Joe’s bio is a reminder that what most defines us as creatives isn’t the agencies where we’ve worked, but the lives we’ve lived, the unique experiences that have helped shape our equally unique voices.
You know, experiences like being adopted at just a few months old, losing your dad at a young age, dabbling in juvenile delinquency shortly after, and ultimately dropping out of high school (in spite of super high test scores and encouraging counselors who beg you to stay). Yup, experiences like Joe’s that gave him hurdles to soar over and demons to conquer (for the most part) and that helped him become the smart, resilient, loving and loved creative human he is today. And that creative human now has an Art Center degree, nearly four decades of ad experience, some shiny awards, a pretty awesome YouTube channel and an even more awesome son. Go, Joe!
Is ageism in the industry something you thought about in your 30s? Your 40s?
In my 30s, I was already used to being older than my peers because I had a bit of a sordid past growing up in San Francisco (long story) and had dropped out of high school in my sophomore year. By the time I went back to school as a young adult, I was already a few years older than my counterparts at CCSF. And by the time I graduated from Art Center I had even more years on the other “kids” in my class. (But, to borrow from Ronald Reagan, I would never hold their youth and inexperience against them.)
In my 40s I guess I was starting to notice some signs of potential ageism in the industry. But it was never black and white. After all, there were many other factors that could have destroyed one’s advertising career back then: office politics, sexism, racism, drug addiction, losing a big account and general ineptitude, just to name a few. So “ageism” per se never seemed like a big deal to me personally.
Is ageism something that’s affected you? What are some of the challenges you faced as a person who was getting older in the business? Do tell.
This is a tricky question. I wish I knew the answer. Because ageism is something that happens behind the scenes. In the backs of people’s minds. And it’s something that rarely can be verified openly. I would have to say that it HAS become more challenging to find and get creative gigs on the open market as I’ve gotten older, despite having a solid book, reputation and attitude. And I suppose that any rational person would have to assume that at least one small part of the reason would be because of my age. I guess it does kind of make sense. After all, with the slow shift from creative-driven shops to data-driven ones, and with the push to get more work done in less time by fewer humans, agencies have been hiring younger and more tech-savvy employees, identifying the ones with higher potential, and then throwing promotions at them to keep them around. The result of all this is that the labor force, including mid-level management, seems to be getting younger and younger all the time. And, to preserve the authority of these more youthful managers, you can see why agencies might shy away from hiring more “senior” creatives to work under them. It’s unfortunate, because I’ve always felt that the best managers, creative or otherwise, weren’t afraid to hire the best and strongest people for their team, regardless of age or experience level.
"To preserve the authority of these more youthful managers, you can see why agencies might shy away from hiring more 'senior' creatives to work under them."
Tell us about your own creative journey. What are your thoughts on where you are now, compared to your mindset when you were in the beginning of your career?
Not a lot has changed with me since I first entered the industry. I wish I had done more great ads. But I’m grateful for all the great stuff I was able to be part of. I guess I’m kind of stubborn. Or maybe just naive? I continue to believe that in the long run, true creativity, talent and hard work will ultimately be rewarded. But as I get older, I’m starting to realize that the rewards aren’t always a steady paycheck and a dependable full-time gig. The ad business is a shark tank. You just have to learn how to swim faster if you want to survive.
Did the reality of the ad industry contribute to the decisions you made/the path you’ve taken?
Yes. This really is a no-brainer. Of COURSE the reality of the ad industry contributed to my decisions and career path. You can work your ass off and be the most talented creative in the room (not that I would know anything about that), but if the right door doesn’t open at the right time, then nothing happens. In this business, you have to constantly update your portfolio and self-promo stuff so everything’s ready to go at any given moment. Then you simply throw yourself to the mercy of the Universe. My thought: always prepare for the worst and hope for the best. But at the end of the day, you have to play with the cards you’re dealt.
What do you feel creative people over 50 can offer over someone 20 years their junior, things that are unappreciated, or just plain overlooked?
Craftsmanship. Life experience. Metamucil.
What is your advice to people who are nearing or over 40 in the ad industry?
Forget your age and always continue to make new friends. Experience new things. Don’t become complacent. Don’t blame others if you haven’t done everything you can to make your life and career better. Always stay true to your own creative spirit. Stay positive. Have fun.
"During the COVID pandemic I taught myself video editing and created a fun YouTube channel to keep my creative skills honed. It’s called Joe Bui Desert Trippin’. I just turned the video camera on my phone on and started talking. It was very crude, but also very honest. And boom, a new creative door had been opened."
How are you approaching the next 10 years? What does your future hold?
Wow, you’re really making me think here, aren’t you? I can answer the first part of your question, but the second part will be pure speculation. In human years, I’m starting to get close to traditional retirement age, but stubbornly I have no intention of easing up on my creative endeavors. I really don’t think I have a choice in the matter. It’s just in my blood. I’m hoping the industry I’ve known and loved for over 25 years will continue to provide me with opportunities to practice what I love doing. But I have no intention of being at its mercy, so I'm also creating my own opportunities.
For example, during the COVID pandemic I taught myself video editing and created a fun YouTube channel to keep my creative skills honed. It's called Joe Bui Desert Trippin’. The whole thing came about pretty organically. And, in some ways, accidentally. You see, my son lives with my ex in Las Vegas, and the more time I can spend with him, the better it is for both he and I. So I try to drive out as often as I can. And as you know, the LA-Vegas-LA drive can be really boring. After doing it so many times, I started becoming curious what was out there, just off the main highway and just out of site from the millions of cars whizzing by.
I started making a point to bring my camera on every trip, and for years I’d take little side trips to photograph whatever strange, interesting or beautiful things I could discover in the process. I pretty much did it just because it was fun and exciting. But to be honest, I guess I had the idea that maybe I’d have a photo exhibit or something at some point? (There really is a lot of cool stuff out there, if you just take the time to look.) Well, one day, after seeing some other vloggers' channels on YouTube, I just turned the video camera on my phone on and started talking. It was very crude, but also very honest. And boom, a new creative door had been opened.
After all my years in the ad business, I had always been the guy behind the scene. Working with my partners to come up with the cool concepts, the VISION of what the idea would be. Well, now with me shooting the content, me doing the research and being the on-camera talent, and me in charge of all the editing and post-production, I had to quickly learn the hands-on process of video production. And don’t even get me started on audio!
Well, once I posted that first video, I was pretty much hooked! I watched it and knew I could improve my story-telling skills in so many ways. I start planning new adventures. I believe it was my fourth episode where I was able to convince my son to be in the video with me, so that one has a very special meaning.
When people ask me about the channel, I usually describe it as my “hobby” because I’m just doing it to have some fun while I hone my creative skills… and learn some new ones. Where it all leads is a mystery. I know a lot of YouTubers are only on the platform to be commercially successful. You can literally watch YouTube videos about how to make YouTube videos. So the tricks for boosting the viewership algorithm are all out there for everyone to see. And to copy.
I want my channel to be more personal. A window into my own unique quest for beauty, adventure and those “magical” moments that happen when you least expect them. Perhaps the greatest thing about these videos is that they will live long after I’m gone. And people who never met me personally can have a sense of who I was and my weird sense of humor. Hopefully, they will get a kick out of the videos. Maybe learn something. Or enjoy venturing to a place that they themselves cannot physically go to themselves.
As far as my YouTube “hobby” and my advertising/design “career,” I believe both can co-exist in harmony because of the complementary nature of the different disciplines required for each effort. My advertising skills make me a better YouTuber. And my video storytelling skills make me a better advertising creative.
What do you see as potential solutions for ageism in the industry? Any thoughts on possibly unionizing?
Not sure there’s an easy answer here. Unionizing might just piss people off and further drive the two sides into opposite corners. But maybe it’s worth a shot? In order for it to succeed, you’d need the younger creatives in the industry to unanimously stand up for the rights of their older counterparts, knowing that at some point in the future they might benefit from such an organized movement themselves. But in this “me, me, me” world of instant gratification and short memory spans, I don’t see that happening. On the other side, the business world has a way of crushing anything that stands in the way of obscene profits. So as far as a solution for ageism, I’m not sure anything will change unless we can find a way to demonstrate value for seniority and experience. There have been many op-eds, diatribes and rants on the topic in social media lately. Some of them quite compelling and spot-on logically. But it seems that they are largely written by aging creatives, talking to other aging creatives and falling on deaf ears in corporate America and outside the 40+ age group. If only there was a website that showcases a bunch of awesome older creative-types who are defying the stigma of ageism? Oh crap, that’s what we have here, isn’t it?
"For [unionizing] to succeed, you’d need the younger creatives in the industry to unanimously stand up for the rights of their older counterparts, knowing that at some point in the future they might benefit from such an organized movement themselves."
What are some positive things you’ve experienced as you’ve grown older in the business?
Even with its flaws, this is perhaps the greatest industry there is for creative people. It’s definitely in the Top 3 for sure. I’ve met some of the coolest people, both on the agency side, client side and production side. I’ve had some of the greatest laughs and deepest sorrows. I’ve eaten some of the most amazing client meals and traveled to some of the most amazing locations. There’s nothing as fulfilling as starting with a creative brief and a blank sheet of paper, and then bringing a great idea to life. It’s even more fulfilling when you can nurture it all the way through final production or implementation, but that’s another story. It’s very tempting to think that all of that is starting to wind down for me. But I had an epiphany the other day, when I realized I should take a bit of my own advice. And I realized that who knows? My best work might still be ahead of me. Even at 60+ years in human time.
Who do you look to for inspiration?
There is so much out there. You just have to open yourself up to it. It’s important look forward as well as backward. Staying up with current events and trends is mandatory for any creative person, at any stage in their career. New music. New movies. The latest episodic hits on Netflix, Hulu and HBO. New books, plays, cultural events, museums, galleries, travel destinations, etc. etc... And looking back is just as essential to separating yourself from the herd. Not just for the obvious inspiration of all the amazing work that’s been honored in years past. But also as a way of making sure you don’t inadvertently rip off an idea that was already produced in 1995. I get it. While mimicry and plagiarism seem to be much more tolerated these days (perhaps even encouraged?) I don’t think it’s a very good reflection on you if all your best work can be traced back to pre-2015 CA Annuals.