The founder of "The Society of Very Senior Creatives" is not afraid of taking on the subject of ageism, sexism and whatever other 'ism' that comes her way. Madeleine began her career as a set designer working for some people you may have heard of... (Eddie Izzard????). After transitioning to advertising, she's conceived ground-breaking ads, won awards and fought to hire more women in the industry. Madeleine credits her one-of-a-kind perspective on the world to being born with a port-wine stain on her face.
"I learnt early on how effective a smile could be, no matter how wonky. I also learned that my unusual appearance was a great way of weeding out the wankers. So, I lifted my head high and looked the world in the eye."
She believes that in order to write insightful and intuitive copy it helps to have a fair bit of life experience. And she has loads. We can't wait to see what she does next.
Is ageism in the industry something you thought about in your 30s? Your 40s?
I was a late starter. When I decided to move into advertising I’d already had a successful career as a theatre designer. So, I was in my 30’s when I got my first job in an agency. I think being that bit older made a huge difference to my attitude and the work I produced. I’d already had a lot of life experience which fed my ideas and I was confident enough not to feel like I had to suck up to my boss and play pool with the boys. And there were a lot of boys back then. When we joined DMB&B we were one of only two female creative teams in the department. My age helped me move into a more senior role quite quickly, but when the agency merged and a new ECD came in, everything changed. I became aware that we were perceived as older women, no longer young and fresh. My creative partner had a child by then and we started to get sidelined. The good briefs stopped coming and eventually we were made redundant. I’m sure this was because of our life stage - but I was still only 36! So yes, I did think about ageism in my 30’s. In my 40’s I was too busy juggling life as a working mum to think about ageism!
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 think ageism is something that has affected me throughout my working life. Mostly because people work on assumptions and stereotypes. I also think society is much more ageist when it comes to women. As a set designer in my 20’s people thought I didn’t have the maturity to oversee teams of (mostly male) set builders. As a female creative in my 30’s it was assumed I’d be leaving to have a baby at the drop of a hat. And in my 40’s I was seen as a middle-aged suburban mum. So, I got the briefs that the young creatives didn’t want or couldn’t crack. I wasn’t put on pitches because I worked a 4-day week and it was assumed I didn’t get digital because I wasn’t a digital native. I became demotivated and disillusioned.
"I think ageism is something that has affected me throughout my working life...I also think society is much more ageist when it comes to women."
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?
At the beginning of my career I thought I could change adland, get more real women into ads and make a difference. I also thought I’d make loads of money and retire once I hit 50! Ummm… well that hasn’t really worked out. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I did get more real women into ads, I fought to use female directors and photographers and I proved you can be a mum and still be a good creative (actually I was an even better creative once I became a mum). But I’m 52 now and I’m far from rich. I’m not going to be retiring any time soon, and now I’m trying to change the way we portray older people in ads. Creatively I’m better, faster and more fluid. What I’ve found, now that I’m freelancing, is that people are surprised at how quickly I crack briefs and how good my copy is. Why is that such a surprise? I’ve spent over 20 years honing my craft, I’ve worked on a huge variety of products, I may not be a digital native but most good ideas will translate across platforms and a good idea well-crafted is still what we should be aiming for.
Did the reality of the ad industry contribute to the decisions you made/the path you’ve taken?
Hell yeah! The ad industry is relentless and stressful. You have to be truly dedicated to rise through the ranks. You also have to have a very thick skin and incredible self-belief. If you doubt yourself or have other commitments your career will suffer. When I first started working in adland I tried to continue doing my set design but it was impossible with the hours I was working. Then when I struggled to get pregnant in my late 30’s and went through several rounds of IVF. I had to reject job offers and keep my stress levels low which meant not taking on big briefs. In-spite of this I still love my job. It’s how I met my husband and I’m really proud of the work I’ve produced.
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 now a mentor and I know my experience in the industry will help my mentees navigate their own paths. What I offer is more valuable than just good copywriting skills, it’s life skills and an understanding of a complex and fast changing industry.
What is your advice to people who are nearing or over 40 in the ad industry?
My advice is to think about what you really want from this industry. If it’s a stable job and a regular income then you may want to look elsewhere. If it’s creative satisfaction, the opportunity to learn something new every day, work collaboratively, discover new ways to reach people and even be a change maker then stick it out – but make sure you have savings in place for the down times. And if you can take some time out to step back and refresh your head, your creative output will improve dramatically.
"My advice is to think about what you really want from this industry. If it’s a stable job and a regular income then you may want to look elsewhere."
How are you approaching the next 10 years? What does your future hold?
I want to make a difference. I want to see real change, with more diverse employees creating more inclusive ads - ads that are a true reflection of society. And I want to spend more time with my little girl.
What do you see as potential solutions for ageism in the industry? Any thoughts on possibly unionizing?
We need quotas and targets. Without positive action nothing will change – we’ll just carry on talking to ourselves. We need to make sure that when a recruiter or employer looks to fill a position they see the added value a senior can bring, not negate them without even getting to interview stage. But equally senior creatives need to accept that they may not be able to earn the kind of money they were on when they were CD’s. It’s all about balance and acceptance.
"We need to make sure that when a recruiter or employer looks to fill a position they see the added value a senior can bring, not negate them without even getting to interview stage."
What are some positive things you’ve experienced as you’ve grown older in the business?
Now I’m freelancing I am being appreciated and valued much more for what I bring to the table. My experience has made me very versatile and I love learning new ways of building a campaign through alternative channels.
Who do you look to for inspiration?
I love millennials. Their confidence and inherent self-belief are inspiring. I wish I’d been more like that when I was younger. I think they will be the solution to flexible working and a more inclusive workplace. They are already making huge changes because they realize if it’s not a job for life then they won’t put up with shitty hours and a bad environment. We need to work with them and learn from each other.