Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Samson’s grey hair

Published in Nov-Dec 2016
Why listening to your consumer and understanding human behaviour is crucial to advertising.
Illustration by Creative Unit.
Illustration by Creative Unit.

There was a time when a candle being burned at both ends was viewed with a sense of sad irony, at the imminent end of something beautiful, wilfully spent far too fast. It was reckless and wasteful.

Today, it is a celebration. That’s just the world we live in. Look how bright it shines.

Whichever way you look at it, it doesn’t change the lifespan of the candle.

Or for that matter, the life of an adman.

See, advertising is one of those businesses that has historically been terrified of old age, almost loathingly reserving imagery of senior citizens and the elderly purely for expensive banking or osteoporosis medication. Or at best, playing the role of the judgmental mother-in-law or doting grandfather. Best supporting actors.

And not because there isn’t a sizeable number of people in their 50s, 60s and 70s with purchasing power. Hell, if anything, this is the demographic that influences or controls all your wealth. Globally, and in your own office. How old is the CMO? And how old is the CFO signing his pay cheque every month?

In a business designed to shine and awe, it’s easy to understand why the charm of youth seems so attractive. Unfortunately, it is that very charm that young energetic people get their rush from, and often don’t realise what they have done before it’s too late.

The reason why youth is celebrated in advertising (and marketing) is because the industry celebrates anything that burns twice as bright. Advertising is a business built on the foundations of one victory for every 100 failures. You need twice the brightness to keep the show running.

Much like any innovation-driven business, our industry is based on failure first. You must fail before you succeed. Unless (God forbid) the day arrives when we share PowerPoint decks with consumers, an ad agency’s end product will, in some shape or form, always be ads. And ads are entirely subjective. You could be on the right track, making great work, but whether your client likes it or not, has much to do with whether he likes you or not, and if the work is his personal flavour. Good work repeatedly dies in boardrooms every day, often before great work emerges.


If you start in your 20s (and assuming you are good at your craft) it’s quite likely you can work your way up to a decent position in your late 30s. Great. Fifteen years in, you are an art director named Jamschayd or Xubair (cool guy, that Xubair), pulling about 300k and a car, two or three international shoots a year. No seriously, that’s pretty good.


And this repeated failure before the glorious victory needs fuel. This failure requires the ability to stand up, get knocked down to fumble and stumble. This fuel is resilience and energy that only youth brings. This fuel is the ink in the money-printing machine.

As with all lit candles, there is a trade off… youth is fleeting. If you start in your 20s (and assuming you are good at your craft) it’s quite likely you can work your way up to a decent position in your late 30s. Great. Fifteen years in, you are an art director named Jamschayd or Xubair (cool guy, that Xubair), pulling about 300k and a car, two or three international shoots a year. No seriously, that’s pretty good.

But that is as good as it’s going to get.

This is where Xubair, the cool guy art director, starts to become obsolete, and the obligatory annual 10% increment starts. Probably until his early 40s (or whenever his benevolent management deems fair), until eventually he is considered to be deadweight, and well, it doesn’t get any prettier from there. Samson lost his hair before they turned grey.

Everything was so nice and shiny... What went wrong?

Three things went wrong, all at the same time.

First, you got spent buddy.

Somewhere in your late 30s, you woke up, went to work, failed a bit and said ‘it’s okay, just f*** it’. 1,700 hours a year, over 15 years that’s 25,500 hours. This was bound to happen. Sadly, the F word is the enemy of greatness, and doesn’t make anybody any money.

Second, if you thought technology would save you, no it will not, and neither will the new Bluetooth iPhone 7 earpods.

Sure, our phones have more computing power than the computers sending man to the moon. True, people don’t talk anymore, they tweet and post and share and pin – the digital landscape is the fabric of our lives. Yes. Well, no. Don’t be fooled, being tech-savvy, on trend, always staying connected won’t help you much; it’s just camouflage. It’s yet another technical skill. A very important one – but just another technical skill. There is a kid out there half your age who grew up with the same tech and is more fluent than you will ever be. Be paranoid Xub; that kid is after you.

I would actually go so far as to blame technology itself. This is partly why Xubair is in this jam. Becoming tech-savvy created an illusion of having acquired a timeless skill. While the internet and handheld devices have made young creatives and strategists mentally lazy, intellectually lethargic and overtly trendy – insights seem like they are a ‘google’ away. Yet, in reality, they have been and still are, in people’s living rooms, bedrooms; their lonely and happy moments – and anywhere but Google.

Third, and most importantly, you learned all the right things, but not much of the true things.

Given the fact that advertising is high speed, fraught with fires that need to be fought constantly, true learning becomes evasive. Learning becomes something that is either expected to be served on a plate, or something one acquires on the job. And that is where the real problem lies.


Being able to instinctually know what is keeping your client awake at night, or how to retain top talent, what a client is really looking for in a pitch, why people didn’t trust the new consumer promotion – all of these are directly linked to understanding people. It’s baffling how something this simple can be so powerful, yet is the most overlooked.


The reason why so many qualified professionals find their career stagnating is because after prime, youth is spent and all that’s left is a long list of campaigns that don’t matter, and in a best case scenario, a variety of fantastic technical skills. What is largely missing is an understanding of the human condition.

It is this understanding of people that opens doors after 40 into positions of authority, influence, leadership and power. Positions that don’t need technical skills, only an understanding of them.

Knowing how other people think, what they feel, how they will respond, what they will do next, this data, this knowledge and understanding, all of this is of most value when one is older, more mature, when the loud frenzy of voices have begun to subside and truth can be heard clearly, and the instinct is sharp and clear.

Being able to instinctually know what is keeping your client awake at night, or how to retain top talent, what a client is really looking for in a pitch, why people didn’t trust the new consumer promotion – all of these are directly linked to understanding people. It’s baffling how something this simple can be so powerful, yet is the most overlooked.

Your CEO is your CEO, because his father owned the business, or because he has an exceptional human understanding. Or both. The same applies to a top executive creative director. Or marketing director. Or the head of HR that hired him.

And these people in my opinion are all people who never forgot to keep themselves curious and thirsty, not for learning in general, but specifically human learning within the context of our profession.

Don’t be like Xubair. Don’t think you’re cool. Watch people; listen to them more than you speak. Listen to them when they are not talking. There is no manual or wise book that will teach you this. As long as the end consumers of our craft are people, it is learning about them that will keep you in business.

Muzaffar Manghi is General Manager, Adcom Leo Burnett.