by Erna George (@edgeo23) Julius Caesar once said, “Experience is the teacher of all things.” However, had Caesar lived today, I think even he would agree that there are more and more times when experience in itself isn’t always a benefit.

When those with experience allow their views to become inflexible and are closeminded to the ‘what ifs’ (other considerations), experience is a hindrance. Let’s face it: there are many who’ve been playing piano for years, gaining reams of experience, but this doesn’t make them a superstar — yet you get child protégées who command full audiences in the world’s best venues.

Experience is not a predetermination for success. There are times when experience must be balanced with ‘newbie’ (novice/freshmen/ newer-ling) input and insight. I’m probably echoing the feelings of many a younger person in marketing teams; however, I’m not saying that experienced people can’t deliver newbie insights, rather that the focus must be on balancing the effect of practised know-how and proficiency with relevance and fresh thinking.

Experience is an outdated term

Talking about my years of experience in the world of marketing matters nothing if I’m not putting this experience into today’s context. There are times when I say an absolute “no” to requests by my team but, if I’m not following this up with a strong and relevant rationale on why and/or an opportunity to engage my team on what-ifs, then I’m running the risk of being staid. Being set in my ways and saying no can become quite easy for someone who was around when ads were still being shot on 35mm or 45mm film. [Don’t roll your eyes, younger folks out there; I’m often surprised by how much has changed since I first started in the days of cc:Mail!] Even though I’m loving the digital age, which allows for more footage and flexibility, the years of 35mm film and making many ads along the journey have taught me loads of things that have become instinctual and which I can apply in today’s digital space.

Where I find my experience works often is within elements such as positioning or strategy. Younger team members are surprised at how quickly I can articulate an insight from the observations they share, or how clearly I can express a positioning and compare it to other brands’ positionings in the market. The reality is that I’ve had the benefit of working on multiple brands globally and this opportunity offered extensive practice.

I’d like to put forward that “experience” as a term is outdated and perhaps should be replaced with “practised” or “instinct”. When you practise enough, you reach a level of expertise where skills and thinking may be flexed easily into multiple scenarios. So, experience or being practised can’t be about absolutes — it must be translated into wisdom and principles that are easily applied in relevant ways.

Habitual behaviour and thinking hard to crack

Areas I’m told are frustrating are those of agency relationships and activity grids. When practised people are stuck on the roles agencies used to play in the “old days”, or the structure that used to work, I must admit even ol’ me rolls my eyes.

Agencies need to fit the brand and its requirements, be that as a lead agency vs one of multiple agencies. So what if the lead agency on a particular project is the digital agency which generated the concept proactively? Similarly, activating the same (or similar) old promo at the same time of year, or never touching the front panel of packs for fear of your (50-year-old) brand not being recognised, seems predictable and, dare I say it, a touch lazy. Holy grails must be interrogated and rearticulated as needed or thrown away when required.

Having too many holy grails, especially when budgets are under such pressure, present a great challenge and may be limiting to a brand’s potential. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a big supporter of planting trees and nurturing strong memory structures, but repeating without reviewing and proper rejuvenation becomes predictable and forms bad habits. If you do what you’ve always done, in today’s world, you certainly won’t get what you always got; you’ll go backwards. Understanding what must be protected and where must something new be tried is a constant requirement for great marketers — we can’t be beholden to one model. A fit-for-purpose and evolving model is what must be considered in terms of sustainability.

Continuous learning key for the experienced and the new

Our brands need to work for our ever-learning consumers and the ever-changing retail/shopper environment. Do you put significant effort into continuous learning, driving improvements or are you relying on experience? Alternately, are you relying on being young for relevance? Neither on its own is sufficient. I recently watched a TED Talks video and it stated that these days it’s arguable that IQ and EQ are as important as the new adaptability quotient (AQ).

Are you adapting your experiences and extending your learning? Being fully reliant on experience and stagnating in this time of fast-paced changes is about as good as younger starters believing they’re great at judging effective creative to millennials, simply because they’re millennials. Hard work is the only way to keep ahead. There are multiple TED Talks or tutorials online in addition to blogs and seminars; it doesn’t require a repeat of a degree. Engaging with experts (the agencies I work with are always keen to share their knowledge) and spend time with partners to deep-dive into fresh areas with an open mind.

Avoid instant judgement — both ways

Experience may leave one closeminded but so, too, may fresh thinkers who believe experience and practice are overrated. This judgement in either direction can be destructive. If those with much practice under their belts keep judging millennials for not working the hours they do, or not thinking or sourcing data in the same way, we’ll stay in a tug of war in which both parties ultimately lose the opportunity of the other.

As long as the brand stays at the heart, we can’t judge how each different party works. Rather ask how differences could inject relevant builds into what is on plan. While everyone must stay unprejudiced and continue evolving, no-one can know it all, be good at everything or be on top of everything, all of the time. Be honest about your gaps or weaker areas and surround yourself with those who compensate for these. Win-win all around.

Experience is no longer a pure rite of passage; we don’t get to be the most-valuable person in the room because we’ve been doing this longer. Neither is youth the antidote to failure in this century. What matters more is that what you add delivers the desired impact of brand growth or stronger consumer connections. Both must be unlocked — applied experience injected with fresh thinking.

  1. Place practised wisdom in a space filled with curiosity and keep practising incessantly
  2. Break habits to prevent predictability for your brand — build fit-for-purpose working models but remember this requires a strong foundation on brands blended with novel thinking
  3. Adaptability is equivalent to IQ and EQ, and the ability to adapt and have a bendy brain may be generated from both youth and practice, so keep both in balance.


Erna GeorgeAfter starting at Unilever in a classical marketing role, Erna George (@edgeo23) explored the agency side of life, first as a partner at Fountainhead Design, followed by the manic and inspiring world of consultancy at Added Value. She has returned to client-side, leading the marketing team in the Cereals, Accompaniments & Baking Division at Pioneer Foods. Her monthly “Fair Exchange” column on MarkLives concerns business relationships and partnerships in marketing and brandland.

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