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  • Writer's pictureBarrie Seppings

Here's why learning is the only skill guaranteed to keep you in the game.

Updated: Jun 15, 2020

Hot on the heels of the #metoo movement that, thankfully, caught up with the marketing and advertising industries, comes a growing awareness of ageism in our industry.

Skills learning career
If you fear your career is sunsetting, new skills can help you regain altitude.

Constant-voice-of-reason/thorn-in-a-broken-industry’s-side Cindy Gallop points to ageism as a threat not just to individuals (and, in typical fashion, a disproportionately greater threat to women than men), but to the industry as a whole:

"All that incredible wisdom’s gone. We’re failing ourselves by seeing people who are older as being expensive and not valuable. We’re not keeping great people."

It’s not wise to simply expect that the industry will reverse its position, recognise your years in the game, grant you automatic respect and pull out a seat for you at the table.

While some levelling of the most egregious imbalances in the playing field are sorely needed to increase diversity, it is, at base, a commercial enterprise in a capitalist system. Older players in our game also have to work to demonstrate value and relevance.

Skills are not enough

This may carbon date me, but I worked with a colleague who resisted the arrival of computers in the creative department (I actually worked with several of these. Plus a few who resisted covered footwear in the office and couple who resisted sobriety, but that’s a story for another time).  At the time, the agency was offering training*, but my colleague always found a way to duck it. Very quickly, the ability to both think and execute became the new acceptable minimum standard for most Art Directors. My colleague left the industry soon after.

Fast-forward to now and I’m constantly impressed by how younger talent coming into the field are competent on so many digital production tools. It’s easy to dismiss it as ‘digital nativism’ but it’s more than that. Creative content is the currency of their social ecosystem: making memes gets you likes.

However, it appears the pendulum may well have swung to other end of the stroke.

I’m not the only one who is spotting a gap between those who can ‘do’ and those who can ‘think’.

"...with 70% of young people currently learning skills that will be redundant by 2030, the mismatch between skills supply and demand is now one of the most pressing economic challenges facing Australia."

That’s from a recent study by the Foundation for Young Australians, and it points to a looming skills crisis, built upon outmoded education models that train for specific skills, rather than an ability to learn and adapt.

For older talent: the need to keep on re-skilling is not going away anytime soon. For the younger players in the industry: now’s your chance to establish a career-long CV entry in the art of learning.

Why you have to learn to learn

Watching my wife learn to become a teacher (her 4th trained career before 40), then learn how to teach in our very challenging – yet absolutely vital – public school system, then teach herself how to be a specialist teacher in a whole new subject in a matter of weeks, taught me something: learning is the skill that keeps you in the game.

Reading a few LinkedIn posts or HBR articles while you’re gathering up the focus to do your actual work, sadly, doesn’t count as learning. I’m talking about directed, structured, measured education. Like most skills, regular practice and constant challenges are the key to improvement. While training is becoming increasingly easy to access – take a look at Firebrand’s partner Aquent Gymnasium series for a start – it can take a bit of discipline to get all the way through a course. Note: it takes a shedload if you want to attempt ‘self-directed learning’, but before the discipline, it takes a bit of provocation to get started. You need to make a commitment.

Behavioural economists believe we are twice as motivated to avoid a loss as we are to generate a profit. Use this quirk of neuro-witchcraft – book a course, spend the money and then let your loss-averse brain badger you into getting started. Which we all know is the hardest part.

It was partly curiosity, partly fear (a big overseas trip to celebrate a bunch of significant life milestones will do that to you), that drove me to put a learning plan of my own together for the year ahead. As far as industry-related training, I’m investing in a couple of conferences and also attending training courses put on by some of our delivery partners. There’s simply no faster way to get chapter and verse on your collaborators’ skills and methods than by paying to have them train you in them.

On the home front, I’ve stopped blasting about mindlessly on my dirtbike (all I was achieving was finding new and creative ways to dismount) and, with the help of YouTube, started doing proper low-speed training drills to work on balance and technique. I’m already crashing “heaps less, ay.”

In terms of professional skills, I’ve taken a sideways step and am doing some voice coaching. I’m also taking some basic theatre and stage technique classes to help improve my confidence and performance in front of an audience, whether that’s pitching, facilitating or presenting.

And in terms of product learning, we’re developing a training course for some of our Brand Strategy processes, delivered online as a series of interactive modules, in partnership with an industry association.

As new teachers, we’re having to take a step back and look at how our products work when we’re not in the room to guide them, paying careful attention to the language and pacing while making the most of the medium. As the maxim suggested, we’ve discovered one of the most effective ways to learn is to teach.

* Actually, it was the ‘desktop publishing’ software companies offering the training as two competing platforms fought for the ‘hearts and minds’ of art directors and studios in a ground battle for industry supremacy. Congrats Adobe, you won.

About the Author:

Barrie Seppings is the Founder and Director of The Transfer Desk, a Brand Strategist, Creative Director, Copywriter, Facilitator, Novelist, Motorcyclist and Surfer. He's old enough to have introduced a very famous advertising legend to the internet. The alleged legend shrugged and asked "Can it give me a blowjob?". How prophetic.

This post originally appeared on the Firebrand Blog.

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