What Pro Sports Can Teach Us About Getting Older in Advertising

Or, why I'm not ready to retire gracefully

If there's anything we've learned from pro sports, it's that athletes do not age well. 

Sure, we've had Jim Brown, Bjorn Borg, Barry Sanders and Ted Williams, all of whom retired exactly when the time was right. (Williams' hitting his 521st home run in his final Red Sox at-bat was a moment of damn near Homer-esque epic mythology.) 

But for every Sandy Koufax or Calvin Johnson going out in their physical (and mental) prime, countless others didn't hang up their cleats, sneakers, skates or gloves when they should have, vainly clinging to The Dream until their highlight reel became a nightmarish, cringeworthy horror flick. 

Who can forget Willie Mays looking like a shell of his Hall of Fame Giants self in a Mets uniform? Or Joe Namath on the Rams, throwing wobbly, wounded ducks with zero cartilage left in his knees? Or dick-pic-era Brett Favre in a Jets uni, lumbering around the field like he'd just hotboxed a pack of Camels and soiled his Wranglers? Hell, Muhammad Ali, Evander Holyfield, Chuck Liddell and others were practically boxing kangaroos for beer money at local carnivals by the time they punched out. 

Myriad other cautionary tales had one moral: Please retire with your dignity—not to mention your brain cells, knee ligaments, marriages and bank accounts—intact. 

Now, advertising isn't sports. It obviously doesn't take as much of a toll on we "aging" members as football or hockey, unless you count Red Bull-fueled pitch all-nighters or torn rotator cuffs at company softball games. But there are a few things older people in our business (like myself) can learn from athletes and how they do, or don't, retire gracefully. 

Unlike athletes' bodies, our creative brains—minus the cells eviscerated by martinis and blow in the '70s and '80s—only get bigger, stronger and faster. It's like our creativity gets all the benefits of Barry Bonds-esque steroid cycles without those meddling side effects like rage blackouts, gigantism, backne and gorilla fur growing inside our eyeballs. 

Yes, the more we've concepted, problem-solved, sold, compromised, reasoned and troubleshooted over the years, the more valuable we are. Our tangible product (creative performance) improves while a pro athlete's product (physical performance) deteriorates. It's why you never see a 55-year-old middle linebacker or a power forward driving to the rack in a Lark scooter. 

So, by this logic, experienced people in advertising should be more valued, right? 

Wrong. 

The median age in our industry is still 39. A survey conducted by Campaign and MEC, detailed in this great Alex Murrell piece, revealed that 42 percent of advertising and marketing employees have witnessed ageism against a co-worker, 32 percent have experienced it themselves, and 79 percent of folks in our industry believe it's ageist. 

But pigeonholing us ad veterans as washed-up isn't just ethically, morally or socially misguided, it's also bad business. When you've done something so well for so long, you develop a muscle memory. A quick-twitch first step worthy of Usain Bolt. An invaluable sixth creative sense that most younger ad pros—no fault of their own birthdates—simply don't possess yet, lacking those proverbial, Malcolm Gladwellian 10,000 hours. 

So it's baffling to me that agencies, and even supposedly more efficiency-conscious brands, are still Children of the Corn'ing experienced folks—i.e., euthanizing creatives (mostly) when we reach a certain age. And if you got that Children of the Corn reference, you are, indeed, of a certain age. 

But our industry is youth-obsessed on both objective and subjective levels: 

• Objectively, holding companies are buying up all the agencies and cutting as much overhead cost (i.e., higher salaries) as possible. Cue funeral bagpipes. We all know agencies are being outflanked by consultancies, in-house and brand shops poaching top talent, slashed budgets, insane, archaic and totally broken pitch processes, you name it. And we're responding to this disruption with the lowest-hanging-fruit of knee-jerk cost-cutting (i.e., sending older employees out to pasture in favor of youth) versus leveraging decades of experience and insight to spur strategic evolution and transformation. 

But few agencies understand that firing one "expensive" creative and replacing her/him with two cheaper ones is even more shortsighted and self-defeating financially: People over 50 still control the majority of the disposable income and spending power in this country. According to a study by Visa, "consumers over 50 now account for more than half of all U.S. spending ... and are responsible for more spending growth over the past decade than any other generation, including the coveted millennials." So wouldn't agencies would want to hire and retain older ad pros who "speak the language" of those over-50 Spendy von Spendersons? 

• Subjectively, agencies and brands seem to feel that ONLY millennials can market to millennials and other younger targets. Which means the older people still in power at agencies—those with their names on the doors, usually older white males—rush to surround themselves with young, fresh, vibrant kiddos just to make themselves feel equally young, fresh and vibrant. But cozy layers of "CCO insulation" are created at the expense of older, more experienced and valuable employees who might be respected leaders, yes ... but are not agency partners. Who are senior, but not livin' large in the C-suite. Who are just good, hardworking, "employment-at-will" soldiers who can be fired with zero notice and replaced by someone younger and cheaper. 

Am I saying younger people are useless or evil? HELL NO. I've worked with some amazing, talented, smart "kids" who've been doing this half as long as I have, and I'd run through a wall to help get their ideas—not my own—made. Because often those ideas are better than mine, and part of "aging" in advertising is learning and honing the wisdom, lack of ego and self-awareness to guide and nurture younger talent; to know and admit what you don't know; and to champion those who do know, regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, race, cereal preference, favorite NFL team, voting history on The Voice, or whether they prefer their toilet paper "over" or "under." (Note: "under" people are, unequivocally, mindless savages.)

But I am saying that in other industries—law, finance, medicine, science, academia, journalism, etc.—older pros are valued for their proven, invaluable experience and wisdom. In advertising, we're eyerolled at best, euthanized at worst. An IPA Excellence paper by AMV BBDO strategy director Olivia Stubbings revealed that the percentage of the "over 50" workforce in law is 35 percent, finance 22 percent, medicine 28 percent, science 30 percent, etc. 

Advertising? Just 6 percent. In other professions, they get Nobel Prizes and Pulitzers. We get pink slips. 

But if it's a supposed fact that "only millennials can speak to millennials" shouldn't that logic work for us blue hairs, too? In the auto category—full disclosure, I work on an auto brand, so I'm mired in such stats—60 percent of car purchases are made by people 50 and over. Yet, from my experience, it's pulling teeth to show anyone but hot, sexy, Christian Dior-esque twentysomethings in car ads. And on and on. 

All of which returns us to fading athletes. Specifically, the oft-debated case of one in particular: Michael Jordan, arguably the poster child for athletes who hung on too long. 

You all know his otherworldly career and résumé with the Chicago Bulls: 10-time NBA scoring champion; Olympic gold medalist; six NBA titles, culminating with his final championship in 1998. After which he retired—for the second time, following his ill-considered baseball exile in 1994—as a living legend, hero and stone-cold killer seemingly in his title-winning prime. 

Then, after two years of golfing and Hanes ads, he joined the hapless Washington Wizards, first as president of basketball operations, then, a year later, as a hobbled shooting guard at age 38—still young-ish for advertising, but ancient for pro sports. 

He retired again again (for realz this time) in 2003, and most still see his Wizards era as a filthy, embarrassing poop-stain on a legendary career. 

Except it wasn't. Because the old dog, as the cliché goes, had learned new tricks. 

While he used to soar through the air from half-court and posterize dudes with his trademark (literally) "Jumpman" Air Jordan™ dunks, now he had downshifted to a more cerebral, efficient (there's that "old person" term again) game. He posted up younger, less defensively skilled fellow guards and developed a lethal, almost undefendable fadeaway jumper. 

Despite a torn knee ligament cutting his season short after 60 games, he was a legit MVP candidate, one of only two players (along with then 23-year-old Kobe Bryant) to average 25 points, five rebounds and five assists. He had a vintage-MJ-like 60-point game, and a 51-point game. The following season, he averaged 20-plus points per game, scored 30-plus points nine times, and scored 40-plus points three times (the only player in NBA history to score 40 points after he turned 40 years old).

Perhaps even more surprising (and useful for ad agencies), he was reliable. He kept showing up and delivering. Game after game, night after night. He was the only Wizards player to play in all 82 games, averaging 37 minutes per night—which, in advertising terms, is like being 50 and working 82 straight all-nighters on 82 separate pitches. So his durability, along with his stats, meant that even in a sport where you can't easily hide your age, he still clearly had "it." And he turned the Wizards into near playoff contenders.

So why does everyone still consider his Wizards stretch a travesty? Because by that point, the only player he was competing against was his younger self. His own indomitable legacy. His own on-court creativity and domination. His unmatched Bulls career was the only thing that defined him. 

Fact is, from 2001-03, he proved that even with his athleticism "diminished" (by mere mortal standards), he had plenty left in the tank. And while there surely was ego involved—we all have egos—he kept at it not because he needed money. Or even more fame. He did it because he loved the game. And that's one thing we—pro athletes and ad folks—do have in common, and what still drives even us "experienced" creatives in advertising. 

Many of us still flat-out love what we do. 

None of us got into this to get "famous" or for gobs of money. A lot of athletes fell in love with sports as kids out of pure necessity—to stay off the streets and out of gangs; to get out of a troubled house; to make friends and be part of a team; to compete, achieve, strive and win; to make families, schools, communities, states and regions proud. Sure, in some cases fame and money followed. But in the beginning, it was out of love for hearing the crack of a bat, draining a three-pointer, catching a game-winning pass, dishing out an assist, you name it. 

Same goes for many of us who got into advertising. Speaking for myself, it was a way to write and think creatively, defy some more "traditional" career path and not starve at the same time. To work with likeminded souls and push toward a common goal or solution, be it selling Big Macs or BMWs. Yes, "fame" (such as it is in advertising; stop with the "rock star" shit, people!) and money followed for some. But for most, it was and remains a way to scratch a creative itch. To create something tangible from the ether. To work hard doing something we generally enjoy with generally enjoyable people. And to support ourselves and our families in the process. For the visceral thrill of crushing a brief and concepting a solution no one else has—the creative equivalent of a walkoff homer or a buzzer-beating three-pointer.

That's why we advertising blue hairs will still stubbornly attack a creative problem with vigor and, dare I say, youthful enthusiasm whether we're at an award-winning, top-tier agency (like the Chicago Bulls) or a dysfunctional, rebuilding one (like the Washington Wizards). We want to feel that pure thrill and love, even when it's not reciprocated. 

Yes, like Wizards-era Jordan, we may not fly through the air physically anymore. But we've still got that "mental hang time" to posterize most colleagues both conceptually and executionally. We can still be as impetuous and feisty as our younger co-workers, but from my experience, we know which battles to fight, both internally and with clients. Like MJ downshifting to that low-post/fadeaway-jumper game versus pure thoroughbred adrenaline, we can reinvent ourselves over and over to suit any brand or agency. We can use that deep-seated creative muscle memory to improvise, adapt and overcome. And we can still be stone-cold assassins, leveraging pure, efficient brainpower to break ankles like a killer crossover. 

So personally, if I spend my however-many-years-left in this business performing like MJ did in Washington? I'm cool with that. It would mean I've learned a few things. That I didn't get hung up on the past at the expense of the present and the future. That I've been able to adapt and evolve.

Most of all, it would mean I still love this game enough to play until my brain and heart—not torn ACLs or concussions—tell me it's time to hang up my Macbook for good. 

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Mark St. Amant
Mark St. Amant is a freelance creative director and author. See his advertising work, books and more at MarkStAmant.com.