by Josh Sklar, Founder / Chief Heretic

With age come wisdom, patience,
and a nod toward reality.

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When I was a teen and twenty-something, others deemed me a “whiz kid” because of my abilities with computer programming/hacking, digital video systems, and finally interactive advertising creative; unsurprisingly I absolutely believed my own press. Now that I’m in my forties, I have developed one new talent, the capacity to look back with a little honesty. When I was a kid, I was able to figure things out quickly and I could be very effective, but I had great big blind spots that it has taken me twenty years to recognize – and there are undoubtedly others of which I still remain haplessly unaware.

What prompted this introspection was a class I was recently conducting in New York for around 80 traditional creatives in one of the largest ad agencies out of the US; the type of place that grants hubris to those employed because, to many, it’s a hallmark of having “made it” in the industry. “How could someone be hired to work here and not be one of the most knowledgeable, most talented people around” goes the thought in their heads and, on occasion, comes spilling out of their mouths. In fact, that seemed to be the air of the ones still in their twenties and thirties, but nearly everyone there I spoke to over the age of, say, thirty-eight, had an entirely different attitude. To a fault, those people were completely open to the notion that they still have a great deal to learn and always will, that their positions are tenuous regardless of how much they know, where they work, what brands they’re on, how long they’ve been there, and even all the success they’ve had up until then; so it’s clear to them that they will need to continue to work at their craft as if they were just being introduced to it.

Conversely, the younger professionals acted as they are wont; they rolled their eyes, they paid scant attention, they sighed loudly at the hours that were a-wastin’, they were glued to their smartphones, and when it came time to demonstrate their expertise through shared exercises, they… completely failed the tasks. They proved that despite having grown up in the new media world, both personally and professionally, they do not possess a keener understanding of their clients’ targets’ motivations more than anyone else. They put forth very weak concepts and campaign ideas that only made use of the token capabilities they have seen hundreds of times before; that we all have seen before. They applied the studied practices and tenets of advertising and marketing to digital environments, mobile apps, and games as if they were more portable versions of TV, print, and radio. They didn’t listen to the history, the positive and negative case studies, the data, the psychology, the mash-ups, the parameters, the technologies, the opportunities; because they work there already and they grew up in it and more importantly, they’re young and if I remember anything about being their age, it’s the dark thought that those who can do and those who can’t teach. So go peddle your papers, pops.

Their older counterparts were able to apply the new techniques and practices they listened to and learned from with deft, fiery creativity, and intelligence, but still expressed they needed more practice and were particularly interested in how they might continue the process of learning the digital stuff even more deeply so they can continue to apply the knowledge to their active briefs and ongoing challenges – like selling the work to clients.

I’ve been reading how the giant holding companies and their agency networks believe that they’ve got it all figured out now. They gave two very clear determinators that everything’s going well. 1) Thirty-five percent of all online ad spend in 2009 was from display ads and 2) They’re winning Webby awards. They’ve convinced highly worried advertisers to invest in programs that report after study after report have all determined to be nearly completely and wholly ineffective (to the point eye-tracking studies show users don’t so much as glance at the side ads and free ad blockers have been downloaded and installed hundreds of millions of times), and an industry seeking credibility has patted itself on the back and said this agency is better than that agency and so that’s that.

They’re getting it, just nowhere near as fast as their ego and business needs are saying. They’re getting it this time because of a driving fear that they may be undone. But turning to the younger groups simply because they’re young is going to be the wrong way ‘round in most cases. My bet is on giving the experienced, mellowed, and open types the leadership reins coupled with ongoing, deep mentoring and coaching that can then be used to direct the young ones who are out to change the world with their energy and capability of believing in themselves utterly and completely. Maybe some of the older folks can help their youthful equivalents uncover their blind spots a few decades earlier and then… then you may end up with a truly excellent whiz kid or two.

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