No country for old men: Joining a digital agency at 60

After moving back to Australia following three decades in agencies overseas, Iain White realised he didn't want to be relegated to the world of consulting. Adland was calling, but it looked very different from the place he'd started at all those years ago.

An old adman joins the digital world. 100 days in and he’s still there. And enjoying it.

What? Who? Why? How? Where?

If you’re “old” and more familiar with the traditional advertising world, than the digital one (yes I know we are all ‘through-the line’, but bear with me), this might be relevant to you. If you think you’re young and are over 35, sorry, you’re not – and unless you’re Benjamin Button, you won’t get any younger either.

Returning to Melbourne three years ago, after a dozen years based in Tokyo and Bangkok as the office planning head/regional planning head on various major accounts, I thought coming “home” to Australian adland would be a piece of cake and maybe a few beers too. It was when I left.

I was wrong.

I used to love recruiters and they loved me. Now I found most seem to have vanished, all but one didn’t reply to phone calls or messages, and the one that kindly did, suggested that my 30 plus years experience in creative and major multi-national accounts would make me an ideal consultant. As would my grey hair.

So that’s what I became for the next two years.

I enjoyed running workshops in Oz, training marcoms clients overseas and helping a couple of other agencies in the region with effectiveness and Agency-of-the-Year award submissions.

On the surface all was great. Underneath I was missing the daily contacts with colleagues, clients and creative challenges.

Then advertising saved my life!

Well, a specific advert. A vacancy. Online. For a planning director. At an agency I hadn’t heard of.

HardHat, a Melbourne-based “creative agency built for today” was looking for a planning director.

I met them once and fell in love. Met them twice and wanted to get married. Met them three times and had found a new home together.

Two connected ironies weren’t lost on me.

Firstly, that the majority of new hires, training and acquisitions of the major agency networks are in the digital area. So if all the traditional agencies were looking for young digitally savvy guns, what would a digital agency want someone older and more experienced in the traditional communications world for?

Secondly, that while I’d never considered joining or approaching a “digitally born” agency, the reality was they didn’t want someone in the role primarily for their digital planning skills.

They reassured me, and it’s been true, everyone else in the company is a digital expert – they have no shortage of them.

So what can grey hair (I was 60 when I joined them and 61 now) bring a young agency, other than raising the average age from 25 to 27?

I think a few things, and am glad the agency did too.

A lot of digitally-led work is project work. It might be website builds, social media, community management, tactical campaigns.

But as projects, digital agencies are often briefed after the “lead brand agency” and may for larger clients, need to base their work on existing brand and communication ideas, even repurposing the client’s existing creative assets for the digital world.

It’s good business, growing business, profitable business. No wonder the major communication groups/management consultancies are so keen to enter the space.

So what’s it been like?

The first 100 days was a bit like Adam Sandler’s Billy Madison going back to school. Older than the other kids and with lots to learn and unlearn.

The mantra old adland proudly boasted was “Do you want it on Tuesday, or do you want it right?”

Most clients don’t buy that anymore. They want it right and by Monday!

The similarities in being consumer-centric with a passion for brand, creative communications and effectiveness, plus a drive to improve the quality of our creative work has made the agency a welcoming new home.

Is there a broader lesson to be learnt by the old folks out there?

One is obvious. Keep up to date! Not all channels are the same. They never were in the traditional world, they aren’t in digital either.

The second, not all digital agencies are the same either. You may well have skills that a digital agency is looking for, not digital ones, but in complementary areas such as your passion for communications, consumers, creativity, culture. If you find each other you may well like your new country more than the old one.

Welcome home.

Iain White is planning director at Hardhat Digital.


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