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Here’s an email I received from someone last week, and my response to that email. I thought I’d share.

Dear Heidi,

This is a question I have asked myself since I moved to Toronto at the age of forty-four. Is there any consensus as to how old is too old to expect to be part of a creative department in an ad agency? Once inside, there is a great disparity between generations, and for some of us “oldies” that’s part of the excitement and challenge, the giving of experience and the joy of learning from young people, but in all truth, and I know you have no trouble being candid…how old (approximately) is too old?

~ Senior

Dear Senior,

I will love you forever for asking this question. Thank you. There is no such thing as too old. In the same way there is no such thing as too female, too short, too tall, too young, too black, or too anything.

Things no individual can do anything about.

What there is, is too lazy, too closed minded, too afraid, too unmotivated. Things that are within the power of every individual to do something about.

If we’re looking for an excuse, ‘too old’ is as good an excuse as any. Be honest with yourself. You know you’re not too old. If there is some other reason that you no longer want to work in this business, then make it about that. “I’m sick of it.” “I’m bored.” “I want to try something new.” It could be that.

About a week ago, someone who is older than many people in the business told me that this business should be people who are in their 30’s, no room for someone like her. “What a crock of sh**.” I replied. “How many times in the past three months, have you been in a conversation with someone where you had NO clue what they were talking about?” She couldn’t think of a time.

Right. Because she reads more books than most people I know. Regardless of age. Because she is immersed in the latest technology, she’s up on popular culture, she is ambitious and driven, and constantly thinking of what is coming next, where this is going, whether this has already come and gone. And she studies people.

And the study of people is what makes someone good at this business.

I might even go so far as to say that the more people you’ve met and studied, the better you get at it.

There is nothing special about being in an agency and having disparity of generations. Isn’t that present every place you go and in every possible social interaction on the planet – with the possible exception of KinderGym?

Within all those interactions there is the opportunity to watch how micro-cultures respond to your work. Shouldn’t an agency be the same?

(By the way, you’re just on the other side of the fence now!!! Just like once you’re were the young fresh-faced person in the creative department, now you’re one of the ‘seniors’ that you were terrified of when you were the fresh-faced one. Natural. Congratulations! Enjoy it.)

I think the industry has over-corrected, and we need some more balance. I think what we’ve just experienced (economy) will cause it to happen naturally – seniors previously beyond reach are now within striking distance, juniors going through their first layoffs who were on the fence about the realities of this business will leave it, and a whole mash up of things will happen to the layers in between.

A few weeks ago, I was giving some tough-love feedback to an unemployed designer on the haphazard state of his portfolio. Just plain sloppy, like he couldn’t be bothered. The entire time he was telling me stories about the hurdles he had overcome when a much younger man to get noticed, get jobs, and get hired.

The two conversations seemed like a disconnect for me.

About a week later I thought, “Why doesn’t he do that anymore? He’s using it as an example of him demonstrating to me that he knows what to do, so why isn’t he doing it anymore?”

Maybe that’s the difference, and why people think they might be too old for this business. Is there an expectation that after a certain amount of time you shouldn’t have to try as hard? Or jump through the same hoops to get what you want to happen to happen? I think it’s the opposite, you have to try harder! You have to beat the stereotype!

And if you think about it, young people have to do the same thing if they want to stand out. They have to beat the stereotype that they’re a lazy Gen Y ne’er do gooder.

My final thought, which I also shared with my friend a couple of week ago: Do you think David Ogilvy ever thought he was too old for this business?

I don’t.

I think the only people who are too old for this business, are those that think they are.

Plus, I’ll put money on the assumption that the ad biz isn’t the only thing they think they’re too old for.

~ heidi