Unlocking Agency Potential: Wisdom of Chief Creatives Over 50

By Peter Nicholson

A chief creative officer over 50 is a powerful asset to agencies today. Is this a biased point of view? Absolutely. 

 I am over 50. I am also steadfast in my belief that anyone who thinks age is irrelevant in the job conversation is living in a utopian dreamworld. 

We have an ever-growing list of awards for our younger-than-50 industry cohorts—40 Under 40, 30 Under 30, Young Guns, Rising Stars of Madison Avenue. 

We also continue to see the stripping of senior talent from the workforce. The median age for managerial positions in our industry is 37; The average age of a creative is only 28. 

Yes, I’m oversimplifying, but it doesn’t change the underlying reality: The 50+ CCO is a rare (and often undervalued) player. 

We don’t all become agency founders 

The stereotypical linear path for a creative as they age and reach the pinnacle of their career dictates that they will become agency founders. But that’s not the path the majority follows. 

Many prefer to remain within agencies, helping them succeed and becoming executive creative directors ECDs or CCOs or the equivalent—and then continuing to get better in that role. 

I think of myself as a seasoned CCO. I’ve done this job many times. I’ve been fired from doing it many times. And along the way, I’ve come to appreciate that I was never fully ready to do the job properly when I was younger.  

CCO is one of the vaguest titles in an agency  

You would think it would be the sharpest and clearest to understand, but it’s not.  

The No. 1 requirement to be a CCO is wisdom. Is this a cliche? Who cares? It’s the truth.  

When I look back to why I was hired, it was for many of the wrong reasons, and I put that on myself as I did not ask the right questions before taking the job.  

Many times, CCOs are hired because they can deliver good work and more often great work—period. And while that is a very big part of the job, it’s not the job. And that is the reason so many CCOs change regularly.  

When I was younger, I didn’t yet know the questions I needed to ask and understand in order to be successful. I hadn’t done the self-analysis of my own career to know that it was truly the job I wanted to do.  

Wisdom can make you a wizard 

Falling under the spell of being wanted for your ability to bring “the magic” is hard to resist. The ego plus the money makes it hard to say no. But there are very few people in this business that have that magic and they know who they are. 

For the rest of us mere mortals, we can hope to become wizards with wisdom. 

By 50, I’ve managed all sorts of creatives and developed client relationships. I understand how the business makes money. I’m familiar with staffing plans and scopes of work. I’ve partnered with awesome account leaders, strategists and media leaders and acquired a love of data. I’ve figured out how to stay atop culture and technology. I know what an insight actually is. I’ve listened to the employees who create agency culture and fought for them. 

I’m not saying that a CCO under 50 hasn’t had these experiences and isn’t competent at doing their job, but for me, something just clicked for me when I passed age 50. 

It can take 50 years for industry cynicism to wear off 

At 50, the cynicism about our business actually wanes. Positivity and determination to make sure this industry exists way into the future kick in.  

This passion and love for the job and its ever-changing nature is the secret sauce for a CCO and it doesn’t kick in till 50.  

Nurturing creativity 

The CCO job is about leveraging years of wisdom to nurture creativity (not creative). Creativity is always changing. It needs a guide with an abundance of wisdom to ensure its power runs through everyone’s blood in the agency.  

 When I turn 60, will I reflect on this moment and think I was spouting BS? Was I 10 years off? Was I wise and nailed it? I don’t know, but I’ll find out then. In the meantime, I hope agency leaders give more serious thought to their 50+ candidates.

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