What is the Path for the “Old Creative?”

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It’s been said before; “ageism is the next frontier in advertising.” Why? Today’s creative industry is at a crossroads – largely thanks to the digital era – which often places innovation and novelty at a higher value than seniority and experience. The problem then, is the misconception that youth and innovation are mutually exclusive; that it’s the young people, the new hires, the millennial workforce that come equipped with all of the innovative, winning ideas. What’s more, their ideas come at a cheaper rate.

But as an industry that’s reliant on its creative forces to deliver measured, accurate messaging that’s timely, relevant and applicable to target demographics, youth is too often mistaken as the easiest route to “going digital,” and those with decades of creative experience are cast to the wayside, their careers capped after achieving a certain level of success. Or is that really the case?

A large part of the issue with ageism in creative roles can be chalked up to a lack of clear and directional skill development within the creative community. Consider the development path of a lawyer or a marketer, who throughout their academic and early-professional lives, have likely taken courses or received formal training in skills like public speaking, leadership or communication, all of which are essential to getting ahead and advancing a career, regardless of specialty. Consider then the development path of a creative – a lifetime of learned, specific, hard skills. The grandest irony, says Allan Wai, Creative Director for NBCUniversal Media, is that for creatives, the further you get along in your creative job, the less creativity you’re actually in charge of.

“I’ve spoken to a lot of senior level creatives who all agree it’s a sense of feeling stuck in this middle management layer that creatives tend to then over-index, sort of like, ‘Okay, so let me pick up more hard skills. Let me learn to code or let me learn UX,’” Wai said.

Wai suggests there be a greater importance placed on the ability to adapt and remain malleable in creative roles, noting that “as you gain more experience, your adaptability becomes more important than your ability.” In other words, focusing on building and improving soft skills, instead of attempting to learn an entirely new set of hard skills, is the key to longevity for creatives in the market today.

Asked what skills senior-level creatives need to be learning to stay ahead, Wai said there’s a growing importance on knowing how to listen, understand and being able to interpret what you’re trying to achieve.

“As a creative, you’re not often challenged, for example, by someone in marketing who just doesn’t like the color red. You need to be able to explain why red works, but also be able to listen, understand them and then realize, ‘Okay, so it’s not that they don’t like red, but this other thing they associate with red,’ and then figure out how to solve it.”

While many would argue older creatives today are faced with a choice – achieve executive status or seek a career change – Wai assures that readying yourself with mentorship, leadership and communication skills (soft skills that so often accompany career training in most other professional fields) can act as the lifeline to career longevity and sustainability in the creative market.

The future for old creatives doesn’t have to mean getting put out to pasture, says Wai. Instead it can mean the betterment of the creative role as it grows into the type of senior-level leadership that exists in so many other professions. In a time where our professional lives seem to span our lifetimes and our retirement seems more and more far off, providing young people with an incentive to join a career in creative, where promise exists beyond the prime of their career, is essential, or we risk losing the next generation of creative leaders.

And let’s face it, we need them now more than ever.

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