Had Paul Safsel continued down "the well-trodden path of the self-delusional rock drummer,” he believes the chances are pretty good he’d be appearing in your local bar this weekend. Or at best, that he would be slogging away in “a pathetic attempt to fill the void that John Bonham of Led Zeppelin had left in the world.” Ah but this was not to be. For in a moment of quiet reflection after four years spent at the School of Visual Arts, he came to the realization that a career in advertising might be his true calling.
And so began the North American leg of the Paul Safsel ad tour. His first stop was in New York. From there, he made stops at agencies in Chicago and Maryland before returning to the Big Apple, for what has now been a 20- year run. No gold records hang on his wall, but a box in his attic is filled with various faux metals from numerous award shows.
Most recently a CD/AD at Grey for the past 14 years, Paul is now busy freelancing, getting used to life as an empty nester, and picking back up those drum sticks. While there is a chance you could just catch him at your local bar, he’s pretty sure you’re more likely to catch one of his commercials up on that tv in the corner.
So, does an advertising rock star age better than an actual rock star? Paul seems to have his doubts.
Is ageism in the industry something you thought about in your 30s? Your 40s?
Never. For me, John Lennon’s oft-quoted lyric from the song Beautiful Boy says it best. “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” I had my head down, was focused on building my book and my reel, and being the best, most present father and husband I could.
Then just like that, I went from being the youngest person in the meeting to the oldest.
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.
Despite my salt and pepper hair color, I never really thought about it. Call me naïve, but I believed as long as I kept solving clients' problems, kept winning new business, and was a pleasant person to work with, all would be fine. And then… I was laid off this past year. But I have to tell you, for some odd reason, I felt a peaceful calm wash over me in what many would consider walking into a Category 5 hurricane. While not a religious person, things in my life have always seemed to happen for a reason and for the most part happen for the best. Shortly thereafter, the freelance work started coming in.
Though I have to be honest, I still have the occasional, wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-in-a-cold-sweat moment of panic where I think, what if this all dries up? What then?
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?
Good lord, I was the most over-zealous, awards hungry creative on the planet. I devoured the awards books like they were a prisoner’s last meal. I could recite great headlines like most guys can quote great movie lines. Then, 6 years ago, my dad died. A little over a year later my mom died. My wife said, “Life is short. You need to get back to playing music, your real passion. Let’s go drum shopping!” 5 years later, I am now a better musician than I ever was in my teens. I also love to sing and have now started taking lessons. I recently played a gig in the city accompanying an up-and-coming singer-songwriter on acoustic percussion. As gratifying as coming up with a killer ad concept can be, and it truly is, music just feeds a part of my soul that nothing else does.
"Chasing a toddler became a lot more rewarding than chasing a Cannes Lion."
Did the reality of the ad industry contribute to the decisions you made/the path you’ve taken?
The reality of having kids contributed to more of my life decisions than the reality of the ad industry. Chasing a toddler became a lot more rewarding than chasing a Cannes Lion.
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’m not sure I would have heeded the advice of a 50-something when I was a 20-something, so I doubt any of what I write here will be taken seriously. That said, if any 20-somethings are reading this, save for a rainy day. Trust me, it’s going to rain.
"If any 20-somethings are reading this, save for a rainy day. Trust me, it’s going to rain."
What is your advice to people who are nearing or over 40 in the ad industry?
Take a PTO day, open a bottle of wine, and reflect on how far you’ve come and where you still want to go. Is the plan you put into action back when you started in the business still working? If not, formulate a new path forward. Most of all, don’t put off all those other things in life you really want to do. Whoever said “the days are long but the years are short” must have worked in advertising.
"Don’t put off all those other things in life you really want to do. Whoever said 'the days are long but the years are short' must have worked in advertising."
How are you approaching the next 10 years? What does your future hold?
My youngest just went off to college. My wife and I will now be striving for the perfect balance between work and life. I know, easier said than done.
What do you see as potential solutions for ageism in the industry? Any thoughts on possibly unionizing?
I’m not sure about unionizing, but it’s an interesting thought. Although many of my peers have considered where they’ve worked in this business to be “sweatshops”, unions were started to help the workers in real “sweatshops.”
What are some positive things you’ve experienced as you’ve grown older in the business?
Being able to mentor younger creatives. Too many CDs today hire juniors, throw them into the deep end of the pool and let them sink or swim. Just plain wrong, in my opinion. I was thrilled last year when I was able to bring a junior team to their first video shoot. I probably answered 100 questions between both of them. They were sponges. That was a great day at work.
Who do you look to for inspiration?
Hell, anybody who can turn on the news these days and still remain positive about our future. These organizations are changing the world with really big ideas:
Lifestraw. They invented a carbon-filtered straw that helps people have access to drinkable water in places where there isn’t any.
The Ocean Cleanup organization that is helping to do just what their name says.
The Billion Oyster Project that is working to re-populate New York City’s waters with oyster reefs that can actually protect the city from storms like Sandy.