When Andy Spade, the CEO of Kate Spade, has personally sung the praises of our featured creative, we start there:
“Cabell has one of those minds that combines a military strategist with a sense of humor, A.D.D. child with business acumen, and a mad professor with taste and a sense of composition. He’s a wonderful, bright creative problem solver with more going on in his own head than most of the entire advertising industry today.”
It’s no wonder this über-award-winning creative can’t be limited to just one title. An ad man, designer, professor, entrepreneur and futurist, Cabell’s career began in Richmond, Virginia, at the time when the city was getting national attention as being one of the few creative hot spots outside New York.
He continued building his reputation and portfolio at many distinguished companies in New York, Boston and Los Angeles before founding WORK Inc. as an agency for agencies.
Along with managing WORK, creating ad campaigns, corporate identities, packaging products, publishing books, building apps (stay with us, we’re almost done) and taking his own brands and products to market, Cabell was a professor for over 10 years at the VCU BrandCenter.
Is it surprising that more than one publication has declared this obvious overachiever one of the top creatives in the country? No, no it is not. What would be surprising is if you didn’t want to hear all the brilliant things Cabel had to say about ageism and the industry.
Is ageism in the industry something you thought about in your 30s? Your 40s?
Only as a measuring stick. Looking at where I was in my career and how my goals lined up with my timeline. Most of my peers worked hard and made a name for themselves before they were 30, then life happens. You want more. You want a house, family, hobbies, weekends and vacations. As you age, the challenge is continuing to build a career without sacrificing other areas of your life.
"As you age, the challenge is continuing to build a career without sacrificing other areas of your life."
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.
Computers. My mind works fast but my fingers are very slow with Adobe Creative Suite. I need studio support. Actually, I think this has been a blessing. My studio allows me to get more done and spend more time concepting and on creative direction.
I would consider myself old school in a positive way. I was schooled on a cutting board and made to pay attention to craft. I still concept in journals and sketch on tracing paper.
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 was at the right place at the right time. I started my career in Richmond, VA, the day I graduated from VCU (Virginia Commonwealth University). It was the early 80’s and Richmond was one of the few creative pockets in the country starting to get industry attention. I soon found myself at The Martin Agency and surrounded by mentors in a healthy competitive atmosphere. I didn’t take vacations because I thought I may miss out on a project. I was part of Drinking Buddies Advertising, a small group of like minded folk that worked on bar stools at night and doodling on napkins for pro bono clients. This was all with the desire to build our portfolios and earn the respect of our peers. I found nothing was more exciting than taking a blank piece of paper and making something that had never been done before.
I continued building my portfolio by working for well-respected companies in Boston, New York, and Los Angeles. Again, I was blessed with great partners. My time at these firms helped me become a more well-rounded creative. My past training had me focus on point-of difference-messaging where many of these new clients were often parody products. You need to use and develop a different part of your brain for this.
In 1993, I founded WORK Inc. in Los Angeles as an agency for agencies. Think of it as Seal Team 6 for agencies. They call in worst-case scenarios; an account is in trouble, there’s a new business pitch or they ran out of time on a project. You learn to work very quickly and develop templates for present work.
I believe few individuals have worked for more agencies or brands and categories than I have.
Along with running WORK, creating ad campaigns, corporate identities, packaging products, books, building apps and taking our own brands and products to market, I was also a professor for over 10 years at the VCU BrandCenter, The number one ad school in the country.
Today, WORK has evolved as a brand consultancy working directly with clients who need innovative thinking.
The biggest difference in my mindset, from when I started in the industry, is that advertising, by itself, is boring to me. It’s not as challenging, feels incomplete and seems like the job is just partly done, unfinished. When I first began I only thought about paid media executions now I have transitioned into being a complete brand thinker.
Today, I ask myself, “If I was the client what would I do?” I feel that my job is to help a client get to their next critical stage. I explore multidimensional brand thinking, for example: Brand As Position, Brand As Experience, Brand As Conscience, Brand As Technology, Brand As Communication, Brand As Entertainment, Brand As Buzz, Brand As Product, Brand As Education.
To this day, I still love what I do. And I still believe nothing is more exciting than taking a blank piece of paper and making something that had never been done before.
"Everyone needs to choose a career path and then correct and evaluate along the way. And not only evolve as the industry evolves, but as their life evolves."
Did the reality of the ad industry contribute to the decisions you made/the path you’ve taken?
It’s all about choices. Everyone is different.
What if I had stayed with a large agency in NY or LA? What if I never moved to Richmond?
Would I have more fame? Fortune? Security? What marriage would I be on? What would be the length of my commute? What would be the sq. ft. of my home? How many One Show pencils would I have earned? How many times would I have gone to Cannes? Would I be working on a Super Bowl commercial this year?
Everyone needs to choose a career path and then correct and evaluate along the way. And not only evolve as the industry evolves, but as their life evolves.
Typical Stages of an Advertising Career:
1.) You become a student of the business. Hungry, your mind is a sponge. You have found your passion.
2.) Then you become an apprentice practicing your craft.
3.) You are now considered a skilled laborer. A specialist in your trade.
4.A) You become rewarded, recognized and recruited because of your work.
4.B) You become bored and begin to coast.
5.A) Your portfolio continues to build and gets better.
5.B) Your portfolio becomes old and stale.
6.A) You move up the corporate ladder.
6.B) You become replaceable.
7.A) You continue to evolve
7.B) You continue to struggle
8.) You reinvent yourself.
(Note): chart works best when you look forward not backwards
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 think this goes both ways. I know a lot of 20-year-olds who have taught me a lot.
In reality, I don’t think it’s just an age thing. I think it's more about diversity. The most exciting work comes when you put a lot of different types of people together with a mix of different experiences. This is what keeps work fresh and not formulaic. I digress.
"Realize no recruiters are getting requests for 50- and 60-year-olds. 'It’s not your age, it’s the age of your portfolio.'"
What is your advice to people who are nearing or over 40 in the ad industry?
Realize no recruiters are getting requests for 50 and 60 year olds.
“It’s not your age, it’s the age of your portfolio."
What have you done lately? You are only as good as your last ad. Let your work do the talking. These are not new sayings.
How are you approaching the next 10 years? What does your future hold?
Creating work I love, with people I like, in a place I want to be. It doesn’t matter if I’m working as a CCD of a mega agency or working mobile from a beach chair in the Caribbean. I will work as hard as I can, as well as I can, for as long as I can.
What do you see as potential solutions for ageism in the industry? Any thoughts on possibly unionizing?
Maybe a network of mentoring or Master Crafter services offered to agencies and clients or a skill-sharing program would be interesting to explore. As for unionizing, that would be a NO.
What are some positive things you’ve experienced as you’ve grown older in the business?
You do your best work when you are having fun.
Who do you look to for inspiration?
We live in an amazing time. The Information Age. With one press of a button the whole contents of the Library of Congress can be sent to your computer at the speed of light. So, immerse yourself in a topic, search for stimuli or let your mind wonder… I go to google, then Pinterest, Instagram, Springwise, etc…
Hey, why am I telling you? You know where to look. Here’s an idea, you follow me and I’ll follow you. Instagram: @CabellHarris and @worklabs.