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If marketing is about translating people’s needs into products and services, it is our duty to change the conversation and bring it back to what makes good marketers: empathy, curiosity and an insatiable desire to learn, says Dominique Touchaud, the founder of Shokunin Marketing.

I am a gen Xer. I work in marketing. And it’s a curse.

Experience is regarded in many fields as an increased capacity to come up with innovative solutions. Finance directors better have some mileage. Purchasing managers? They negotiate better. Bald tax advisors charge a premium rate. Middle-aged nurses always come up with new tricks to get young and old to smile during the vaccinations. And wait until the 25-year-old architect rings the doorbell as you are dreaming about your new house... Meanwhile, we keep celebrating the 40 under 40. And then retire them in droves.

Our industry associates the ability to think, act and execute creatively with age. Not talent. And the only culture we tolerate is of the POP kind. Growing old correlates with the incapacity to learn, change or even use new technology. Even the algorithms agree. Listen to the Backstreet Boys on Spotify, and you are in imminent danger to be retargeted with an ad for the latest Swiss hearing aid device or a sleek titanium hip replacement.

That ‘discomfort’ with age has nothing to do with any digital transformation. It has been transporting senior marketers into an inverted ‘Hunger Games’ for decades – a parallel universe where all the 40+ have been retired en masse to pursue other, mostly personal, interests. The 2018 IPA census showed that only 6% of staff in member agencies are over 50, compared with 31% of the workforce.

It’s an economic catastrophe and management nonsense, no less. And it is ridiculously devoid of any ground.

In a study carried out from 2007 to 2021, James Freyer (Dartmouth College) demonstrated that there is a strong and robust correlation between the size of the prime-age workforce, centered around the 40-year-old cohort, and total productivity. Forces that are relatively (too) young or (too) old tend to have lower productivity. The more diverse a business is – in terms of gender, ethnicity and age – the more successful the business will be. Simply put, diverse businesses are more profitable.

Why is it then that the marketing function is so much more age-biased than, say, finance or logistics? Does age really correlate negatively to strategic thinking, creative inspiration or innovation adoption?

The answer is a resounding no on all aspects:

  • Professionals who earn their living with their brains (teachers, historians, philosophers...) are all prone to ‘late’ cognitive peaks. And cognitive declines are at worse gradual but mostly negligible. Older marketers don’t think less or slow or fast. They just keep thinking. And doing. Except they may work faster.

  • All creative professions (acting, singing, dancing, architecture...) reward experience with the highest recognition. 40 is not necessarily your prime if you are a musician, a writer, a dancer or even an NFT producer. Experience gives creative minds a ‘don’t give a toss’ approach to life and work that actually encourages risk-taking and propensity to break the mold. In more scientific terms, a looser frontal lobe organization can heighten creativity in older people. As Professor Rex Jung puts it: “You have lots of data at your hands and you have fewer brakes on your frontal inhibitors: you can put things together in your novel and useful way.”

  • Would it be then that senior marketers cannot embrace innovation and innovative practices (read digital)? It would if you consider that being on TikTok means understanding how to use TikTok in your plans. Most company leaders still mistakenly gauge the pace of adoption of new toys as proof that their internal marketing team is innovative, cutting edge and focused on performance. Activity v action. I hear that this is even one of the most discussed topics on Clubhouse.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not fighting for my tribe of elephants. All marketers do have a sell-by date. But it is determined by their individual ‘dare to care’ limit – that moment when the job becomes too easy because you know the environment too well. When getting promoted is more appealing than getting the plan right. When sending an email to your distributor in Japan is more efficient than waking up in the middle of the night to call them. When good enough becomes good.

It can hit you at 25 or at 45 (truth is, when it hits you at 45, it’s harder to hide).

But if marketing is about translating people’s needs into products and services, it is our duty to change the conversation and bring it back to what makes good marketers: empathy, curiosity and an insatiable desire to learn.

I kept many things from my years with P&G. Above all sits the obsession to do the right thing for the business. This implies constantly balancing experience and expertise to control your own obsolescence. When you are short of both ‘Xs’, you surely run with guts. One day the shift happens. ‘We have always done it like this’ suddenly fights with ‘it’s not working as well as it used to’. This is a battle for relevance that marketers have to fight and overcome, and that usually happens even when your wrinkles’ network expands faster than your LinkedIn’s one.

We should all pay attention to this. You too, my beloved 30-year-old readers (by the way, senior starts at 45 for the statistics, which barely leaves anyone time to enjoy their 40s awards). With working life now spanning a lifetime, taking a fresh approach to how we manage our career is essential: prioritizing training and personal development becomes a duty. I work with scientists and doctors. They all have continuing professional development plans. Marketing seems to be the industry where learning has a bad rep: marketers often have to pay for their education on their own dimes and it is somewhat shameful to admit that you took an online class in digital marketing or strategy unless it’s delivered by Ritson, Galloway or the Harvard executive program.

But marketers who share a desire to learn are golden geese, not underperformers. For sure, we need young, challenging minds, but we also need thick-skinned marketers with resistance to stress and bad business results equaling that of a marathon runner in the sweltering heat of the Tokyo Olympics. We need balance.

With this balanced approach, our sell-by date will not be programmed. Obsolescence will only start when you can’t get any learning out of the marketer... hey boomer, squeeze this!

Thanks to Steve Walls, David Mayo and Matthias Blume for their contributions. You certainly don’t deserve early retirement.

Dominique Touchaud is the founder of Shokunin Marketing.