Dos Equis you're officially on notice. Jeff Gorman is giving The Most Interesting Man in the World a run for his money. If you want proof, we direct your attention to Exhibit A, Jeff's book titled: Last Stop Before the Sphincter, Stories from the Hot Seat of My Crazy Ass Career. Which, for the record, easily makes our top three list of books with the word Sphincter in the title.
We encourage you to poke around Jeff's LinkedIn profile which contains gems like:
"Writer of advertising and various crap other petulant writers refuse to do."
"Creative Director of creatives with fewer rings on their trunks."
"Currently creating Obit.com, an entertainment website dedicated to death and dying with spin-off TV reality show."
Yes, folks, you read that right: an ENTERTAINMENT website dedicated to DEATH AND DYING. This is a man you want to sit next to at a dinner party. Jeff did Nike's first-ever campaign for the '84 Olympics hosted in Los Angeles and hasn't looked back. Writer, director, entrepreneur, and lollipop improver (seriously, go look at his profile) – only a handful of people could be a Grand Poobah of advertising, Jeff Gorman is one of them.
Is ageism in the industry something you thought about in your 30s? Your 40s?
I never thought I’d live past 30. My dad had a heart attack before he was 40. I suppose it colorized my belief that if I had already croaked I wouldn’t have to worry about being an old fucker in the business.
When I was starting my career in the mid-60s, the prevailing Hippie mantra was, “Never trust anybody over 30.” Once again, I didn’t consider ageism a problem then. I didn’t want to be that over-30-guy. I wanted to be the irreverent, take-no-prisoners rebel I imagined I was back then and always would be.
At 40, I switched from being a copywriter to a director. So yes, at that point I was definitely considering my shelf life. I generally refused to be an actual creative director or part of management because I wanted to do the work and not spend my life dealing with politics and endless meetings. The thought of being a 50-year-old copywriter, getting axed and put out to pasture was unnerving and certainly motivating.
"The thought of being a 50-year-old copywriter, getting axed and put out to pasture was unnerving and certainly motivating."
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 don’t know how to say this without sounding like a bitter, crotchety, old ingrate. So I’ll just take the hit. Don’t get me wrong. I had a fantastic career. I was told when I started Johns+Gorman Films that we’d have made it if we had a 7-year run. I directed for over 25. I think I was pretty good at what I did. But I feel I was kicked to the curb because I was older.
I was over 40 when I started directing. By the time I stopped, well you do the math. Every year, it was like playing Whack-A-Mole. I would bid against The Flavor of the Year, then the Flavor of the Month and eventually the Flavor of the Mili-Second. I was competing with younger and younger directors. Who were perceived as being more in sync with increasingly younger creatives. When I was choosing a director back in the Stone(d) Age, I wanted a seasoned pro who wasn‘t going to fuck up my idea. Now, I think creatives base their choice on if the director wears a baseball cap, spouts the hipster lingo and wants to hang out jabbering about craft beers. They don’t want a father figure who has a strong point of view. I like to say the color of my hair and my refusal to call women ‘dude’ cost me my career.
"My Executive Producers were told more than once I was too old to shoot a spot. Like I couldn’t shoot a fucking inane Taco Bell commercial because I wasn’t 28. Seriously."
Did the reality of the ad industry contribute to the decisions you made/the path you’ve taken?
The reality is advertising has always been a young person’s biz. It’s about youth worship. My Executive Producers were told more than once I was too old to shoot a spot. Like I couldn’t shoot a fucking inane Taco Bell commercial because I wasn’t 28. Seriously. I tried to get them to get it in writing. Winning an ageism lawsuit would’ve certainly boosted the old self-esteem. Not to mention the off-shore account. If my name was Clint Eastwood I’d still be directing commercials. What I need to take responsibility for is that I didn’t make the jump to long-form when I had the opportunity. But I had my own company and felt responsible for my employees and my crew. They were family to me. I didn’t want to put my company and their lives in moth balls for a year while I went and jerked off on a movie I would, as a first-time director, probably get canned off of anyway. Or so I heard along with other Hollywood horror stories. And I loved advertising. Always have.
What are your thoughts on where you are now, as you look back on your creative journey?
When I was a pup, I used to think I was talentless. That fear made me question whether I was really an account exec masquerading as a creative. But I’m proud of all I accomplished both as a writer and a director. I think I blazed paths. Gary and I were the first co-directors. I created Nike’s very first consumer ad campaign for the 1984 Olympics. The “I Love L.A.” spot for that campaign was the first use of a music video in a commercial. I directed spots for Chiat/Day for Sunkist California Pistachios that set the trend for mocumentary spots. I directed a Truth anti-smoking spot for Bogusky that was the first commercial that used a movie trailer format that’s been much-imitated. I created Thumbsuckers, the first dimensional lollipop. I won every award in the world many times over as both as a writer and a director. I started VIDiGREET, the first video greeting card that was too far ahead of its time. Cost me a million. Oh well, not every first was a success. But I had a lot of fun. Looking back on it all, I have a good feeling about my career.
Since I “retired,” I wrote a well-reviewed book. I’m about to record an audio version of it. I’m working on a kid’s book right now. Unbanned, a documentary crediting my Nike Michael Jordan spot with creating a cultural revolution, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and is currently running on Hulu. A fellow director wants to work with me on a documentary based on a short story I wrote about my habit of picking up lucky money on my walks. I’ve been working on a crazy short story I might make into a short film. I’m engaged politically. I volunteered during the ’18 mid-terms, going down to Orange County to unseat a bunch of awful GOP criminals. (Ok, I have to admit that part of the lure was having some great meals in Little Vietnam after all the door-knocking.) And, oh yeah, I’m an un-paid Uber driver for my 21-year-old daughter and 20-year-old son who don’t drive. Go figure.
"From what I experienced toward the last few years, agencies were so scared shitless to challenge a client in a meeting. If the guy coughed, they’d fall all over themselves saying,'Oh, we can change that.'"
What do you feel creative people over 50 can offer over someone 20 years their junior, things that are unappreciated, or just plain overlooked?
Older creatives can actually show younger creatives what a concept is. I record almost everything I watch on TV including sports so I can hurtle through the commercials as fast as possible. Maybe I’m just out of touch. I don’t pay much attention to what’s happening in Ad World. But I don’t see much to love. And I think it’s because advertising is in a death spiral trying to live up to the hype of digital and all the b.s. about platforms and 360 degree whatever. There’s no substitute for an idea. That’s what people respond to. From what I experienced toward the last few years, agencies were so scared shitless to challenge a client in a meeting. If the guy coughed, they’d fall all over themselves saying,”Oh, we can change that.” I understand the agency environment is much different than when I was in it a zillion years ago. Regardless, I’d tell creatives to quit saying yes. Say no. Be regarded as difficult because you’re a perfectionist. Be the bad cop but partner with a good cop. Don’t be afraid to not be loved. Be admired instead. Quit being afraid of losing your job. If you’re good you’ll get a better one. Don’t do it for the bucks. Do it for the passion of creating. For the love of the work. Most importantly, never give up. Persisting is the name of the game.
What is your advice to people who are nearing or over 40 in the ad industry?
Strap on a parachute, take the leap, pull the rip cord. I did. I didn’t know whether I’d be a successful director. I just knew I’d accomplished every goal I’d set for myself as a writer, fought every battle, won every award, gained a certain amount of fame. I wanted to try something different. But if you’re happy with what your position is at the agency and aren’t put off by being an exec and no longer creating, then go for it. Just remember the clock doesn’t stop ticking. So either hire a great Hollywood hair colorist or figure out a decent side hustle.
How are you approaching the next 10 years? What does your future hold?
I wake up every morning with the thought that somebody is going to call out of the blue and give me a shot at directing again. They’re going to send me a storyboard with a simple, great concept that will reimagine my career one more time. I love being pathetic and delusional.
My immediate future is 2020. I plan on being vigorously involved in taking back the Senate and getting Trump out of our House so he can spend the rest of his days modelling that très fashionable orange jumpsuit we’d all like to see him in.
After that, I’m contemplating a move out of L.A. to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. From there I’ll be traveling, eating and avoiding having my obit published.
"Get me back on set. Prove a director my age is still relevant in the Digital Native Age."
What’s one thing the industry could do to make you think they are taking combating ageism seriously?
Get me back on set. Prove a director my age is still relevant in the Digital Native Age.
What do you see as potential solutions for ageism in the industry? Any thoughts on possibly unionizing?
I doubt whether unions could reverse ageism. Or aging. I’m DGA. They don’t do squat about getting you a job. They do have a great health and pension plan. But the health is based on the number of days you work. So if you’re not working they’re not helping much.
I’ve been contacted several times by older guys wanting to start an old fucks type creative boutique or film company. But nothing’s ever come of it. Maybe they had the idea and then just forgot. You know what happens to the memory with age. But I do think that if all the creative giants who are of a certain generation banded together and achieved a modicum of success it could provide an example to clients who would prefer to deal with a bunch of seasoned adult pros. It might start a trend.
I don’t think you can legislate ageism. I think #MeToo has been inspirational and powerful. But I don’t see that kind of movement happening with advertising age discrimination. Maybe if several million older creatives marched (or rolled in their old-fogey scooters) to Washington and rattled their dentures until Congress took notice of the mass protest of whiny, silver hairs outside the Capitol steps, it would happen. Yeah, right. They can’t even pass the laws we actually need passed. It’s unlikely that all the viable ad people gathering dust on the shelves are going to have a law passed that says they get to camp out in their cubicle until they croak.
I do see where a very talented, long-time employee that I know is suing an agency for age discrimination. And I know another friend who settled with an agency for the same reason. I think it would take one helluva lot of cases and losses for it to change reality. And it would also take a big shift in the mentality of the way younger people think about older creatives. Let’s face it. As a young, hot-headed creative coming up in the business you think you know it all. And you’re pitted against the older creatives who are in charge. You think their brains are atrophied, encased in concrete. That their ideas suck. You’re not going to get your shot as long as that Dino is sitting in the office you covet.
What are some positive things you’ve experienced as you’ve grown older in the business?
I think with age I became mellower. More empathetic. More collaborative. Then again, it could’ve just been the lobotomy and the castration.
Who do you look to for inspiration?
This is probably very uncool, but Paul McCartney. He’s my age. He could’ve hung it up and rested on his amazing laurels years ago. But he’s proof that creativity is not age bound. Had a #1 album last year. Continues to tour and perform. Has written an adaptation of It’s a Wonderful Life for Broadway. Published a children’s book. Of course, one can snipe and say he’s not the talent he once was. And that he’s got the resources to do whatever the hell he wants. But still…