Ian Mirlin on the virtue of wisdom over TED talks

We are an industry living in transformational times. But there is a growing sense this era has tilted us towards a fixation of youth over experience.

It’s time we assess the cost to our work and our collective future.

Ageism is a self-defeating and arrogant view of life. Dismissing the value of the past condemns us to a superficial and eternal present detached from the value of what preceded us, impairing our ability to understand our present circumstances or shape our future with any insight.

When ageism finds its way into business, it wreaks a special kind of havoc, capable of undermining the very foundation on which a business is built.

Worse still, when amplified by the disruption caused by technology, ageism is a wrecking ball inclined more to demolition than renovation. I can think of no example more obvious than the business of marketing and advertising.

It’s a profound pity that ageism and its persuasive ally the digital age has led to a revisionist perspective that has blurred the blueprint on which our profession was built. In the haze that has settled upon us, we go about our work as if the founding principles of branding and communication—pre-social media in particular and pre-digital in general—are irrelevant.

It’s a crime that has severed us from the wisdom of our past, leaving us to find our way forward with TED talks, marketing webinars and the latest brand guru’s newest model for salvation.

This while agencies sink beneath the weight of their depleted margins, clients grow frustrated and discontented beyond measure, and many on both sides are suffering equal doses of fatigue and disillusionment.

The perceived irrelevance of the brilliant minds that brought us here threatens to be our great undoing. If ours were the music business, we’d be saying that nothing of any consequence happened before the advent of Justin Bieber.

Not Mozart, Muddy Waters, Elvis, Billie Holiday or Bob Dylan, or any other formidable talent you can name, until Justin appeared on YouTube warbling about the trials of young love in his bedroom.

I am grateful for the 48 years I’ve spent earning a living in this business and I am passionate about our collective survival. My love for the flame that illuminated our work in the past is not nostalgia on my part, but a sincere conviction that we are a more effective and meaningful business when our work looks to engage the whole human being the way the great masters believed, rather than incessantly mugging the consumer within.

The former is the only way enduring brands are built, the latter is not.

We were once driven by the creativity of our ideas. Today, we are an industry seduced by the media access that emboldens us to pursue our customers to the point of annoyance.

We were once obsessed with our creative product. Today we’re all about delivering it. We used to be in manufacturing, today we’re in the distribution business.

What we once were and what we are now are not mutually exclusive, but the braiding that will effectively weave past to present is a task that still awaits us. Getting to grips with it is critical to our survival, but we’re going to have to get rid of the ageism first.

Ian Mirlin is one of Canada’s most respected and accomplished creative directors. He was the co-founder of the creative agency Harrod & Mirlin. His passion for brands and the creativity that gives them life forged a career approaching five decades.