Billy Baxter: I was told “If you’re not an agency CEO by 45, plan a second career.” Why is it still true?

“In the past five years, I’ve seen senior creatives, who’ve been spat out by big agencies, most likely for cost reasons, form their own agencies.”

By Andrew ‘Billy’ Baxter, Founder 24 Hour Business Plan

“If you’re not going to be the CEO of an agency by the time you’re 45, you better start thinking about your second career now,” John Peters said to me and Mark Coad. It was 1994. Mark and I were both 25-years-old.

John was my first boss in advertising. He was the managing director of Y&R Melbourne, and before that had been in similar roles at Ogilvy and Clemenger. He was a brilliant ad man. John built tremendous and trusted client relationships. And he knew what great creative work looked like and its power to move sales. He was also a wonderful mentor to many, including me. I think he nurtured and developed at least 10 future agency CEOs in his time.

I was lucky as a young account manager to report directly to John. As part of Y&R’s Nintendo pitch win, he had promised to personally run the account for the first 12 to 18 months. The only other suit on the account was me. It gave me ample time to observe an experienced ad person at the top of their game, and to ask a thousand questions, and hear a thousand stories.

Those stories were full of wisdom. The tips on how to improve and develop were clear, concise and timely – often delivered in the car on the way back from a client meeting, before the distraction of mobile phones.

One piece of advice from John had a profound impact. From memory, we were chatting in my little office in the old Y&R building on St Kilda Road, which is now the Seasons Heritage Hotel (yes, everyone had an office back then, even the juniors, and the smokers were given the offices with windows). A young Mark Coad (now CEO of Mediabrands Australia) had wandered in – our Media Manager and my cousin.

John asked both of us how many 45-year-olds there were in the office. We weren’t sure where this was leading, and what lesson we were about to learn. We looked at each other, and I think Mark replied with something like “Uh, just you John, so what’s the point?” To which John said, “Well, my point is that usually the only 45-year-old left in an agency is the CEO, so if you two aren’t going to be the CEOs of an agency one day, you’d better start thinking about your second career now.”

I’d like to say that the comment jolted us both into wanting to become agency CEOs one day. Or for the first time highlighted the ageism issue in the ad industry. But that’s not the outtake l took at the time. John continued the story with an AFL analogy: it didn’t matter if you had won a Brownlow Medal for best player in the league, if you have one bad year after the age of 30, you’ll be cut. And he said that was the same with agency CEOs. One bad year after 45 and they’ll replace you with a younger (cheaper) CEO.

That conversation sat with me for more than 10 years. I remember having a discussion with a senior colleague about it, who had switched from running agencies at a young age to becoming a CMO when I was the CEO at Badjar Ogilvy in Melbourne. We talked about the career options post agencies – the ability to switch from agency to client side, or start your own agency in your 30s and 40s, or have a total career shift, or transition into a board career.

Before turning 40, as I became more and more paranoid about John’s words and the increasing evidence of ageism in the industry, I decided to think about boards as an option post-agency life. I’d sat on the committees of local sporting clubs, and even become president of the cricket club. My parents and grandparents were active on committees in the community. I enjoyed it. So it wasn’t a huge leap. And then I was asked if I’d consider joining the board of an AFL club in my late 30s. It dawned on me that people also saw the potential for me sitting on boards.

Around the same time, Rod Bennett, the ‘B’ in Badjar Ogilvy, suggested I join the board of a not-for-profit he’d been involved in, called The Song Room, which I did.

At my 40th birthday party, enjoying a glass of something with both John and Mark, I reminded John of the story he’d told us 15 years before, and that I had decided to join my first board in The Song Room. He laughed and said he couldn’t remember saying it, but he was confident the two of us would make it well past 45 as CEOs.

I made it through to 50 before stepping into my current board and advisory career. Mark continues to be a very successful and well-respected agency CEO in his mid-50s, but John was right: there aren’t enough 45-55 year olds still doing that, particularly at the big multinational agencies.

I find this sad on many levels. Whilst we love the youth and energy of our industry, some of the best creative, media, and client management talent in our industry are in the 50-65 age bracket. In the past five years, I’ve seen senior creatives, who’ve been spat out by big agencies, most likely for cost reasons, form their own agencies and beat the young multinational agency creatives in e-commerce fashion pitches. And in the recent rise of the indies, across creative and media, 45+-year-old founders are well represented.

In the week before Christmas last year, Mark and I had lunch with John, as well as Mike Porter, Mark’s original boss at Y&R. We try to do it every year. John is in his mid-70s and Mike’s in his mid-60s, but the stories and lessons continue to this day. Hopefully, we have been at least half as generous to the generation coming through as they were to us. And that our industry has the sense to find the right balance between the young up-and-comers, and the experience and wisdom only learned through time.

If you’re interested in combatting industry ageism, follow the Experience Advocacy Taskforce

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