Thursday, March 17, 2016

Ageism in Advertising, by Joe Berkeley


I first became aware of the world’s desire for fresh young faces when I was an on-camera commercial actor. At the age of nine, I dressed as a tiny Patriot in tri-cornered hat and posed with Mr. Pillsbury and his Dough Boy. On another gig, down cobbled street I rode my red Raleigh Chopper while Anita Bryant belted out a jaunty tune about orange juice. Then I got my big break.

I was the featured actor in a commercial about a bar of soap that grew fur. The product, called Fuzzy Wuzzy, sat upon the bathroom counter and over time gained a beautiful coat of fuzz, which in hindsight looked a lot like mold. My on-camera line was, “Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t fuzzy, was he?”

I hung in there as a child star for a good two years and even made the cover of the McDonald’s board game, another ill fated endeavor. But at the age of 11, I was just getting too old for this shit so I took a break to focus on other matters, like climbing trees, sports, and being a kid.

In high school, a call came out that Seventeen magazine was looking for some talent and I obliged. Naturally, I was chosen to appear in the stately publication, as no one could resist the allure of the Joe Fro, a mop of hair that had a life of its own. Editorial didn’t pay much, but the exposure had to be good for my future. Sadly, Amanda Kelly, who never kissed me, not even once, was not impressed.

As college began, my cruel Irish genes turned on me and my beauty began to fade. It was very difficult to endure. I can only imagine how Carrie Fisher feels when she looks back in time and sees herself in the Princess Leah bikini.

Given that my career as a model and actor was effectively over, I figured I should give the other side of the camera a try. The good news was a washed up Seventeen model is a fine fresh face for the advertising industry.

While I did not know it at the time, youth is the fuel that feeds the advertising machine. I found an internship before graduation, and was working 50 hours a week and taking classes. The agency paid me the princely sum of $50 per week, or $1.00 per hour. At the time, the minimum wage was three times that.

But if you wanted to get in the door, you had to start somewhere. This was before the days of advertising finishing schools like Creative Circus, Portfolio Center, and Hyper Island. To start, you had to take a job in the mailroom, or as an intern, or as a driver.

We worked long hours and did our best to create beautiful things. In return, we got awesome benefits like free pizza, tee shirts with the agency name emblazoned upon them, and the chance to carouse with our co-workers. Between the age of 20 and 30, this seemed like a good deal.

Coming of age at 30 meant that you wake up one morning and realize you can’t buy a house with a tee shirt festooned with an agency logo, and no one really cares about the fact that you won a Hatch Bowl award for an ad.

In large meetings, you notice there are older people who are “in management.” They review the ideas, hug the clients, get the deals signed, drive fancy cars, and have big titles. You have to get in on some of that.

Between the ages of 30 and 40 is a beautiful period for the employee of the agency as well as the agency itself. At this age, you are seasoned enough to know what you are doing, and you are okay with working seven days a week. You’re starting to make enough money to do things like put a down payment on a home, purchase a car, and have a family.

The people at the agency talk about how you are “a family.” This makes you feel good because you work long hours and are often travelling to some far away location to meet with the client and talk about an important issue like the crunch-ability of a cracker. Then you go to the shoot, to post production, and finally, after a month, you arrive home.

You hit play and your spouse views your work for 30 seconds, then says, “You were away from home for a month for that?”

Up the ladder you go, becoming “essential personnel,”, running new business pitches, and meeting with clients. There are chicken dinners for good causes that make you think about jumping in front of a train. There are conference calls at all times of the day about items of note, like the cheese viscosity of a new fast food offering.

Between the ages of 40 and 50 this whole “we’re all a family” thing gets a bit dodgy. After all, your mother never laid off your brothers and sisters. So why are people who were in the family on Thursday putting their possessions in cardboard boxes on Friday and heading for the elevators? Ah, well, it all comes down to money.

For every 40-50 year-old the agency tosses in the ash can, the agency can hire between two and four twenty-something’s to pull upon the oars. As a result, there are fewer and fewer 40-50 year olds in the agency.

Rather than focusing on the work, the mature executives who still have a seat at the table plot and scheme to kill the other mature executives who are still at the table. Some of the Executive Vice Presidents are leveraged up to the eyeballs, and they have a couple of houses, giant mortgages, useless spouses, and kids who are going to expensive colleges. They will do anything shy of murder to keep their seat so the politics get sporty.

The good news is for those seasoned Creatives who leave agency life to go freelance, you have skills. You can make things. And the less time you spend in meetings, the more time you have to create. And best of all, it is a fresh beginning. You are no longer an “old staffer,” you are a new freelancer. As a rule, advertising loves new.


Joe Berkeley has created work for more than 50 clients including Liberty Mutual, Nike, and Harvard Medical School. He has published more than 100 stories in Sailing World, The Boston Globe, and The Laser Sailor. His work is at joeberkeley.com

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