You know when you discover a new author and you can’t wait to soak up every absorbing word that author writes? Well that’s pretty much what happened when we discovered Jeff’s blog, Kingdom of Failure. His post about ageism might have grabbed our attention because, well it was right on-topic, but it was the authentic, story-like way he brought it to life that kept our attention (remember “show don’t tell” – Jeff’s blog is a Master Class in it).
When Jeff isn’t stringing together word after brilliant word on his blog, he’s doing it for advertising agencies and clients. A native Texan, with over 25 years-experience working at agencies across the country, Jeff now lives in Detroit—a place he lovingly refers to as the Liverpool of America because of its industrial nature and enormous impact on American culture and music.
Jeff insists that his most famous work is still ahead of him and his personal goal is to one day earn the title, Varsity Copywriter. Though, admittedly, we’re hoping for something more along the lines of New York Times Bestselling Author.
Is ageism in the industry something you thought about in your 30s? Your 40s?
I thought about it right from the beginning. I’ve always treated advertising like it was a sport. Some people follow baseball, football, basketball or whatever. I follow advertising. I follow the players. The accounts. The agencies. I read Adweek like most people read the sports page. So not only did I know that my time in advertising would only last so long, I glamourized it. I actually thought it was cool. Just like for professional athletes, your window only stays open for so long. And that just added to the sexiness of it for me. Which was completely idiotic.
If I was going to make my mark in this business, I had to accomplish things before my expiration date came up. I was so stupid that I thought that was really neat. I also figured that once I grew up, I’d get smarter about business and life and find something else to do. Now that I’m older, I have grown up and I have gotten smarter about business and life but not smart enough to apply it to anything other than advertising.
Right before Covid hit I had gotten laid off. I was picking up steady freelance work but I was convinced that I had aged out of advertising and seriously needed to find something else. I was working with an investor buddy on a plan to open an authentic Central Texas style craft BBQ restaurant in Detroit. I love the Midwest. But their BBQ is for shit. No one up here knows what really good BBQ is and when I make it for them it blows their Midwestern minds. I wrote a business plan and recruited another friend with extensive restaurant experience to help me with the financials. I was on my second round when the lockdown started and all the restaurants closed. We put the BBQ joint on hold and I refocused on advertising. But I was really convinced my time was up.
That’s changed over the last 16 months. I’ve been reinvigorated by the whole WFH thing. I don’t have to waste any time with the day-to-day being in an office bullshit and I can just concentrate on the work. It’s been life changing and my whole process has evolved in ways that have made me more creative, efficient and balanced. It’s given me a chance to reorganize how I live my life and find ways to weave work in and out of it. I get my work done in chunks through-out the day. I’m still putting in around 50 hours a week but I don’t even notice it until I do my timesheets.
Not only has it made my work better but I’ve been able to focus more of my creative energy on things besides advertising. That’s what allowed me to start Kingdom of Failure. I’m writing more than ever these days and that has made me a better copywriter and given me new ways to exercise my creativity. More importantly, it’s given me hope that I can continue past my original expiration date.
"Advertising these days is set up to support single people who live in lofts and don’t have to pay for things like braces and summer camp. That’s how ageism has affected me."
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.
I thought that I was doing what I was supposed to do. I went to college. I worked hard and dedicated myself to a career that I was passionate about. Along the way, I got married. Had two kids. And bought a modest 4-bedroom colonial in the Midwest. I’m pretty sure that almost all of the various bibles encourage that stuff, but advertising doesn’t. It’s fucked everything up and made me too expensive. Advertising these days is set up to support single people who live in lofts and don’t have to pay for things like braces and summer camp. That’s how ageism has affected me.
Every time someone tells me they’re not hiring at my level, that’s code for we’re looking for someone young and cheap who can sleep at the office and be laid off without feeling a lot of guilt on our part. I remember once in an interview when I was much younger, I said, “I’m not married. I don’t have any kids. I never take vacations and I rarely get sick.” I was hired on the spot.
It’s a real shame. 90% of advertising is selling to families. There’s so much you don’t understand about these peoples’ lives and what really motivates them until you’re actually in their shoes.
One time a few years ago, I was working on a brief with a young planner. We were going into summer and she was writing a bunch of drivel about how much parents look forward to summer and spending time together as a family. The kids are out of school, the weather is nice and it’s a chance for families to reconnect after a busy school year.
I called bullshit on all of that. Summer isn’t fun. Having your kids out of school isn’t fun. It’s a total pain in the ass, expensive and at times super stressful. When they’re not in school every day, you’ve got to figure out something for them to do or fork out a bunch of money for camp. Routines get thrown out the window and childcare gets trickier and more expensive. Parents don’t look forward to summer. They fucking dread it. Or at least I do.
The planner, who was single with no kids, had never even thought about it that way. It didn’t completely change the brief but at least I was able to get a little reality into the room.
Advertising doesn’t seem to value reality. Especially the reality that as people get older and accumulate more experience, yes, they become more expensive but their value increases infinitely because they can better understand and empathize with the people they’re selling to. That translates into work that resonates more authentically and produces better results that both the client and the agency will benefit from.
I send my children to public school. I have basic cable. I drive a Jetta. And that’s too much to ask an advertising agency to support these days? I probably shouldn’t have splurged on the Jetta. What was I thinking?
I’ve been laid off a few times. And I’ve seen those agencies turn right around and hire younger, lower-level people. I’ve had to learn to really hustle to get work.
My dad worked for the same company for 30 years. He took us on vacations. Paid for our college. He retired years ago. The man didn’t even finish college but he ended up doing really well for himself and for us. I’m really sad that advertising has such a hard time providing that for people like me. And it’s a total bummer to have to hit your dad up for some cash when you’re 50.
I recently wrote a blog post on ageism for Kingdom of Failure. I posted it on LinkedIn and it got shared around the world. I got hundreds of messages from people and it made me really optimistic. Most of the messages came from folks just like me. They’ve got 25 or 30 years of experience under their belts and they’re all still somehow making a living in advertising. There are more of us out there then you might think. That gave me hope. I honestly think the agencies need us more than we need them. They just don’t want to admit it. Yet.
"When I first started, I wanted to be a rock star. Now, I want to be a pro."
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?
To continue the shameless plugging for Kingdom of Failure, I wrote a post on this topic called Winning Worst. It’s all about the journey I took, where it got me and how the way I work has changed.
Basically, when I started, I was a bratty little shit. I really thought I was destined to be the next advertising superstar. I approached every project with the sole intention of doing outrageous work that would get attention, win awards and make me famous. I’d come in with ideas that were off brief, over budget and way outside the tone of the brand. People let me get away with it because I was young and cheap. Plus, these were the days when creative departments actually warehoused their talent. There’d be multiple teams working on every assignment. So I just figured I’d shoot for the moon on everything and if it didn’t sell, I could care less, someone else would do the crappy stuff that the client could buy.
This was a really stupid strategy and not successful at all. Don’t do that. It gets you nowhere. And trust me, I know where nowhere is.
I wasted a lot of time entertaining myself instead of doing work that could actually be produced. At a certain point I knew that I had to grow up if I was going to advance. I learned to provide a range of work. You need to give them a few fast balls down the middle along with the stuff that’s out of their comfort zone. I’ve learned the value of partnership with account people, planners and even media to create better work based on data, insights and strategic thinking. I’ve learned how you can use testing to your advantage as a creative and how to lead brands towards better work using baby steps as opposed to giant leaps.
When I first started, I wanted to be a rock star. Now, I want to be a pro. I want to be someone who can come up with not only creative messaging ideas but creative business ideas that bring added value to the agency’s offerings.
In today’s world of advertising, every job has to be covered by a client scope. If that client leaves, most likely you’re leaving too. And then you’re going to have to go home and explain it to your wife and tell your kids that money’s going to be tight for a while.
My process still revolves around creating disruptive ideas that break through the clutter but I don’t give a shit about winning an award with them. I want results that move the needle on my client’s business so they don’t pull the account and put me and my friends out on the street.
Did the reality of the ad industry contribute to the decisions you made/the path you’ve taken?
The reality of advertising is that if you’re really into it and really care about it and really want to do great work, you’re going to face a shit ton of obstacles. Internally, you’re going to have to defend that work and keep it from getting mucked up by all the hands that want to touch it, tame it and soften its impact. At the same time, you need to be open to collaboration so people feel like they’re invested in your ideas. It can be uncomfortable at times and if you’re not careful, you can get in a lot of trouble these days for “being difficult”.
Then you’re going to get the external pressure from the client. Clients want certainty. Clients want to know they’ll get a good ROI. Every day they want to see the metrics and at the slightest downward shift they’ll panic and want to pivot.
Finally, the reality of the ad industry is that it is not easy on your personal life. My first marriage failed pretty much because of advertising. At first, she thought it was cool to be married to someone who was in a creative field and passionate about what they did. She was happy that I loved my job when so many other people hated theirs. Once we had kids, things changed. She became a stay-at-home mom. Which is the hardest and shittiest job in the entire world. And all she wanted was for me to come home from the office at a decent hour and handle the kids for a bit so she could finally brush her hair.
So all day long, I’m working as fast as I can and totally stressing about how late it’s getting and trying to figure out a way to sneak out so I can go home and get to see my kids for an hour before they go to bed.
The whole leaving the office at 6 and then getting back online at 9 thing sucks. Great. You get to spend an hour with your kids but your wife doesn’t get shit. We fought about it all the time. She wanted me out of advertising but there was nothing else that I could figure out how to do that would pay me enough money to cover the bills. It put a huge amount of stress on the marriage and eventually it was just too much weight to carry.
From what I hear, this is an all-too -common theme in our industry. But here I am, on my second marriage and I’m really trying to keep advertising from fucking it up. I wake up at 4 am every morning. You’re probably going to read that and wince but it’s fucking magical and I love it. It’s the best part of my day. No distractions. No interruptions. The entire world is still asleep. I start writing no later than 5. By 9 am when most people are turning on their computers and checking their email, I’m almost an entire day ahead of them.
The WFH thing has been a game changer. People were always talking and bitching about work/life balance. For me WFH has solved the problem. I don’t think about work and life as separate things anymore that are constantly fighting each other for attention. I just look at everything as life. Some of the time I’m working on advertising. Some of the time I’m doing housework. Some of the time I’m doing stuff with the kids. Then I hop on a couple of Zoom meetings and I’m back at work for a while.
At the end of the day everything gets done and I don’t feel guilty for giving anyone the short end of the stick. Some days have more work than parenting or personal projects and some days have more parenting and personal projects than work. But I’m not stuck in a fucking office building, sitting at my desk for ten hours a day and acting like I’m busy when I’m really just looking at shit on the internet.
I spent 25 years sitting in those fucking buildings. I wasted so much time waiting for meetings to start. Waiting for feedback from the client. Waiting for someone to free up so that you can show them where you’re at. Life is short. I want to be in control of my time so that I can prioritize the things I want to instead of waiting for the Jimmy Johns to show up and saying goodnight to my kids on Facetime.
"Right now, the average age of an agency creative is 28. That’s fucking insane. I was a total idiot when I was 28."
What do you feel creative people over 50 can offer over someone 20 years their junior, things that are unappreciated, or just plain overlooked?
Clients now want more from their agencies than just messaging. They want what the consultants are offering. They want agencies to be business accelerators not just providers of advertising. That means being able to look at things from a different altitude and you need experience for that.
I wasn’t smart enough to help a client with their business problems when I was young. I didn’t even balance my checkbook or understand how the stock market worked. I just knew how to come up with funny ideas and hack into pop culture.
Now that I have some actual life experience under my belt, I have a bit of real-world wisdom to draw on. I can even put myself in the client’s shoes and understand the pressures they face. Which is another thing agencies are expected to do these days. Help CMOs keep their jobs longer.
I didn’t give a shit about any of this stuff when I was younger. If anyone is going to solve the ageism problem in advertising, I think it will be the clients. They need to demand this kind of thinking and they need to demand that their agencies provide them with a range of creatives that can bring a range of solutions.
You need young creatives and older creatives. Right now, the average age of an agency creative is 28. That’s fucking insane. I was a total idiot when I was 28. When the average age is up around 35, I think advertising will be in a better place and more profitable because we’ll be better positioned to provide transformational business ideas as opposed to just marketing solutions.
"You need to shift your mindset from thinking of yourself as an employee to thinking of yourself as a small business owner. I’m not a copywriter anymore. I run the Jeff Eaker Copywriting Corporation."
What is your advice to people who are nearing or over 40 in the ad industry?
You need to shift your mindset from thinking of yourself as an employee to thinking of yourself as a small business owner. I’m not a copywriter anymore. I run the Jeff Eaker Copywriting Corporation. I service agencies. I service clients. I service young creatives who need mentoring or guidance. My company has a lot more to offer than just the ability to complete an assignment on time.
I have a day-to-day strategy for running my business that revolves around not only coming through on assignments with smart solutions but also providing added value to justify my cost. I help planners write better briefs. I help account people manage client expectations. I’ll help anyone. Because I can.
I also have a long-term strategy so that my business doesn’t solely rely on the health of a single agency or even a single client. It involves a lot of networking and self-promotion that positions me as someone you should keep on your radar. That shit has paid off time and time again for me when I’ve needed to find work.
It isn’t enough just to be on LinkedIn. You need to be active on there. You’d be surprised who you can strike up conversations with and where those conversations can lead. I have relationships with amazingly successful and important people who I can reach out to and get an opinion from or advice on something. I would never have access to these people IRL. My book wouldn’t even get to their assistant. But on LinkedIn I can actually talk to them. It’s amazing.
The job that I’m at right now is a great example. I saw someone post on LinkedIn that they were hiring. I put a link to my portfolio in the comments. And then, someone I’m connected to, who’s infinitely more successful, powerful and respected than I will ever be, was kind enough to make a nice comment about me underneath. I got a call from the recruiter that day and started work the next Monday.
How are you approaching the next 10 years? What does your future hold?
I’d really like to continue WFH because I just think it makes me a much more productive creative and an all-around happier person. I’m hoping that remote work opens up all kinds of new opportunities for creatives and agencies. Detroit has always had a problem attracting talent. As much as I love it, people don’t dream of moving here. So Detroit agencies have always had to put down serious cash to get people to come.
With remote, that problem goes away. Love the West Coast? Cool. Enjoy it. Now you can do the Zoom thing and fly in when necessary. Conversely, think of creatives in a city like San Francisco. I don’t know how those people do it. Your entire salary goes to rent. What if you could live some place affordable and still work at Goodby?
I’d also like to see agencies downsize their offices so they’re paying less in rent, utilities and maintenance costs and investing more in their talent and employee retention efforts. That might make the next 10 years a bit more pleasant for all of us.
"Ageism will go away when clients demand it goes away. When they demand a better mix of young creatives and more experienced creatives working on their business and are willing to pay for it, the agencies will happily pivot to accommodate them."
What do you see as potential solutions for ageism in the industry? Any thoughts on possibly unionizing?
Ageism will go away when clients demand it goes away. When they demand a better mix of young creatives and more experienced creatives working on their business and are willing to pay for it, the agencies will happily pivot to accommodate them. They’ll fall over themselves looking for creatives with some grey in their hair. We’ll all show off our AARP cards in meetings. Age will become a status symbol instead of an albatross. Wouldn’t that be grand?
What are some positive things you’ve experienced as you’ve grown older in the business?
Without a doubt the biggest positive has been getting better at my job. I actually know what I’m doing now. I have so much more confidence in my writing and in my ideas. When I was young, yeah, I could go different places and come up with interesting stuff but I had zero confidence in myself and I think that had a tremendous impact on the way my work was viewed and how I felt when I presented it.
Now, I can enjoy it more because when I get an assignment, I know I’m going to come up with good stuff and I’m genuinely excited just to find out what it’s going to be. Ideas come so much quicker to me now. The writing is more effortless and authentic. I get listened to a tiny bit more and that makes me feel good. But even better, I can smell the bullshit from a mile away now. I know when something is going sideways and I can either head it off or prepare myself for the shit storm before it makes landfall.
Who do you look to for inspiration?
When I was in ad school a really famous and talented creative came to our class and gave one of those awesome lectures that only a famous and talented creative can give. One of the things that stuck with me was when he said, “If you’re looking for inspiration put down the awards annuals and pick up your record collection.” This was back when people still called their music a record collection. I don’t know what the fuck they call it now but I think music is the most powerful tool there is to communicate with and you can always get yourself out of a sticky situation with a great song. You don’t even necessarily need to use the song in your work. But for me, just flipping through records or cd’s takes me to all kinds of emotional spaces where tons of ideas live.
We also happen to be living in an age of content and the smartest people in our industry are putting out more than ever. Podcasts, blogs, think pieces, etc. You’ve got the greatest minds in the business telling you exactly how they approach their job. People like Rob Schwartz, who I think is a fucking genius, are out there sharing their wisdom and all you have to do is listen. To me that’s incredibly inspiring. I wish I had more of it when I was younger. I might have figured this whole advertising thing out a bit sooner.