Too Old for Portfolio School

More than a few people have told me they wanted to go to portfolio school, but figured they were too old. Advertising’s a young man’s game, and they missed the boat. Whenever I hear this, I always think of Ronny Northrop. Ronny and I were classmates at the VCU Adcenter. I was 25 and thought I was old. Ronny was in his 30s. At that age, some people would have bailed and gotten into real estate. Ronny went on to work at places like Crispin and Goodby.

I recently emailed Ronny a few questions, which he was kind enough to answer. Long story short, if you think you’re too old to do something you’re passionate about, there’s a good chance you’re wrong.

When did you go to portfolio school?
I started ad school in 1998. Graduated in 2000.

How old were you went you were there?
Let’s see, I started when I was 32 or 33. I graduated at 35.

What factor did age have on your experience there?
I was definitely concerned about my age in terms of getting into an intense business like advertising so late in the game. It takes a hell of a lot of energy to make good marketing. Even more than I realized coming in. And this seems to be something many students don’t understand. Great advertising takes hard work and long hours. There’s a lot more to it than coming up with a bunch of funny ideas. And it’s competitive as heck–more so each year. So every advantage helps, including having a lot of energy to do the work. And the older most of us get, the less energy we’ve got.
On my first day, Jelly Helm, a wonderful teacher I was lucky enough to have, asked the class to talk about their life experiences so far. I think I was the oldest person in the class. And I had done a ton of different things in my life at that point, from a few years traveling abroad to a range of various jobs to going back to college for creative writing…the list goes on. Jelly made the point that the people who had the most life experience to bring to their creative approach would have a significant advantage over those with less to draw from. Which was great to hear. And true, I think.
A few days later I learned that Jelly was the same age as me. And the fact that a hugely successful famous ad superstar—and my teacher, for that matter–had already reached stardom at the same age I was when just starting school, freaked me out a bit. But them’s the breaks. 

Same was true for Alex Bogusky, who I later ended up working for. Point is, if you’re getting into the biz later in life, be okay with encountering many success stories and maybe even bosses who were drooling on a baby rattle when you were half way through high school. 
Another advantage getting started a little later in life brought me was motivation. As I said before, I had done a lot of stuff in my life when I finally made the jump into ad school. And at that point, I really had no idea what else I could do for a career. Advertising in many ways was a last resort for me. And that can be a powerful motivator. Which helped me out-work lots of 22-year olds. 
What factor did age have once you graduated and started looking for a job?
People just want to know that you are a great creative. If there was a 74-year-old dude who was making Grand Prix-winning work, I’m pretty sure the agency would keep him on staff. It’s a cliché I get tired of hearing, but this business has always been about great ideas. If you can consistently deliver the goods, you’re gonna do well.
All this said, it’s no secret that there’s been a shift happening in our industry. More and more work made under unrealistic deadlines, less and less time for craft. Lots of work that attempts to leverage the latest social media platform. Apps, games, tweets, something else that will make client check lists before this blog entry is published. Schedules and themes that, well, us older folks are probably less likely to keep up with than say, someone who learned their ABCs on an iPad.
In my opinion, it’s important to keep up with all this stuff as best you can. At some point someone might say, “Hey, that old dude hasn’t produced anything cool in like, two years.” But hopefully, someone else might reply, “Yeah, but he really gets Pinterest.”

Ronny Northrop is a freelance creative director and copywriter who lives in San Francisco. He’s still in the business, and he’s still got a fair amount of energy.

4 thoughts on “Too Old for Portfolio School

  1. that was helpful thanks! i feel old, thinking about applying to VCU because i know that ill be 27 when i come out, that freaks me out but it makes less sense to not go for it


  2. M, I was 27 when I graduated VCU. Nothing to freak out about at all.

    Going through life wondering “what if?” and never being happy with your career? That's something to freak out about.


  3. I started in the ad world in my early 30's. There's life experiences that the 20's cant hold a candle to. Just be proud of urself and try not to mention too many cartoons from ur hey-day or ask “what's that?” too many times when they're talking about their fav childhood cartoons lol 😛


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