Why This TBWA Creative Leader Wants to See More Focus on Older Industry Pros

Recognition for 40+ is needed, says Walter Geer

Walter T. Geer III isn't impressed with the industry's love of youth. Matt Rodriguez

A couple of months ago, Walter T. Geer III, svp and group creative director at TBWA\Worldhealth, had had enough. Faced with a long list of posts in social media around various awards for industry professionals under 40 or 30, he took to LinkedIn for what one might consider an innocuous post on the topic.

Unexpectedly, these 72 words caught fire. To date, over 24,000 people have liked the post, while almost 1,900 took the time to weigh in. Comments included the “myth” that people over 40 have aged out of a “young” industry. Others shared their own stories of success, including starting businesses at later ages, and one noted that a 62-year-old was part of a cohort getting their bachelor’s degrees.

Though there was some disagreement, most applauded Geer for acknowledging the ageism elephant in the room, a topic that is starting to gain more momentum and one with some high-profile lawsuits currently playing out, including at TBWA.

Adweek caught up with Geer to find out what he learned from posting a simple, yet provocative statement for all to see.

Why did you decide that it was a good time to weigh in on ageism?
Geer: I had seen many posts on social media referencing 30 Under 30 and 40 Under 40 submissions and awards. For the record, I had never received one of these, but I can genuinely say that I’ve never truly craved one. Sure, awards are nice. I’ve had a few, and if I had the opportunity to be nominated for [an age-based] one, I would have been excited and happy. I had simply never worked at a company that cared so much about those types of awards, so it wasn’t an option or even top of mind.

While I give much credit and praise to those being nominated for and winning these awards, I had heard so much about it during the week [last November] that in my tired state of mind, I decided to voice my opinion on Linkedin. Not that I cared about many people seeing it, I had just hoped that a few people would share in my way of thinking and agree, that people over 40 are not dead in the advertising space. I am 42, and I can promise you, we are very much alive.

But this isn’t a post about awards, right?
Correct. This post is about the fact that as an industry, we have forgotten that fantastic talent over the age of 40 is abundant. I work with some creatives at TBWA that are well into their 50s and 60s, and they are incredible. Our society puts such a significant emphasis on the success of young adults that many of us are hoodwinked into believing that they are advertisings saviors.

Research shows that the most successful entrepreneurs are 45 years of age and older. These awards, by and large, are age biased. If by me saying that publicly prevents me from ever receiving some kind of award or praise from those who romanticize these 40 and 30 under awards, then so be it.

The responses to your post seem very eye-opening.
Yes. I read as many posts and messages as possible and engaged in every conversation that I had the time for, but, for the most part, it was challenging to keep up.

I knew ageism was a thing, but I never realized how many people this affects daily. Reading everyone’s stories of failure and success allowed me to have a completely different view of how this affects people, and will likely affect me too. Sadly, there are people out there that lack the understanding of how ageism affects people. Most of these comments made on my post came by way of what looked to be younger people.

One comment, for example, read: “If you’re 40 over 40 and 50 over 50, then you should be in a position of leadership, mentoring and training the future leaders.”

Just because you’re over 40 or 50 most certainly does NOT mean that you should be in a leadership position. People assume that if you’re of a certain age, you should be a senior-level executive within a company. This way of thinking is what applies so much pressure on older people in the workforce.

If you speak to many designers working in advertising, most will likely tell you that at some point, they will age out of their jobs. If you’re not a senior-level creative exec by a certain age, you’re seen as a failure, which is simply not true.

A close friend of mine that recently passed away was in his 50s and one of the best account executives that I’ve ever worked with in the advertising industry. I would ask him why he wasn’t an svp or C-level exec. He had countless opportunities for promotions, and he refused every time. He would say: “Why would I need to take on the added responsibilities of managing someone else, when I’m already one of the top sellers crushing it, making my money and being able to go home when I want and not be stuck in the office all night?”

I didn’t understand it then because I was younger, but I completely get it now.

What are some of your own experiences?
Through my career, I have had many first-hand experiences with being the only black person in a meeting, and an entire office. I can tell you that it is a very uneasy feeling. You go through a range of emotions—from feeling as if everyone is watching closer and waiting for you to screw up to wondering how to fit in (the way I dress, the way I walk, the way I talk), to feeling as though my opinion doesn’t matter, or that I may be seen as the stereotypical angry black man if I raise my voice and speak with passion.

So when someone tells me that they have been going to countless interviews, and though they have several years of experience they are unable to get a job because of their age, I believe them. I know what it feels like to walk into an interview and see a surprised face when they quickly learn that Walter is actually black.

Two years ago, I turned 40, and in all honesty, it felt no different from the day before when I was 39. I’ve worked at big corporations like JPMorgan, The New York Times and Google, but I’ve also worked at some lesser-known startups in tech. I can honestly say that I never thought about ageism until I realized that I was the old guy in the room. When I turned around to chat back and forth with the rest of the people in a meeting, I stopped for a moment to think … and realized that I am that old guy. Fortunately for me, everyone is often surprised when they hear how old I am (thank you, mom and dad, for the genes).

Think about those individuals that have to deal with ageism, and couple that with being a woman and a person of color. That’s potentially three strikes against them. Now that is difficult.

How do you think the industry can forward and improve things for people over 40?
Fixing this problem starts with education. While I had a general understanding of ageism, it wasn’t until I read everyone’s stories that I realized how much of an issue it is and the effect it has on people’s lives. Ageism doesn’t just affect one person. It often affects entire families. Hundreds of people told me that they were afraid to speak about ageism online because of the potential backlash they might receive. Some expressed concern that their bosses may see it, and a single post would lead to the end of their job. Ageism, racism and gender equality should all be conversations that we should feel comfortable with having. No one should feel as though they can’t express their feelings about not being included.

As it relates to these awards, think publications need to either open up these awards for every age group, or be inclusive of the age groups that are excluded. Give us a 40 Over 40, 50 Over 50 or 60 Over 60. Hell, someone commented on my post that we should do a 90 Under 90!

Communication and education are essential. If we can’t speak on these issues, they will never be resolved.

@zanger doug.zanger@adweek.com Doug Zanger is a senior editor, agencies at Adweek, focusing on creativity and agencies.