Six years ago, Kevin officially unplugged from a successful career as a Creative Director and decided to follow his heart and pursue his life-long dream...of becoming a painter. As Kevin will attest, reinventing one's self is not easy, never dull and ever invigorating. But rather than feel as though his time spent in advertising was time he could have spent building his art career, Kevin, ever the optimist, believes his prior creative life was preparing him for a special purpose -- to pursue his painting passions with perspective and intention.
Judging from his stunning work, we can only say he must be right.
Is ageism in the industry something you thought about in your 30s? Your 40s?
I never gave it much thought. At 38, I had landed a CCO / Co-President position in Seattle and was proud of my career trajectory, my body of work, and the agencies I had worked at. I was also getting enough calls from recruiters which gave me a feeling of job security. In the back of my mind I was always thinking about starting my own small creative shop at the right time, in the right place, with the right partner, for the right reasons. The idealist in me always believed that, so in my mind I had a plan for sustaining my advertising career on my terms and with purpose.
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.
Ageism played a part in my exit from advertising, but it was the spark, not the fire.
I was in search of a more personal creative path that would be fulfilling and could become my legacy. I knew I had something untapped and largely undiscovered in the tank and in my heart I knew advertising was never going to satisfy those needs.
After several years in Seattle and at the age of 43, we began a new chapter and made a move back East for an opportunity my wife had and to be closer to family after the birth of our daughter. Having been a West Coast creative for many years, I chose to freelance in NYC because I wanted more flexibility and felt I’d have more autonomy by not being in the agency vortex and politics in a rapidly changing industry. By 2010 and still in the midst of the downturn of the economy, agency life and agency behavior was drastically different than I knew it just a half a dozen years earlier. Senior positions were being eliminated, agencies of record were diminishing, timelines for work were now ultra-compressed because of reduced staff, digital media was turning the agency model on its head and fragmentation of scope-of-work had begun. Ideas and quality creative thinking was, in my opinion, being de-valued. Advertising was feeling disposable. Brand was becoming a dirty word and short-term thinking was ruling the day. Big picture thinking was drying up with aggressive quarterly numbers and ROI now ruling the day. I could feel the creativity and the fun being sucked out of the business. Shrinking budgets were fueling a concerning culture of “Don’t think, just do.” Work harder, and work harder for less, was the new reality. A seismic shift was happening and it left me highly disenchanted, creatively frustrated, and fed up with the new rules of engagement in the business. I remember thinking advertising was now, more than ever, becoming background noise, an annoyance, stuff people cared less and less about. To me, advertising’s staying power, its cache, its magic, its power, was lost at sea. The multi-tasking, social-media-consuming consumer was more and more in control, with an ever-shrinking attention span and with the marketer and the agency now taking a back seat. The fact that I was now 48 years old in the middle of this new chaos just compounded all of the above. It was honestly the first time in my career I began asking myself, “Do I really want to be the 50-year-old guy at the agency trying not to be the 50-year-old guy at the agency?” It was a sobering revelation and one that was new to me, but I knew the honest answer. The void I felt was at an all-time high. I wasn’t feeding my creative soul in meaningful ways. What was paramount to me in my quest was pure personal and creative fulfillment through work that was valued and lasting. It was a void that advertising could no longer attempt to fill. Art was the answer. The idea of pursuing my life-long dream of becoming a painter was full of possibility and purpose, so that became the door that I ran through and never looked back. It wasn’t easy, but it was invigorating and renewing as hell.
I thank the upheaval in advertising and the by-product called ageism for being the catalyst in my soul searching and discovery of my true calling.
"Ageism played a part in my exit from advertising, but it was the spark, not the fire."
Did the reality of the ad industry contribute to the decisions you made/the path you’ve taken?
The changing ad industry forced a great deal of self-examination in me, and I’m grateful for that. I did some major soul searching as I contemplated what was really important to me and why. What I didn’t realize at the time, during my thirty-year career is that advertising proved to be the world’s best boot camp in preparing me to become a painter. What I learned, the skill set I built, and the work habits I formed in agency life have proven to be invaluable and have served me well in countless ways. When I speak publicly now about my art and my journey, that’s a big part of my story. Being a dedicated painter takes an extraordinary amount of discipline and rigor. I owe that to advertising. I approach my work strategically, campaign-like, working in series with a central, organizing idea. I owe that to advertising. Presentation, storytelling, developing my brand voice, expressing truths in impactful ways, attention to detail, an editing eye, production value, follow through, and understanding how to make my work distinctive, insightful, viable and relevant is all owed to advertising. What I learned about how to partner with clients has helped me forge meaningful relationships with collectors and galleries.
In short, advertising gave me the chops and the gumption to become a painter. I’ve always brought a lot of passion to the table but unbridled passion doesn’t guarantee success in life. Advertising gave me a foundation, a framework and the skillset to use my passion and my talent wisely and effectively.
What are your thoughts on where you are now, as you look back on your creative journey?
The decision to follow my heart is the wisest career decision I’ve ever made. I often say that the thing I’ve enjoyed most about the journey are the twists and turns and not knowing what’s around each bend but trusting that rewarding things will reveal themselves, that soul-feeding surprises await me if I put in the work.
It took the courage of my convictions and a lot of confidence to embark upon this journey, and a beautiful, joyous journey it’s been. One filled with hard work, daily introspection, creative fulfillment and personal accomplishment and reward. I’m proud of my effort each and every day because I can feel myself growing and stretching as I strive to understand myself deeply as a painter. I’m aiming high so I like to think my real job, my full-time work, is trying to reach my maximum potential as a painter. I can say with all honestly that I’ve come to know and understand myself better during these last six years than at any other time in my life. I know what I’m made of now, what makes me tick, more than ever before because I took this wildly beautiful leap.
What do you feel creative people over 50 can offer over someone 20 years their junior, things that are unappreciated, or just plain overlooked?
I learned from some of the most talented, experienced and respected people in the industry. I remember being struck by how cool they were. The fact that they were ten, twenty, thirty years more experienced than me and I was rubbing elbows with them, soaking up their knowledge like a sponge, was a massive advantage and truly invaluable in helping form my foundation, my taste level and my standards. It’s for those reasons that I feel ageism in advertising is the ultimate head-scratcher, an enormous error in judgment, and the ultimate agency screw up. You don’t chop the people with the chops. The wisdom and perspective gained, the thoughtful creative and strategic consideration, the instincts, the ability to slice things thin and articulate them with great clarity, all of those assets are absolutely required at arriving at big, brave thinking and ideas that can’t be ignored. As a junior in the business, the only way to acquire that set of special tools is to earn it and learn it with an emphasis on the learn-it-part. Showing people the door who have formed those critical tools and then in turn instill them in others is the ultimate agency miscalculation, the ultimate industry insult. The industry has gotten in its own way at a time and in a complex marketing world where it’s never been as critical to cut through all the noise and distractions and cut through them with a precision that’s born out of experience.
Clients used to look for and lean on the adult in the room–for their take, their leadership, their thoughtfulness, their risk/reward analysis. Clients need to feel now more than ever that their agency thinking is airtight, that their work is bulletproof. Junior staff, no matter how impressive, can’t instill that trust. It comes from experience.
Call me crazy but I know in my heart if I were still in the industry, at age 56, I’d be at my best, my sharpest, I’d be the most capable I’ve ever been at any point in my entire career, because of my age, not in spite of it.
"Call me crazy but I know in my heart if I were still in the industry, at age 56, I’d be at my best, my sharpest..."
What is your advice to people who are nearing or over 40 in the ad industry?
Look yourself in the eye, look in your heart, search your soul. Travel five, ten years up the road, of your life, and look back, what do you see? What do you feel? What do you want to see? What do you want to feel? Are you fulfilled? Personally? Professionally? Passionately? Purposely?
Advertising, whether it’s right or wrong for you going forward, has provided you with an impressive set of potent tools. How do you want to use them? How do you want to maximize them? Are those tools waiting to help you pursue your dream, create a cool small business, begin a movement, begin a new beginning?
Is advertising the rehearsal for your main act? Is it the boot camp that prepared you for the calling that’s truly calling you? You’ve no doubt poured a lot into advertising over your career. Maybe it’s time advertising returns the favor in ways you never knew it could.
How are you approaching the next 10 years? What does your future hold?
I think of myself as a work in progress so the next ten years and beyond is about putting the work in, and enjoying and trusting in the journey. Being only six years in, I feel my best work is ahead of me. I set goals for myself each year and I’ve been fortunate to realize many of them early on. My journey is about evolving and stretching as a painter and ultimately hitting the vein that will allow me to reach my full potential. I plan on working as hard as I can because my work is a labor of love and I really love that reality.
What do you see as potential solutions for ageism in the industry? Any thoughts on possibly unionizing?
The optimist in me would like to see an alliance of enlightened agencies band together and initiate action, right a wrong, and take a stand against ageism. I’d like to see them call bullshit on it and show the industry that the industry has gotten in its own way. I would like to see those united, unbiased agencies hire a stable of 45 plus staff, creative and otherwise, and I’d like to see them share their success stories on behalf of their clients, accounts, and brands. I’d also like to see clients reciprocate and join the cause by demanding they have senior people elevating and affecting their brands, their thinking and their work.
The secret to success in any realm of life is creating balance, a beautiful yin-yang, a chemistry of wisdom, talent, passion and energy. Advertising and the quality of the work has suffered largely because that balance has been undone, it’s been thrown off. Agency culture isn’t enriched the way it was. The experienced, insightful people with instincts and talent and huge chops who created that balance need to return to restore it.
Advertising needs this to happen. The industry needs this to happen.
What are some positive things you’ve experienced as you’ve grown older in the business?
As I’ve become wiser as opposed to just older, I’ve gained perspective. Once I stepped out of the agency vortex I could see possibilities more clearly, I could see an expansive, unlimited view. I could more easily understand how to utilize the career connective tissue needed to join my past with my future.
As I like to say on my artist’s statement, The Wide Open West is open wide to possibility. It’s where blue-sky thinking runs free and dreams rehearse for reality. Perspective is gained and priorities are reset. It’s where you lose yourself to find yourself.
I honestly think that truth applies to anyone who is looking for new horizons, willing to write a new chapter, willing, as I like to say, to run at the train, not from it.
I’ll share the following as inspiration and proof that igniting the flame from within can create beautiful new realities and results.
When I began my painting journey my goal was simple. I was just trying to get represented by a gallery, not knowing if that would or could happen. It did, and I’ve had two solo exhibitions, been in several group exhibitions, and am now represented by Altamira Fine Art in Scottsdale, AZ and Jackson WY, a world-class gallery that includes some of my true painting inspirations.
If, when I began my painting journey someone told me that I’d have work exhibited in three museums, that I’d have work in the permanent collection of The State of Utah, a piece inducted into The Booth Western Art Museum, and that my work would be invited to be the inaugural exhibit opening the new Southern Utah Museum of Art, I’d have said they’re beyond crazy. I never imagined I’d be featured in International Art publications but that has also happened. I had never had a commission and now I’m working on two.
Ageism in an industry you’ve known and loved and given your all to is definitely an undeserving reality and an unwelcome wake up call, but it might also make an even better awakening.
"Ageism in an industry you’ve known and loved...is definitely an undeserving reality and an unwelcome wake up call, but it might also make an even better awakening."
Who do you look to for inspiration?
Some of the painters who inspire me are Glenn Dean, Alexander Maxwell Hagege, Dean Mitchell, Jeremy Lipking, G. Russell Case and Thomas Blackshear.
Some of the masters who have always inspired me are Georgia O’Keefe, Edward Hopper, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Vincent Van Gogh, Joanne Vermeer, John Register, Maynard Dixon and Andrew Wyeth.
I find inspiration in authenticity, soulfulness, and in people, places and things with a story to tell. I’m inspired by the majesty of the American West and the limitless artistry nature performs in it. I’m inspired by light, the most beautiful element in the universe and how it artfully transforms anything it touches, anything it wraps itself around.
And I’m inspired by the music that fills my studio and fuels my work daily.
The quote I hold dear and draw inspiration from is:
“Your work is to discover your world and then with all of your heart, give yourself to it.”– Buddah
And last but certainly not least, my lovely daughter Kate inspires me daily, to inspire her.