Although there are still a few hours before I turn 60, I’ve been considered a digital dinosaur for a couple of decades now. Every few months for about 20 years, I’ve run into an eager young entrepreneur, or a cute-as-a-button newly minted college grad who’s eager to show me they know more than I do.
Age discrimination may be illegal, but it’s alive and well and flourishing in the world of digital marketing. Reputable publications have no scruples about publishing articles that come right out and say that it’s possible to be too old for digital marketing. Like this one.
What the author says, that her generation of digital natives are “naturals” at social media and digital marketing, has some merit. But here’s the thing. An older person with up-to-date skills and an open mind may be more productive, and more valuable, to any marketing organization, than a newly minted marketer who has more experience texting their friends than creating brand-loyal customers.
What Age & Experience Are Worth
The marketplace doesn’t place a very high value on marketing and public relations experience. There’s often no difference in the salary offered to someone with 5 years of experience and the salary offered to someone with 20 years of experience. In fact, the salary offered to the more experienced person is often lower. (They don’t say it’s because of the person’s age, of course. They say that there’s a salary cap on the job, or create some other legal reason for the low pay.)
The truth is that salaries for marketing and PR people peak when they’re in their 30’s. By the time they’re 40, they’re considered ancient — and by the time they’re my age, they’re considered fossils incapable of doing a good job. I have to admit, some of the people my age are fossils.
A few weeks ago, I sent a new client a report with links to about 300 major websites that had carried a press release I wrote for his company. The CMO who hired me is in her 30’s, but the executive who got the report is in his 50’s. He looked at it, and then read the cover note I’d attached that explained that we had focused on web links for this release because the primary purpose of publishing that particular release was SEO (search engine optimization), not media coverage.
Then he fired off an email that said, “How will you know that they actually covered our news? Do you subscribe to a clipping service that sends you proof in the form of printed clips?”
I am old enough to remember when having a clipping service was required for a PR agency. But I didn’t know there were any still in business. I haven’t subscribed to one for at least 30 years. And it’s guys like that, who are still marketing like it’s the 1980’s, who make anyone my age look bad. He simply didn’t recognize that all the proof he needed was in the report. Just click on a link, and there’s your story, on the website. Why do you need a different report to tell you want a free Google Alert will tell you anyway?
A smart marketer is a smart marketer, and it doesn’t always matter whether the person you hire is 25 or 55, 30 or 60. But there are some things that you get when you work with me (or someone like me — and there are a lot of tech-savvy marketers my age or even a bit older) that you just can’t get when you hire a 20-something marketing wizard. Here’s a short list of the valuable things you get when you hire an older PR person or marketer:
- Someone who wants to do the job — not use it as a stepping stone on the road to something better.
- Someone who knows how to meet a deadline, take criticism, solve problems, and manage a budget. No matter how smart you are, these are things that no one does as well in their 20’s as they do after 40.
- Someone who has already made the inevitable mistakes. If they’re still working, and still have great references (not just people who put in their time, but really good people with experience), you’ll save lots of money if they don’t make their mistakes on your nickel.
- Someone who knows more than one discipline. It’s called social media marketing — and it’s not about having a conversation, attracting followers, or creating an online personality. It’s about creating an environment that lets you communicate to people who can buy things from you — and giving them reasons to do so within the context of the earned media you’re working with. (It’s not advertising, it’s evangelism.)
- Someone with friends in high places. When I put in a phone call to someone, my calls usually get returned. Whether I’m calling a top journalist, the CEO of a firm my client wants to do business with, or a venture capitalist or angel investor, chances are I’m going in armed with the kind of connections, references, and shared contacts that no one younger can match.
Of course, there are some things you won’t get if you hire someone like me. You won’t get someone willing to work ridiculous hours for no pay or very little pay. And you certainly won’t get someone who will let you get away with shoddy business practices when they are fully aware of the alphabet-soup of federal and state regulations that apply to marketing communications.
The truth is, I don’t have to work. So I don’t take on clients I’m not excited about. The results I get speak for themselves, because I do have up-to-the-minute skills, and I do know how to use a wide range of digital media tools to get the results my clients want.
So with my birthday looming — and my grandkids’ pitching in for a lovely gift — I’m not really all that upset about the young college grad who told me a couple of weeks ago that she’d be happy to help me with social media for the company she’s been hired to work for.
She thinks she’s going to come up with some brilliant strategies that will convince the boss that I’m not needed. She even offered to explain Instagram to me because she’s sure that I can’t possibly be up to date on the importance of cell phones and photos on how people share information about companies and products.
I wonder when she’s going to get around to doing some homework and figuring out that I’m one of the larger investors in the company that employs her? Or that I was at Starfish Software when Philippe Kahn invented the camera phone? Or that I was part of the team that built the company she was raving about the other day to the point that she recommended it to me to replace “the antiquated cable TV service” her parents use?
I’ll listen to her ideas — I’ve had the privilege of working with some amazing young people, and there is no age requirement for inspiration. But I hope I will be forgiven if I don’t think she has a lot to teach me about the basics of digital marketing. Not just yet.