wire. You get better at appreciating the value of collaboration and how to use it to make the ideas even better.
That’s why some companies prefer older employees to younger ones.
Pinwheel isn’t the only company focusing its hiring on senior-level people. A titan of the video game industry, Valve Software is also known for it. They want people who can handle a lot of autonomy and who thrive with minimal supervision. The organization is flat, and everyone has ownership of the work and outcomes. It works. They’ve produced lots of blockbuster game franchises such as CounterStrike, Half-Life, Portal, Doda, and Team Fortress and last year made $13 billion.
OK boomer, social dynamics play a part, too
Intergenerational friction is standard fare in conversations between older employees to speak critically of millennials and zillennials. Different work ethic, different priorities, different norms, etc. And bashing out-of-touch boomers or Gen X is all the rage among millennials and Gen Z. The stereotypes that fly in this little corner of the culture wars tend to put up walls between people that impede good working relations and interfere with productivity. Plus, it’s – well, wrong. And boring.
We’re all just people with slightly different frames of reference. The goal is to figure out how to get the best work out of each other and adapt our systems, processes, styles, and selves to make that happen.