Swaay co-founder, Trish Schmitt, sits with Susan LaScala Wood, a co-creator of www.over30under30.com (read as: Over "30 under 30"), an online conversation with experienced (ie, nearing or over 50) ad industry creatives about getting older in the business, how the industry has changed, and how they've persevered. The two first met in ad school in Atlanta, where they were working hard to put their portfolios together. Fast forward 20+ years later and they've been reunited as freelance partners, posting about their work days on their shared Instagram account, bossywomen.biz, and supporting each other in their other creative endeavors.
TRISH:First of all, congrats. This project is being talked about quite a bit. How did it come about?
SUSAN: Thanks…and somewhat randomly, really. It all started when I saw a post by another writer -- my now partner in this, Rob Rooney. He had written an article that touched upon the topic of awards lists – and the ageist nature of the ones specifically titled "30 under 30" and "40 under 40". I had written to him saying the article really resonated with me and half-joked that we should put a list together that was titled "50 Over 50". Next thing you know, we set up a meeting to actually do it. Of course, we had to figure out what "it" was exactly. Such lists actually do exist. We knew we wanted to keep it focused on the creative department. But I think our initial thoughts were much less optimistic in tone. We considered highlighting people who essentially got pushed out of the industry and were forced to do other things – whether it was teach or open a coffee shop. But ultimately we decided to switch our focus to people who were persevering in advertising or another creative field, featuring stories that would be inspiring to us and give more hope than despair.
TRISH:How did you choose the people to highlight? There does seem to be quite a few more men than women.
SUSAN: Well, not-so-surprisingly, in an industry that's known for being ageist, not every older creative is comfortable talking about age. And I'd say this was especially true of female creatives we reached out to, especially at first. A lot more (though definitely not all) of the responses that fit into the category of "I love what you're doing but I just don't want to out myself" were from women. But while this may be disappointing, it's actually not surprising to me at all – especially as a woman who's experienced various iterations of judgement throughout my career. I totally get it, and I don't judge their discomfort.
Not only do women have the "baby thing" held against us, our grey hairs are somehow more offensive. And obviously this is not exclusive to the ad industry, but it's true to just about every industry that exists.
That said, I think the more amazing people who joined the conversation, the more that conversation extended offline into offices (and bars), the more women and men were not just less worried about sharing their own stories and perspectives, but they were actually quite excited and enthusiastic. While we'd started our process by reaching out to talented creatives we both knew personally, soon people started approaching us, nominating themselves or someone else – and yes, that group included women. There was a palpable shift where an inspired community mentality began to replace individual fear.
TRISH:Do you think most older people in advertising have been affected by ageism.
SUSAN: I do. Though most of the time I don't think it's overt. These days, employers and recruiters are saavy enough to know it's not exactly cool (or legal) to make decisions based on age. So the way we are affected tends to be much more subtle: agencies choose a cheaper (ie, younger) candidate. Or we're not given the juicier projects. Or maybe we're a better creative than we are a manager…and we find there's no longer a place for us. I do think it's interesting, perhaps even telling, that a LOT of the talented older creatives we talked to are now freelancing. There are only so many ECD and CCO jobs out there, so that's likely one reason. But another is that freelance allows creatives to actually create…while getting paid their worth, most of the time anyway. And with so much less politics and BS – two things a person can definitely grow tired of after 20+ years.
TRISH:Overall, did you get a sense that women's experiences differed from men's?
SUSAN: No…and hell, yes. There are certainly many commonalities among the genders as we've gotten older in the industry together. The introduction of the digital age that sent clients and employers into a Snapchat-user hiring frenzy being a big one. You'll find plenty on this topic in many of the interviews. But there were definitely some differences as well. Many of the women we featured were total rock stars, creatives who were icons to me. And even though most of them would say ageism, to their knowledge, hasn't overtly affected them, sexism inevitably comes into play.
Nearly every woman who is a parent voiced the extra tough challenges that came along in their 30's and 40's. Advertising is not an easy place to be a mom (not just as opposed to being single…but, yes, even as opposed to being a dad). There's a feeling that we can't talk about our kids without fear of judgement that we can't possibly be great at both. On the site, Kimberly Harrington talked about an employer she loves to work with, who actually gets it right:
"Aside from the work itself, which I love, it's just incredible what a relief it is to work with all women including other mothers. It's incredible what a relief it is to not apologize for your life or not have to lie about needing to pick up a kid at school. I can't emphasize enough how much mothers are trained to hide or apologize for their lives. It's gross."
I couldn't have summed it up better.
Of course, there are also female creatives in the industry who do not have kids. But even they are often penalized – for simply being child-bearing age. It makes many bosses wary.
I think sexism has also come into play when it comes to promotions. I've seen many men at my own agencies get promoted before women who were at least as talented. One female creative I know was given an "apprenticeship" instead of an ACD title, while no guy at the agency had ever had to take that pre-step. When this sort of thing happens, it puts women on a slower track, which certainly has a cumulative effect as she ages. I also think employers are less forgiving of a women's perceived weaknesses – this is yet another thing I've both witnessed and experienced time and time again.
TRISH:Is there anything within the stories that surprised you the most?
SUSAN: Nothing that "surprised" me per se. What I was most affected by, though, was the incredible compassion that emanated from all of these talented people. As they share their perspectives on challenging issues within the industry, it's not purely a bitch session, and it's not a "look at me, aren't I amazing" promo piece. It's an honest conversation, fearless and real. And while there are some incredible pieces written by women, it's not exclusively a gender thing – I think both genders can relate to, empathize with and be inspired by each other's stories. It wasn't just women who were affected by Jane Evan's angry, honest, powerful female-centric words, including (maybe even especially) the ones about menopause.
TRISH:What are you hoping will come out of this?
SUSAN: What's been particularly rewarding about the project is hearing from people who've been struggling at this time in their career, thanking us for putting the site out there. I think it's helped them feel valid that yes, the industry has changed and no they are not alone. It also encouraged them to look inward and really think about what they are passionate about. If it's still advertising, great, keep learning, keep growing, keep going. But if it's not, maybe it's time to get out – and maybe that's not such a bad thing.
But, I hope more comes out of it than just self-reflection and a conversation. I hope creative leaders start to think about and actually implement solutions. And I hope those solutions take off as fast and furiously as the open office plan (for the record, I am NOT a fan – but damn, that concept really stuck). Personally, I think one of the most intriguing ideas that was tossed out was essentially creating a new position called "Very Senior Creative" (credit to the brilliant Madeleine Morris for the term, though others touched upon the topic). This would be someone who is not managing, but creating and mentoring. And I really do think there are plenty of people who would be thrilled to have the position, even if it would pay less than their last Creative Director job. Maybe they could get promoted to Very, Very Senior Creative. That would be amazing to see. I also would love to see a shift in the way we all view older creatives – yes, especially women. Hitting 40 should be a celebration, not something we should feel we have to hide. I mean, look at the alternative! I know the more interviews I read, the more pride welled up inside me that I am a part of this incredible, inspiring group.
WRITTEN BYTrish Schmitt