Rather than regurgitate Paul’s CV — look it up yourself, he’s worked at and for all the heavy hitter shops in the biz—blah, blah—so we’d rather talk about something else. His portfolio. Paul Laffy’s portfolio is a reminder to all of us to update ours. Tons of digital and social work right up front that disproves that ole ageism stereotype . He also has a section called ‘from the Vault’—a title which seriously downplays the award winningness within. Conclusion? Paul is one damn capable creative, and we hate his guts in the best possible way.
Is ageism in the industry something you thought about in your 30s? Your 40s?
Well, I started going gray in my 20’s, so I thought about it under that circumstance, but I shaved my head and, problem solved! But I can’t say that I saw any clear evidence of it.
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’m sure it’s affected me. I think that the industry has devalued experience because it values great creative less. So much of what is done these days is reactive – call it the “fog of advertising” – where clients are busy worrying about whatever’s going on in their world, agencies are worried about keeping their clients, and the work goes through rounds and rounds until it gets watered down to the point that it doesn’t matter who works on it. Ironically, the more experienced the person, the better they can handle such situations. My experience allows me to read a brief and know which ideas are worth chasing and which are not, and that’s something you can’t know in just a few years. I also don’t let setbacks rattle me like they did years ago. Of course, there’s still plenty of great work being done by people who value it, and I love to see good people making great work and still feel that I have a part to play in that.
"My experience allows me to read a brief and know which ideas are worth chasing and which are not, and that’s something you can’t know in just a few years."
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?
I’ve kind of had two lives in advertising. The first was working in tiny New England agencies, just kicking around and not taking anything too seriously (except dart games), but always thinking maybe one day I’ll get to work for a great shop. The second began when I got an excellent/honest critique of my mediocre portfolio (thanks David Baldwin), which caused me to re-work everything, writing and art direction. That eventually got me hired at Mullen, which was such a great place to work.
There wasn’t much opportunity for advancement, though, so I moved to NYC, where I worked for some of the big agencies. Along the way I picked up an appreciation for strategy. I found that nothing is worse than bad planning and nothing is better than great planning. So I have become a bit of a strategy nerd, which I think has given me good perspective on creative.
But for all the changes I’ve made, I still love the thing that made me want to get into this business: solving problems for a variety of clients. And not having to know math to solve those problems.
Did the reality of the ad industry contribute to the decisions you made/the path you’ve taken?
Yes, definitely, but I’m not sure there’s one reality that defines everyone’s journey. For me, the journey was a long one to get to some kind of seniority. But I didn’t mind, I really enjoyed the work and it suited me. The reality of seeing great work being done in the 90’s made me want to get to a good agency. The reality of New England being a small-ish market led me to NYC. Along the way, I’ve worked on a lot of clients in “difficult” industries – b2b, financial, energy, etc, and I can fall back on that as a specialty, although I also don’t want it to define me (which is another, unfortunate reality that can occur).
"Most of my peers have at least a broad understanding of the history of advertising. I wish younger people in the business would do the same."
What do you feel creative people over 50 can offer over someone 20 years their junior, things that are unappreciated, or just plain overlooked?
Most of my peers have at least a broad understanding of the history of advertising. I wish younger people in the business would do the same. They would find just how cyclical it is. I just wrote an article about a man named George Hay, who created the single best branded content campaign ever. That was in 1925, for a new medium called radio. Then there was TV and everything was branded content (brands owned the TV shows) until Bernbach threw advertising on its head. Nowadays, with digital being the first new major medium in generations, I see a lot of things repeating themselves, and creative ideas are often taking a back seat to the medium. If nothing else, they’d learn the evolution of their holding company’s name.
"...don’t slow down - work ethic is a huge part of this business and don’t think it goes unnoticed."
What is your advice to people who are nearing or over 40 in the ad industry?
If you don’t really love this business, now might be a good time to re-evaluate. If you do, though, then don’t slow down - work ethic is a huge part of this business and don’t think it goes unnoticed. The more senior you get and the more it falls on you to pick vendors, it can be tempting to stick with the familiar, but try to mix it up; there’s a wealth of great thinking out there and you might make some interesting friends, too.
How are you approaching the next 10 years? What does your future hold?
I’m not sure I see too much changing for me personally. We have two young girls and we’re fairly settled here in NYC. Maybe with global warming we’ll move to Canada (working on my citizenship papers now).
What do you see as potential solutions for ageism in the industry? Any thoughts on possibly unionizing?
That’s a tough one. I’m generally not a big fan of unions as they often cause as many problems as they solve for. If it happened, though, I’d probably join. What the hell.
What are some positive things you’ve experienced as you’ve grown older in the business?
I’m very appreciative of the fact that I have worked for every kind of agency you can imagine, from a political agency with a few consumer accounts located in a suburban office park, to some of the best agency networks in the world. I’ve met and worked with people far more talented than I and have learned so much from them. I carry that with me every day, whether supervising younger creatives or just doing plain old art director stuff.
Who do you look to for inspiration?
I’m kind of obsessive about observing strangers and creating stories about them – that’s one of the nice things about living in NYC – and I also enjoy eavesdropping on conversations and jotting down tidbits (people say really funny things accidentally). Chef’s Table on Netflix; those chefs are so incredibly innovative, yet everything they do is grounded in tradition and innovation only matters if it improves upon what came before. Walking around the Chelsea art galleries. Music – I think music today is some of the best in decades.