Catfish’s bio reads as unconventional as his name. He's not only a seasoned creative who spent his first two decades in the business at highly respected agencies like Martin and GSD&M and later went on to become ECD of everyone’s favorite Vegas campaign, “What happens here stays here." He’s also a standup comedian who once opened for Sam Kinison, a fighter who’s had 25 fights (yes, in an actual ring) and a blues harmonica player who's shared a stage with David Kersh, Danny Levin, Dale Watson and The Fabulous Thunderbirds.
Also unconventional are his tell-it-like-it-is answers about ageism in the industry. Let ‘er rip…
Is ageism in the industry something you thought about in your 30s? Your 40s?
No. In my 30's and 40's I was getting enough offers throughout the year that I never thought I would ever face 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.
In my 50's, I have had so many jobs pass me over because of my age - and people who work at the companies were honest with me about it. Also, headhunters will not even answer the phone if they know it’s you. I have had headhunters tell me: “I can’t place you. Sorry.”
"I have had headhunters tell me: 'I can’t place you. Sorry.'"
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 real job was at a boutique agency in Atlanta. The first year I sat in the hallway and won nothing at any award show. I later discovered my name was taken off of ads that won. The next year I worked at another boutique agency. That year Atlanta gave out 21 Gold Addys and I won 17 of them. My career flew after that. Lots of interviews. I spent 6 years at the Martin Agency, flew around the country, gave speeches. I worked under Bill Westbrook, and I spent 13 years at GSD&M. I pitched and won and worked on the United States Air Force. I was the Executive Creative Director on What Happens Here Stays Here. I was the man. It was like that for 25 years. I was in my early fifties, and I was making a lot of money.
Then we had the Bush Recession and I got two more offers that were worth a shit and those agencies closed. Fortunately there is still a lot of work out there but much of it is at companies where quality creative is a soft goal. In fact, a quality ad is often just a Lucky Strike extra. These days, more often than not, it’s about the check. Period.
I am still very, very good at this. But headhunters find out my age, it’s over. It’s like having a disease you can’t cure. It’s like they discovered that in reality you’re a werewolf.
Did the reality of the ad industry contribute to the decisions you made/the path you’ve taken?
What do you feel creative people over 50 can offer over someone 20 years their junior, things that are unappreciated, or just plain overlooked?
This is like being an old Marine. I want to give advice to today’s kids who deploy. But fighting in Iwo Jima is quite different from Afghanistan or Vietnam. I am not sure what I can do well that still matters.
I can offer advice.
Everything that is important to you will evanesce. All those medals from the One Show, the Andys, D&AD, New York Art Directors Show, the Radio Mercury Awards, the Stephen E Kelly Awards, volumes of Communication Arts, Addys, and more...all that work in Winners Magazine, and Archive Magazine, they sit there and haven't really served me like I expected them. I slept with all those medal and they are cold. Much of the current and upcoming generation of marketers have little idea what these are.
No one around you will even know what these shows are anymore and why you should be respected. You can go from brand name ad guy to nobody in a few years.
I have seen trade editors who once called me often suddenly act like they didn’t recognize me in an elevator.
Branding, big branding, is still around, but the industry is filled with experts. Unlike football, when you age in advertising you actually get a little better. So the streets are crowded with writers and art directors and planners and designers.
This is how advertising has changed the most. Once branding was created to give people a reason to make a choice between twenty brands of cereal on a shelf. Or toothpaste. Crest fights cavities. Gleam makes your teeth white. Colgate fights gingivitis. Aqua Fresh tastes better so your kids will brush longer.
Today, most of marketing is not the brand idea. It’s the pipeline. It isn’t a message to convert someone to your brand of toothpaste as much as it is a message to people who might have Googled “What is the best toothpaste?” in the past 30 days. Find those searchers and put your product in their feed.
"Today, most of marketing is not the brand idea. It’s the pipeline."
What is your advice to people who are nearing or over 40 in the ad industry?
Look for another job. AI's and machine learning will remove human creativity or human invention from the process. Before you know it, creating a great idea will be a skill like writing out music on a sheet by hand. No one does that anymore. That’s done on a program from Apple. Copywriting will be a plug-in your client buys for $19.95 a year from Adobe.
“Download the Art Director App today. It always shows up for work on time and with a clear head. It doesn’t smoke pot. It never needs to run and pick up a kid and it is never going to ask for a raise. The Award-Winning Art Director App is just ten bucks more but guarantees your shelves will be buckling under the weight of Lucite statues. The Art Director App. All the talent minus the attitude.”
If you are looking for a job in art direction, you are fighting for the window seat on the Hindenburg.
How are you approaching the next 10 years? What does your future hold?
Well I’ll either land one of the last good jobs or I’ll get out of this goddamned business. My approach is to look for anything that might be fun or hopefully something I want to do for a living.
I believe you have to put it out there and whatever is there will find you as well. So I have written two screenplays and have them in the finals of nine film festivals. I am in the process of developing two apps in the healthcare field. I serve on the board of the Austin Blues Society, and New Milestones (which helps fund the mental health initiatives in central Texas). I play blues harmonica. So, I don’t have an answer for you. I don’t have a “path” per se, but I have a plan of getting into a business that is more creative, more interesting, filled with meaning and with purpose; and a place where I fit. I figured if I follow my loves, they will lead me to the promised land.
What do you see as potential solutions for ageism in the industry? Any thoughts on possibly unionizing?
You can try legislation to remedy ageism, but if we go that route, let’s not defend this industry. It needs to die and be reborn. The digital technologies we created are changing how people interact with brands and governments and each other.
There are two issues we are discussing and possibly conflating here. One of them is wondering if older people will be useful and have a place in a future economy.
The second issue is how long will the tasks performed by older marketing people be done by people at all?
Unionizing is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Do unions work now? Unions are a symptom of a sickness in business where ten people decide the fortunes of millions. The “million” band together into unions. Let’s build rights into jobs to begin with. Let’s make rights a goal just like profit or shareholder value.
"Let’s build rights into jobs to begin with."
What are some positive things you’ve experienced as you’ve grown older in the business?
In the last ten years I have pitched a lot of business and won a lot of it. I have been in pitches where the kids in the room kind of needed me. Also, I still do very good work and that is all satisfying.
I have seen a whole new generation take on marketing with the same passion I had.
Who do you look to for inspiration?
My mother was in Auschwitz. She came out of it, raised five kids, and showed me sometimes to survive you have to be stubborn.