Art & Commerce: Helping Generation Ex

This is certainly nothing new but, as much as it’s politically incorrect to say, this is an industry of young people. I’m not sure if it’s purely for economic reasons or if people either burn out or just smarten up as they get older. Or both. And we’re not the only industry that is guilty of that.

Hollywood isn’t exactly made up of the elderly, certainly not now that Jack Valenti has passed on to the big silver screen in the sky. Wall Street is also filled with young masters of the universe. Everyone over the ripe old age of 30 hates to read stories about those Silicon Valley baby skazillionaires. And “hip-hop” certainly doesn’t refer to an elderly ailment suffered by Billboard’s chartbusters. (The Rolling Stones and Madonna excluded.)

And then, of course, there’s prostitution. Even though it’s always been known as the “oldest profession,” I don’t think it’s because of the median age of those hard-working women and men. But, as evidenced by a recent story on CNN.com, even they take care of their own. CNN.com, for those of you who missed it, did a story on a Mexico City home for the elderly—elderly prostitutes, that is. If they can do it, why can’t we?

We in the ad biz don’t so much as have a bagel breakfast for those who preceded us but might not have much to fall back on other than an outdated resumé, a dusty portfolio or a discolored reel—and I do mean reels, not cassettes. They came in tins. In fact, I’m old enough to remember that one of the most important people in a new-business pitch was the projectionist.

Those days are gone—luckily, probably. But many of the people aren’t. And some of them need our help. I’m not talking about the Hall of Fame dinners or the roasts for the head honchos of our ranks; I’m talking about all the people who busted their proverbial asses in the trenches of what was once Madison Avenue. Sure, we lionize their work in awards show annuals and marvel at their cleverness during endless rehashings of classic TV commercials, but has anyone ever given any real thought to what happens to some of those people once they reach retirement age and become “no longer relevant?”

You can bet that the greatest majority didn’t make the big bucks we see today. And yet they worked just as hard, were just as clever and endured the same pressures we do now. I doubt it was any easier back then than it is today—no matter how glamorous Mad Men makes it appear. To survive, they had to hit home runs out of the ballpark repeatedly. They had to come up with amazing ideas for print, TV, radio, research, media—you name it. But at the end of their day, they got their salaries and went home. And many of them went home forever.

Maybe I have “sucker” written across my forehead. But maybe I’m not the only one this has happened to. In fact, I’m sure I’m not the only one. In the past five or six years, I’ve had too many—even one is too many—former advertising people (some of them bona fide luminaries of their time) ask me for money to help pay their rent. Some have asked for financial help because they could no longer work due to illness. And some just asked me to help them put some food on the table. And none of these people ever worked for me. They are all people that I always treated with respect and certainly at least gave the time of day. Now I find myself giving them a little bit more.

Maybe it’s because I’m getting closer to that age myself, but to me this is gut-wrenching stuff. I help when I can, but I’m not a Salvation Army of one or the Red Cross.

They may not all have been Young Turks or those under-30 overachievers, but they were all human beings who we came into contact with every day and at the very least helped us get the work out the door. And yes, some of them may have put their hard-earned money up their noses or drank it away or spent it on numerous, costly divorces or worse. (Although, having gone through a divorce myself, I’m not sure there is anything worse). But even if that is the case, it’s none of my business. Who am I to judge? I remember when I was younger—and I think we’ve all done this and probably still do it—we would walk or stumble back from lunch at Smith & Wollensky and joke when we saw a homeless person on the sidewalk: “Hey, isn’t that our old creative supervisor?” Well, guess what? It’s funny but it’s not.

This isn’t a tirade about union building. Most professions have found a way to help their own. Can’t we just start a fund for the people who at least paid their dues? Can’t we have one fund-raiser a year to establish an annuity for our own people in need? Can’t every agency in America give even $100 a year? Or every person $10? Can’t suppliers donate something? (I know many of them have donated cars, driveways and homes in the past, but this is different.) Why not start by passing around the hat while we’re passing out the awards? Is that too much to ask in order to help? After all, those people could some day be us people.