Back in the day, I co-founded the global media group PHD (I am the ‘D’).
It now turns over $12bn, employs 10,000 people and has an enviable culture, which is rooted back from its launch in 1990.
However, despite this invaluable experience, it was still quite hard for me to find employment. A few years ago I applied to go back to PHD in my old area of creative planning/ideas and was soundly rejected.
Being a co-founder with some unfinished business and lots to offer, at least in my mind, was apparently not enough reason to give me another chance. Fair enough, that is their choice, but it was really painful for me.
Still, as they say: ‘If you don’t ask you don’t get…’ and I pushed on until I did kick a few other doors open instead, but I had some work to do first. The initial barrier was myself. Fear of rejection and of being seen as outdated or out of touch.
To remain being viewed as creatively relevant is definitely a challenge if you are in your 50s and beyond.
In order to break through this self-inflicted barrier into new horizons, one must at least meet the problem halfway.
Last time this happened to me was in 2015. I was 55 and after an extended period of living in Spain with my then very young daughter and wife, I just felt out of touch and useless.
So I decided to self-diagnose and try to face my unexplained anxieties, both quite literally and head on. This was just my potential solution and we all may have our own versions.
I made a list of all my fears, no matter how random or obscure they might be.
In no particular order these included:
- Holding babies
- Being a passenger in a car
- Crying in public (which I do a lot)
- Feeling vulnerable
Having made this list my radar was switched on and it only took a couple of weeks for something to cross my path which included most of the things I had listed.
I met a lady called Lucy Buck who had founded an orphanage in Uganda for abandoned babies (often infected by AIDS.). In no time at all I found myself in Kampala, sleeping on the floor of the aforementioned orphanage, experiencing some of the worst driving in the world and hearing first hand the most distressing stories from the destitute mothers and their communities.
I was holding dozens of babies, playing Lego with them and trying to not spend 24 hours a day sobbing or uncontrollably wailing.
As a result of this self-inflicted trauma, a surprising thing happened to me. The noisy part of my brain, which normally tells me that I’m rubbish or that I will fail, was in total shock. It was silenced. This left the rest of my head to heave a sigh of relief and to recalibrate my thinking.
I returned to the UK and promptly got a role at LadBible. I was giving presentations to dozens of people not even old enough to be my kids.
I was sharing my knowledge and ideas freely without fear of unfounded consequence.
And I was listened to.
In fact, I absolutely loved the challenge and we were all winners for their faith in me, which was driven by silencing my own inner voices first and grasping the opportunity created by my rekindled confidence.
Since then I have been fortunate enough to have been employed by the likes of DCM, ITV and 7Stars, and been an investor in a few startups, including my own male grooming range Below the Belt.
If one’s set is more on the business side, rather than having a creative reputation, it is undoubtedly easier to gain worthwhile work as a non-exec director, where age is seen as less of a barrier.
A recruiting organisation should not necessarily be wary of taking on older talent for fear of insulting them with a relatively modest wage packet.
It is fair to say that most of my best paydays are probably behind me. My motivation for seeking employment now is more in the realms of keeping my brain active, being productive, competing and learning new skills, as well as passing on my own wisdom.
To remain being viewed as creatively relevant is definitely a challenge if you are in your 50s and beyond. And yet, despite the rapid change in technology, it is fair to say human behaviour remains constant and predictable.
And that is where experience of life can be invaluable, even a priceless addition, to any forward looking organisation with imagination.
People who have seen the world and made their mistakes already, whilst on other people’s payrolls, are a bargain.
Recognising that ideas can come from anywhere is also often overlooked by employers. Ideas are neither the sole province of a youthful creative department, nor someone with a longstanding creative title. An employer can entrust an experienced catalyst to help its talent stretch far outside of their self-imposed boundaries. People who have seen the world and made their mistakes already, whilst on other people’s payrolls, are a bargain.
As an aside, I do have an idea for a new type of agency that has been rattling around in my head for quite a while. It would have a clock in reception that ran backwards. A countdown running down to its closure date. It would be populated by legends of the industry from all the various disciplines.
The proposition is that if, as a corporation with a long-tail of brands who do not enjoy the budgets of their more popular siblings, why not employ the most proven talent to fix them? People who have nothing to prove and are doing it because they love it.
Sure they would be paid, but having the likes of a Dave Trott, Robin Wight or Sir John Hegarty personally driven to make a difference is surely worthy of a shot for many under-resourced brands?
Personally I too would love that challenge and the “buy now while stocks last” proposition of the agency with a declared end date might encourage some urgency and immediate action from the client community.
Anyway, my general message is firstly that older talent must meet the market halfway. Banish all fears in favour of that wise platitude: “What’s the worst thing that can happen?”
The marketing community should recognise that the motivation for older talent is not always expensive. In fact it can be a bargain and is far outweighed by the priceless wisdom and focused creativity that such talent can deliver.
Having a culture which is in balance with the profile of the population widens the range of answers and possibilities which are open to you. After all, even you will be old one day, so why not invest in your own future now by making ageism a thing of the past?