Jeff’s art direction career started not unlike many others – with a life-long passion for drawing, an arts education degree, and the sobering realization that he didn’t want to be a teacher.
Jeff landed his first paying job at Ogilvy/New York, working on some pretty prime assignments right out of the gate – for IBM, Jaguar and Ford. After building his chops he switched gears, and traded an 1000+ people agency for an independent boutique shop named Oasis. Here, he got to help launch the Prius…and bring home some prestigious, unrecycled metal. Seven years later, while many traditional agency folks were questioning (fighting?) the “digital thing”, Jeff dove in with “pixels in his eyes” – first at McCann/MRM, then later at R/GA, where he lead a 30+ digital team of creatives. Most recently, Jeff worked at Publicis on the global Citi account. As ECD, he helped lead the work on a series of amazing sponsorships (like, ohhhh, the Olympics)…and he helped make finance something the millennials actually wanted to work on.
When Jeff is not creating ads, he’s attempting to recreate the Partridge Family with his wife and two sons.
Is ageism in the industry something you thought about in your 30s? Your 40s?
I had a great uncle on my mother’s side, Don DeMarco, who became a Madison Avenue art director in the ‘40s (back when copywriters sat on the top floor and slipped their finished copy under the door for the ADs to illustrate). He loved advertising, rolled with the changes, and continued working into his late 70s. Uncle Don dyed his impressively full head of grey hair dark brown every other week to shave a decade or so off of his appearance. I remember him telling me as a kid that advertising was “a young person’s business” and bragging that he could still pull off being in his late 50s on a good day. So, yeah, it’s something I’ve thought about since day one.
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.
For the most part, I’d say not really. I’ve always felt like my age, experience, and title aligned the way they were supposed to. When I became an ACD, I was about the same age as the other ACDs. When I became a CD and ECD, same. It wasn’t until the last few years that I felt more, um… mature? A recent interview: “Are you sure you’d be happy working here? You’ve got a lot of experience and, well, look around—most of the staff is young and scrappy…” I’ve found that age disparity is particularly more blatant when freelancing, where “CD” can mean anywhere from six years of experience to 40.
"It wasn’t until the last few years that I felt more, um… mature? A recent interview: “Are you sure you’d be happy working here? You’ve got a lot of experience and, well, look around—most of the staff is young and scrappy…” "
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?
My first few years, I was a sponge, and concentrated my energy on soaking up as much knowledge as possible as I learned my craft—from my bosses, colleagues, and the award show books. It was all about the singular ad, script, or layout that was in front of me at the time. Deep down, the “client” was secretly always me. I selfishly tried to outdo my last ad, often without regard for what was right for the brand. As I got older though, I realized that, no, Jeff—actually, the job is to improve Toyota’s, Intel’s, or Citi’s business. I learned to focus on the long game and how to build something bigger than a single ad. I strived to learn not just from other creatives, but from the planners, producers, and suits. Now, I’m definitely more focused on the business of advertising than I ever was. But, hey, maybe that’s just my kids’ tuition talking.
Did the reality of the ad industry contribute to the decisions you made/the path you’ve taken?
The “reality of the ad industry”? Objection, Your Honor: leading the witness. Look, it’s the Wild West out there right now, and sometimes I feel like I’m just trying to stay on my horse as the bullets whiz by. While it’s true that ageism has always been an issue—and maybe visible to me now that I’m an ageistian—there are many other, newer threats to my livelihood these days that scare me even more: the holding company mentality, client-side creative departments, consultancies that consider creative an add-on, crowd-sourcing, influencers, celebrity creative directors, etc. While I haven’t changed the path I chose, the path itself has undoubtedly changed.
"We’ve seen more, so the box we aim to think outside of is bigger."
What do you feel creative people over 50 can offer over someone 20 years their junior, things that are unappreciated, or just plain overlooked?
Seeing the big picture. Long-term strategies. Selflessness. Business savvy. Ad History 101. “That’s a-spicy meatball…” We’ve seen more, so the box we aim to think outside of is bigger. The relationship should be symbiotic—20-somethings have just as much to offer me as I have to offer them. There should be a mutual respect, like when Brandi Carlyle duets with Dolly Parton. Which reminds me—Hey, 20-somethings: I know it’s hard to swallow, but someday you will appreciate country music.
What is your advice to people who are nearing or over 40 in the ad industry?
Get more sleep. Drink more water. Have kids earlier, not later. Stay close to your friends from before, for they will be friends after. Don’t be jealous of the people you deem more successful than you—chances are, they are jealous of you, too (albeit for different, probably non-financial reasons.) Say something nice to the person who comes by to empty your trash can when you’re working late on a pitch. Also, it’s time to throw away those leather pants.
How are you approaching the next 10 years? What does your future hold?
Jesus, I really wish I knew. I’ve never been good at answering this question. While I have absolutely no idea how to surf (I’m from Delaware), I equate this business to riding a wave—you have to be prepared to adjust your footing on a moment’s notice or else you’ll drown. But also, man, what a rush when you ride a big one in.
"[There's] an assumption that if you’re not a CD by the time you’re 35, you mustn’t be very talented...Yo-Yo Ma didn’t have to work his way up to conductor to be able to afford a new tux."
What do you see as potential solutions for ageism in the industry? Any thoughts on possibly unionizing?
Change the fee structure to accommodate creatives who want to stay “creatives.” In order to make more money at an agency these days, you need to ascend the org chart. But, of course, the higher up you go, the fewer positions there are. In other words, you’re forced to climb the ladder until someone below eventually pushes you off. Not everyone actually aspires to be a CD/ECD/CCO, but, if you want to make decent money, you have no choice. Starting out, one of my idols was Bob Barrie at Fallon. His title was simply “art director” for something like 20 years, and he was absolutely the goddamn-best art director. And while I’m sure he was compensated fairly well back then, today’s agency-holding-company-mandated fee structures make it close to impossible for that to happen now. This has led to an assumption that if you’re not a CD by the time you’re 35, you mustn’t be very talented and don’t enjoy eating lobster from time to time. Yo-Yo Ma didn’t have to work his way up to conductor to be able to afford a new tux.
Unionizing? Ugh… sounds like a lot of meetings, brainstorms, and timesheets. Pass.
What are some positive things you’ve experienced as you’ve grown older in the business?
Honest, legit gratitude from junior creatives for teaching them something new. Respect from clients for caring about their business instead of only my own. Watching friends and colleagues who deserve to succeed succeed. That time a summer intern won the ‘Hamilton’ lottery and invited me to go with him because it was a Wednesday matinee and he thought I would fire him if he went during work hours. Coming home after a long day and hearing my boys ask, “Did you make a good commercial today, Papa?”
Who do you look to for inspiration?
Those who consistently excel in their field, regardless of what field it may be: Scorsese, Springsteen, Abrams, DeGeneres, Ives, Stern, Streep. Those who unapologetically follow their instincts, even when it sometimes leads to failure: Branson, Bowie, Musk, Depp, Hornby. Those who share my last name: Frauke, Julian, Arthur, Brian, Caroline (né), and Joan. Those who retired before the age of 40.