Thinking Ahead: Can't Be Done

The other day, a potential client said to me that his general agency claimed to have had lots of experience talking to boomers.

I replied that the operative word in that sentence was "had."

After all, any agency over 20 years old was certainly built on the back of the boomers.

But that was then, this is now.

In the never-ending battle to stay "current" with the coveted 18-34 markets, general agencies grow younger and younger each year. Along the way, the boomer "experts" have been replaced with Gen Y experts followed by Gen X experts. So while there might still be a handful of boomers at my client's general agency*, for the most part, the experienced boomers have long-since moved on to other pastures.

In fact, today the average age of a general agency creative person is 28. And nationally, less than 5% of agency personnel are over the age of 50.

I asked the same client if he would hire a youth marketing expert who hadn't worked with kids since 1990. His answer was obvious, and he immediately got the comparison to general agencies and their past knowledge of boomers.



Boomers are constantly evolving, and turning 50 is affecting them in ways never seen before because it is the demarcation of a new and uncharted life stage. A life stage you can't understand at 25 or 30 or even 40.

On or around my 50th birthday, someone asked me what was the most surprising part of turning 50. Without thinking I replied, "Cliché's become meaningful."

I don't know if I'd heard that phrase somewhere else or if I was just especially insightful at that particular moment. Either way, I agree with me.

When you reach 50 and beyond, suddenly all the worn-out, over-used, yeah-right things that you had heard said and ignored your entire life magically transform into excruciatingly true pearls of wisdom.

You've got to stop and smell the roses.

You don't know what you've got till it's gone.

Youth is wasted on the young.

I could go on, but I won't since you've already done that for me in your head. The point is that being over 50 changes our point of view in ways we couldn't have foreseen. We begin to think differently, about almost everything.

Not negatively or badly, just differently.

Another personal example:

When I as 32, I might have been just as absent-minded as I am today. But back then, when I left my car keys in the house, I thought, "I'm a creative director and too focused on my work to think of boring things like car keys." Now that I'm 52, when the same thing happens, I immediately think, "Oh, no, early-onset Alzheimer's," and then chuckle to myself a bit because I really have always been this way.

An entirely different reaction based solely on the fact that I am 20 years closer to the time when Alzheimer's could be a concern. And, in fact, it is a very big concern for adults 50+ ... even more so than financial security.

All of the above is a long-winded way of saying there's a very good reason that an AARP study found that the majority of people over 50 feel advertising either portrays them negatively or ignores them altogether, it's because most advertising is created by people at least 20 years younger. People who aren't like-minded to their audience.

The bottom line is this: it's impossible to "get" being 20 or 30 years older until you are.

That's right, I said impossible. Not even if you read this article.

So the next time your agency tells you that they really understand boomers, simply ask to see their driver's licenses. And as you scan the birthdates, remember another old cliché ...

It takes one to know one.

*We actually did a bit of espionage and discovered that the "general agency" in question had well over 500 employees. The number over the age of 50? Nine. On my calculator that's less than 2%.

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15 comments about "Thinking Ahead: Can't Be Done ".
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  1. Lynette Perkins from Los Angeles Newspaper Group, July 13, 2009 at 12:27 p.m.

    Got that right-can't think ahead. From someone who was stoked to be 40 and freaked out by 41, I've come to realize that I can't say things like 'I understand' without truly analyzing whether I do. Because I try to keep up with anything up and coming doesn't mean I really know what is going on with gen y, and because I have a 76 year old father doesn't mean I have a clue about anything he's going through. I think it's wise to point out this type of difference in that consulting those truly 'in the know' has helped me fulfill my role as a trainer for online advertising in a newspaper group full of 'print reps'. Thanks for the great article.

  2. Hugh Simpson from WOW! Presentation, July 13, 2009 at 1:02 p.m.

    So true! So why not bring more people like me a 63 year young 30 plus year vet of Public REALations and Advertising experience on board to tell the REAL story as even someone 52 like yourself does not know a great deal about us older Babyboomers.

  3. Lynn Colwell from The Green Year, LLC, July 13, 2009 at 1:04 p.m.

    Agree absolutely. When I allowed my hair to go white (or gray, depending on the light, LOL), I IMMEDIATELY noticed how differently I was treated. It's absolutely mind-blowing. No one who has not tried this understands how it changes others' perceptions of you. Until you walk a mile in ANYONE's shoes, you really can't understand them. And then of course, all Baby Boomers can't be understood by only walking in your own shoes either.

  4. Bruce Christensen from PartyWeDo, July 13, 2009 at 1:25 p.m.

    After 50 is just the beginning of baby boomer life changes.

    Sarah and I found a huge change in our "need" for social media once we became empty-nesters. Now Skype, Facebook and our family online gift exchange have become our life-line to our children.

    The empty nest boomers are a lot different than 20-30 somethings with no children. They just can't relate to the hole that is left when these children leave.

    Before that event changed our life, we didn't give the social web much of a serious look. Now we pay attention to every tool that brings the memory back.

  5. Jonathan Hutter from EMHS (Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems), July 13, 2009 at 1:51 p.m.

    While I'm happy to be a rare breed (recently joining the 5% rank), my experiences, and those of my peers, are not only for me to know or to find out. You just need experience, and the ability to observe and relate.

    Any good strategist or creative in this business has to be able to relate to others experiences. The idea that you need someone exactly in the target audience to craft a strategy and message for that audience just isn't so. I can speak to, and I know, enough 76 year old people that I can relate to and figure out what is important to them. I will know I'm right when I ask them or see how they respond.

    Likewise, I don't need a creative who is a teenager to create effective teen marketing programs.

    On the other hand, I've seen work that woefully misses the mark, because whomever created it saw the situation strictly through one prism (their own), and could not relate to another person's experience.

    However, this problem can be solved, through diversity! An agency solely made up of 50+ers can be as narrow minded as one made up solely of 30-somethings. Having more than one perspective or experience allows the message to be broader than one person's take, or one viewpoint. It allows new thinking to enter the equation.

    I'll take the broad perspective any day.

  6. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, July 13, 2009 at 2:05 p.m.

    Thank you, all.

  7. Kim Barrington from the kimbro agency, July 13, 2009 at 2:24 p.m.

    Finally someone actually said it. I've lately been at home watching television which used to be a favorite pastime I don't deny and now think "who is writing this junk?" "Whatever happened to the good advertising that used to be on television....or rather the brilliant advertising?"

    In fact, I would suggest that many of the problems we are facing today in the economy stems from too many baby boomers being laid off or pushed to retirement. That experience actually counts. Substance more than ever counts and what you have left working are newbies with no more experience with what they are doing than your twelve year old, who is probably wise beyond their years just because they aren't yet jaded and still respect their elders.

    While I do not deny the advantages youth has and what they can offer to the workplace, that average age 28 year old still needs guidance and direction.

    And therein lies the beauty of being older, with it comes wisdom for which no amount of education or numbers of flash cards put before you can make up for.

  8. Brent Bouchez from Five0, July 13, 2009 at 2:39 p.m.

    To: Jonathan Hutter

    I would like to agree with you and for much of my career I might have. But we live in a different time now.

    We are currently experiencing a generation gap even larger than the one we saw in the 60's. PEW Center data released this June states that in a 1969 Gallup Poll, 74% of respondents said there was a generation gap. In 1979, a CBS/New York Times poll showed that number had dropped to 60%. In the new PEW study, the share that say there is a generation gap has jumped to 79%. Importantly, this view is shared equally by young, middle-aged and older respondents.

    A gap like that suggests very different attitudes towards just about everything, including marketing and advertising.

    And then there's this from Forrester Research--

    --Today’s ad agencies are not well structured to take on tomorrow’s marketing challenges. They are geared to creating “broadcast” messaging in a world that is moving to “narrowcast”. In the future, the new “connected” agency will not only know certain communities, but be active members of that group.--

  9. Tony Burke from MOB, July 13, 2009 at 2:58 p.m.

    This was a great article and I happen to agree with the writer. It is curious why so many agencies think they can tap into the psyche of a boomer with “advertising and marketing experts” under the age of 50! I am a boomer and realize how differently I look at life today compared to the way I viewed life when under 50. I do know one thing, people in their 50’s and 60’s do not like being referred to as senior, despite the plethora of discounts that come with this status hehe!

    Nice job.


  10. Shelly Kramer from V3 Integrated Marketing, July 13, 2009 at 3:57 p.m.

    Great article, Brent, and interesting commentary as well. I, too, am a believer in diversity. Young minds in advertising - creatives and account peeps should recognize the value of older, more experienced minds (and vice versa) and when you can combine that wealth of talent for your clients, some terrific things can be done. I have first-hand experience with this situation, which often leaves me scratching my head in wonder. I have a smart, savvy 26 year old daughter who works for a fairly large agency and wouldn't ever consider asking my advice about a project or an idea. Never mind that I've owned my own agency for 15+ years and started my career at the very place where she is now starting hers. I just laugh to myself at her self-absorption and her arrogance (oh, I do hope she's not reading this!) and figure that sooner or later, she'll figure out that I know a heckuva lot more than she does. Especially in the social media realm, which is particularly mind-blowing to her.

    Bottom line, combining youth and the skills they bring to the table with age and the wisdom and experience they bring to the table is a brilliant marketing strategy. And it should be more widely adopted.

    Terrific job!

  11. Judith Cheney from, July 13, 2009 at 4:02 p.m.

    You hit the right note! I am the first of the boomers and don't feel out of the mainstream at all. Boomers keep up with the times, read "People", are online, have email, text, have cell phones, etc. They do, however, have different interests, concerns, and sensibilites than some younger folks. We're not getting older...we're getting better! Ok, maybe we are getting older, but we're still active (and in my case), still working. Many companies are advertising the wrong way to the wrong people.

  12. Joe Buhler from buhlerworks, July 13, 2009 at 4:24 p.m.

    Great article. Couldn't agree more. Haven't felt being that I was being talked to effectively by most marketers for quite some time now as I don't fit the usual stereo type of the boomer in my personal habits as a consumer or professional activity as a marketer. Recruiters have in the past categorized me as a "strange bird" and that fits the description well. Marketers are challenged more than ever before and only very few rise up to meet that challenge.

  13. Peter Seronick from Freelancer/Emerson College, July 13, 2009 at 4:24 p.m.

    Nothing else to say.

  14. Jonathan Hutter from EMHS (Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems), July 13, 2009 at 5:33 p.m.

    To Brent:

    On your comment back to me. I believe that diversity of opinions helps overcome the gaps and brings new thinking.

    However, I also agree completely with your Forrester example; getting trapped in old ways is a trap. Likewise, getting trapped in the new, and thinking only you know best (as Shelly Kramer's, and mine, and probably many other daughters), is an equal trap. I've sat in many presentations where in-depth questions about the "new" idea are met with, "What do you mean you don't get it?"

  15. David Peterson harvey from The Hidden Art, July 13, 2009 at 10:46 p.m.

    I wonder what the EEOC would have to say about the small percentage of people over 50 working at those agencies. Age discrimination is against the law and, if these statistics are true, there is a fair chance there's a reason.

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