Onward I trudge this bitter morning, knee-deep in the thick snow, stumbling, flailing, striving onward onward towards the cruelly-early-morning locomotive and its train of rackety, uncomfortable carriages, hoping against hope, eventually, to struggle through the blizzards into the frozen horror of the Great Wen.
Behind me, somewhere on the iron rind of ice, that is Upper North Street, I hear a melodious swishing, clattering and tinkling and turn to see a magnificent sight.
Four enormous white elks, their frosty coats spilling vapour into the pellucid, winter air, canter to a halt as the scarlet-uniformed servant hauls hard on the brake of the troika, its brass finials gleaming. From the depths of a great pile of ermines and fox-furs, emerges an elegant hand clutching a steaming silver tankard of hot-toddy, followed by a handsomely grizzled, pink-cheeked face wreathed in grog-steam.
“SPOONER YOU CUR!,” bellows Lord McKelvey Of That Ilk, mighty clan-chief of the McKelveys and much-garlanded editor of Decision Marketing, the premier source of news and views from around the world of ‘through-the-line’ (or whatever it is called this week), for it is he.
“HEARKEN SPOONER!!! My minions at the IPA have conducted another Census, which this year found, once again, that the average age of people working in agencies is 33.7! How on earth are you still in gainful employment? What has happened to all of the elderly creative types? Do you care? A COLUMN BEFORE NIGHTFALL OR I’LL HAVE YOUR HIDE!!!”
With a jingling of bells, a drum-roll of elk-hooves, an iron clatter of sledge-runners and a heady plume of grog-steam Lord McKelvey is gone and I am left alone with the knife-like wind and the pale, drifting veils of snow.
I’m pretty sure that I have covered the issue of ageism in these columns before but ‘orders is orders’, so off we jolly well go.
Do bear in mind that my ‘observations’ apply only to the creative department and that every generalisation is an offence against reason, yet:
1. Young people are cheaper than old people
2. Young people ‘know more about the connected universe’ because they spend more of their time in it and view it simply as the universe
3. Young people are generally more enthusiastic and excited and, naturally enough, more likely to do as they are asked
4. Young people might just accidentally have ideas that no-one has had before
5. Did I mention that they are cheaper?
There, that’s just about it. All of these points are of great importance and would constitute a sufficient reason in themselves for every agency in the land to drive their wrinkled and expensive old stagers from the premises. But let me, in the spirit of fairness, state the other side of the argument:
1. Old people are more expensive than young people
2. Old people ‘are terrified of the connected universe’ and spend as little time as possible in it (apart from F***book and, ahem, gambling sites) and view it as a new-fangled abomination
3. Old people are generally more cynical and depressed and, naturally enough, less likely to do as they are asked
4. Old people are always trying to cunningly recycle ideas from earlier in their career out of sheer weariness
5. Did I mention that they are more expensive?
And were advertising in all of or, indeed, any of its forms an ‘art’ (excuse me while I laugh into my threadbare sleeve), then argument might just as well end here – and off we might all meekly trot to the knacker’s yard as soon as we passed the seventh or eighth month of our 33rd year.
Advertising is not an art. Many aspects of what we do are better described as a craft. If you are building an MPU that will work across multiple formats in a low file-size, you’d better make sure that you have a basic grasp of colour and typography. If you are putting together a 5-second, looping sting for big-screen, digital OOH, the same applies. If you are creating filmed digital content, even if you are doing it on an i-Phone, you’d better understand lighting and editing. And if you are writing an entire website that is supposed to deliver a brand personality that’s appropriate for its audience, you’d better know how to write.
I could go on and on. The media may have changed, but we still need art directors and copywriters who possess the basic craft-skills which will ensure that our executions engage the people we would like to buy our products and services.
And without craftspeople from previous generations of creativity, many of those very basic skills are easily overlooked, which is fine, as long as the ideas are blisteringly magnificent. But the media we use increasingly require a small idea executed well – and when we operate in these territories we need craft skills to ensure that our messages are motivating customers to act.
Forget the experience that allows a creative person to intuitively understand a customer – planners can provide that. Forget the handiness of using a creative person who has done the job before – novelty is our new master and our customers are astute enough to compare and contrast. Where older creative people can deliver value that will be reflected in an agency’s profits, is where craft is important. My worry is not that agencies no longer employ older creative; they will have to find ways to fend for themselves. My worry is that the transmission of craft skills from one creative generation to another is no longer happening.
I have been working in a number of very successful agencies recently and it troubles me that the place where craft is honoured is no longer the creative department where we are encouraged to concentrate on the BIG IDEA, but in the studio where those big ideas are made real.
You might be a developer, a designer, an ‘art worker’ or an editor but though your tools are now entirely digital, you will remain in gainful employment only if you are a master or mistress of your craft. In the creative department I see no such commitment. The idea is everything and the ‘how’ is contingent.
Agencies are not to be blamed for following the US model of employing a select few, well paid seniors and then burning through armies of graduates and juniors. That is simply how capitalism works. What may haunt them in the future is that there are thousands of ‘Generation Z’ adults now and that they are abandoning the media consumption patterns of their parents in a frenzy of autocreation.
They don’t care about your Cannes Lions or your D&AD Pencils, but they do recognise good design and good writing when they see it. If agencies are not set up to satisfy basic human aesthetic appreciation, the consumers will continue to turn away from their advertising because they think your BIG IDEA is ‘lame’ or, worse, ‘a dank meme’.
And remember, in this new world, the means of production is now in the hand of every smart 18 year old with a hacked wi-fi password.
Be afraid, be very afraid.
Jonathan Spooner is consulting creative director at Spoon Creative