Bitter has excellent credentials in this department, having “failed upwards,” as she puts it, through a series of high-powered executive positions in the advertising industry, and now running her own branding and marketing consulting practice called The Business of Aging.
Bitter’s moment of truth occurred on her 50th birthday in 2009. As President of JWT Boom, a division of JWT, part of global ad agency WPP, she was in charge of developing marketing and ad strategies focused on the Boomer demographic. But management had other plans: citing their belief that the Boomer market had been terminally crippled by the Recession, they laid her off. Incredulous, she couldn’t believe that she was not being given the opportunity to continue a very successful run, and to manage through the economic crisis. She felt that she had been a “good girl, and had done everything right,” respected the company and had been loyal. Furious, she did something she says now that she never would have been able to do before: she fought back, walking out with her clients and a cadre of close associates to form a new agency, The Continuum Crew. Her strong emotions gave her the strength to stand up for herself, despite threats that JWT would invoke their non-compete clause. But she prevailed, and spent the next few years building a business that was truly hers. Looking back, she reflects “It was like, I hit 50 and I became more me.”
This is one of the keys that distinguishes the reinvention process at this stage in our lives: it has to have a more authentic ring to it. Bitter echoes a feeling that I’m sure we all either feel, or aspire to feeling: life is too short at this point to make any more life or career decisions that don’t feel right. While we may survive in the short term with a job that merely pays the bills, it is a bad idea in the longer term.
At the beginning of her career, Bitter had blossomed under the guidance and mentorship of her first boss, a legendary ad exec. Later, at JWT, she had the imprimatur of a global agency behind her. In her new firm, she realized that she had to rely 100% on herself. “The scariest part was to become the thought leader and put myself out there… to learn social media, and learn PR — stepping up to a place where I never thought I would have to be.”
While the new agency was successful, Bitter began to feel like she was making compromises she didn’t want to make. She realized that the “world was sending me a big karmic message,” and that she had to decide how she wanted to spend her time, and with whom she wanted to spend it. In the end, it became clear that the new venture would need to shut down. If getting fired from JWT was unsettling, closingThe Continuum Crew felt like even more of a public failure. But for Bitter, it was the right thing to do. And she gleaned an important philosophical truth from the experience: “You don’t learn unless you get bounced around.” She had learned a great deal running her own shop, and it had made her more aware of new ways of doing business in the online world. So, in her estimation, “I failed to a better place.”
After taking a break, what she calls her “90-day pity party,” Bitter re-emerged with a new focus, which became The Business of Aging. “I had finished a big piece of research for AARP on the grandparent market, and was also becoming a grandparent myself.” She realized that businesses need to know that there is not only value in the Boomer space, but that there is a valuable market that includes parents, moms, and grandparents.
Bitter feels that she has an opportunity in her practice to do a better job of serving all generations, not just older people, and that this authentic personal investment has paid off on many levels: “When you take work that is interesting and meaningful to you, the money shows up. That level of personal honesty about my career has changed all the relationships in my life.”
Career reinventions can be planned, or may be forced upon us, but for Bitter, there is one key preparation element that we can’t ignore: “A lot of people, as they age, think they don’t have to keep learning. You have to read the tea leaves: we’re in a world of individualization and self- promotion. If you’re not taking care of yourself, even in a big company, as a personal brand, you’re going to get left behind.”