The Next Stage

May 16, 2017

“Youth is wasted on the young.”

That quote is attributed to George Bernard Shaw, who I suspect offered that quip in reference to the advertising industry.

Shaw’s famous quote was on my mind as I marked my 51st birthday last Friday. It’s not lost on me that in the creative agency world, I’m an old guy. Like, Ruth Gordon in “Harold & Maude” old.

Much has been written about rampant ageism in the agency world. This story in Campaign lays the issue bare. It’s not a pretty picture. In short, unless you find yourself in management by age 40 in this business, you can pretty much expect to be teaching or starting a nonprofit community theatre by the time you hit your early 50s.

What is it about our industry that leads to such a devaluing of our most experienced creatives?

I recently watched a virtuoso stand-up bass player absolutely enthrall a packed house at the famed Blue Note in New York City. He was in the midst of a headlining gig that would run two sets a night for five nights. This was an endurance test. He was in full command the evening I saw him. His long fingers draped over the strings like a mop head as he pulled sounds out of that bass that I’m convinced had never been made before. The rest of the band, wonderfully accomplished jazz musicians in their own right, watched in reverence as he took solo after solo. It was a deeply moving experience, partly because I knew I was witnessing someone absolutely at the top of his game — and he was 30 years my senior.

That bass player was Ron Carter, and his run at the Blue Note was in celebration of his 80th birthday. 80! Carter holds the distinction as the most-recorded jazz bassist in history, with more than 2,200 credits to his name. He was a member of the Miles Davis Quintet and has played with nearly everyone who has mattered in jazz and beyond. Carter won two Grammys when he was in his 50s and holds an honorary doctorate from the Berklee College of Music. In short, Ron Carter goes down as perhaps the finest stand-up bass player we’ll ever know — and he’s still proving it at age 80 as a headliner on one the one of the most important stages in music.

I’m an old guy in an industry that worships youth. As I think about the next phase of my career, I’m painfully aware of that. I’ve never felt more in command of my work, and believe my best years remain ahead of me. But with each passing birthday, I also understand that others around me are predisposed to believe otherwise. More than ever, I have to be aware of that, and avoid providing validation. (I know — offering anecdotes about George Bernard Shaw, jazz musicians and Ruth Gordon doesn’t help.)

I’ll never be Ron Carter. Few of us ever reach the level of virtuosity. But for nearly 30 years, I have loved working in this industry because it’s the best creative outlet I’ve been able to find for my particular talents. I’m an idea guy. And while I have a pact with some of my trusted colleagues to push me out into sea on an ice floe if I stop bringing creative value around here, I’m in the rare and lucky position of generally controlling how the rest of my career will play out. But, as I continue to roll on toward my 60s and beyond, I know that I have to continue to reinvent myself and work even harder to stay fresh and relevant.

I know there are bigger stages ahead, and I want to play on them. Luckily, this business still worships ideas even more than youth.