Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Rebels, Misfits and Innovators: 50over50 – Katy Howell

We think it’s time to recognise and celebrate the true talent in our industry, the creatives, technologists, founders and leaders that are really driving our industry and shaping society, who just happen to be over 50. 50over50 is a series of interviews, shortly to become a podcast, with our most influential and inspiring industry leaders aged 50 and over.  

Katy Howell is CEO of social media agency Immediate Future. One of our industry’s most dynamic leaders, she has been a constant driving force behind the development of social media since setting the agency up in 2004.

What is the biggest mistake companies — brands or the industry – are making in their attitude to age today?

How is it ‘old’ appears to have such little value? Either in the workforce or as consumers. It makes absolutely no commercial sense.

Why would you not hire people who have the experience, the understanding, the success (and the failures of the past)  to make your company better.  They are mentors to your youngsters, wise heads to steer your business thinking, and talent that adds immeasurable benefit to your bottom line.

The industry judges age by outdated perceptions of what is old. My generation is not growing into our dotage — we are steadfastly not growing up!

My peers are more energetic, often more athletic (thinking of all those cycling 50 somethings in Surrey!), than their younger selves. Gen X  grew up with rebellion in their teens (from punk to Greenham), and they’re growing old disgracefully. Spending the kids’ inheritance, they want adventure, lifestyle, risk, pleasure and to do brilliant, fulfilling work.

And the marketing industry is ignoring this pool of talent when skills are in short supply and the world faces a global recession. We ignore this audience with a disposable income and a need to spend on the good things. Instead we offer them anti-wrinkle cream and Saga holidays, alongside redundancy and exclusion from the industry that they can add so much to.

FFS. What a waste.

What one thing are you proudest of in your career?

That 15 years ago, when I launched immediate future, I believed that social would be a thing — before social was social. People thought I was mad. I gave up a big agency job, knowing I was responsible for my two babies, my wonderfully supportive husband, and a bloody big mortgage.

I determinedly pushed on, even when I was bloomin’ terrified. I was indeed mad. Passionate about the world of blogs, message boards and MySpace (anyone remember MySpace?). And thankfully, I was right. Probably the only time I was, but it still makes me proud (and a tiny bit smug) to know it.

What creative heights are you now capable of that you wouldn’t have been able to achieve at the early or mid-point of your career?

Ahh it’s joy. The joy of knowing things. My head is now stuffed with all sorts of accumulated knowledge; from professional, to the decidedly unprofessional. It is such a pleasure to see the patterns in life. The ways in which audiences behave, the motivations of brand managers and even the repeating cycles as our industry swings between scale and niche, from large to small, and in-house to agency.

It’s a calm creativity that is built on the confidence in just knowing.  

What gives you the most satisfaction in your role today?

I can’t help myself, I love the buzz of winning. The air-punch of an award win, the elation of a brilliant campaign, the whoops (and copious gin drinking) to celebrate a pitch win.  I love it, because these moments of happiness are filled with team comradery. That exactness of collaboration and sharing of ideas and thinking. Good people doing their best work ever. It’s perfection.

What is the biggest lesson you have learned in your career?

Nothing goes as planned. In fact the minute you tell the universe, the bloody thing will go wrong. So, ride the wave, surf it if you can (standing up, of course). Laugh maniacally and adapt. Expect, heck, embrace the change. It happens anyway.   

What advice would you give your 25-year old self?

Carry on. Wouldn’t change a thing. I am all of me. All my experiences. Plus the younger me would have told the older me to “sod off”.

What are you most excited about in your industry over the next 10 years?

I can’t help it. I love social. It never stops changing. It’s unpredictable. Scary even. It is like a view of both utopia and Bedlam through a kaleidoscope. It’s a mess and it’s perfect.

Amongst the shit of social networking privacy and the divisive and polarising twitterstorms, are new ways to think, work, live and be.

I love change. I want new. I need shiny. And it’s all in social. In spadesful.

What is your biggest regret about the industry today?

The loss of a craft and bravery. Marketing has lost its way a bit. There used to be pride in a plan (where now plans often don’t exist at all), and courage in execution — where many a marketing creative put their neck on the line to deliver work that is still remembered today.

There is too much pedestrian, vanilla, mush out there. We painted the marketing industry magnolia while we rushed headlong into a race to the bottom of the funnel. We need to bring back creativity.

I for one have got my crayons at the ready.