Close-Up: Live issue - Is adland less ageist than we think?

Kate Nicholson asks whether the industry has finally woken up to the importance of experience.

Is the advertising industry's old guard staging an unlikely comeback? The prevailing trend in the industry has been for ever younger executives, yet in recent months, the business has seen two fiftysomethings and a sixtysomething dominate the headlines.

Steve Henry, the TBWA\London executive creative director; Peter Scott, the Engine Group chief executive, and Sir Frank Lowe, The Red Brick Road's founder, are all in jobs you'd expect to be occupied by younger executives with at least 20 years of their careers ahead of them. Has the industry woken up to the importance of experience?

When, at 51, Steve Henry became TBWA\London's executive creative director, tongues wagged. Few doubt his gravitas, and the strong personality he will bring to the agency is much needed since Trevor Beattie's departure. But, they wondered, is he hungry enough for the challenges at the agency?

At fiftysomething, it seemed odd that Scott, a man who has enjoyed wealth and its trappings, would want to return to frontline agency management. When he first linked with Robin Wight more than a quarter-of-a-century ago to help found WCRS, Scott was the disciplined counterbalance to his flamboyant partner. Now he's back, he's as disciplined as he ever was.

And at the age of 64 and after two years in purdah, it seemed Frank Lowe wanted a final crack of the whip. The fact he has carried the Tesco and Heineken accounts around in his pocket for so many years is surely something only achieved with age and experience.

Henry's, Scott's and Lowe's reasons for returning to the front line are all quite different. But, one agency chief says, they all share a common theme: "These men are big characters - movie stars in the ad industry who have powerful egos. Why have they returned? They want to prove that they can do it over and over again."

The iconic status of Henry, Scott and Lowe may have gone some way to transcend the age issue, but unfortunately their experience comes at a price. Agencies will struggle to justify the higher costs of senior people.

Henry is the first to admit this. "There is a strong financial force in the industry," he says. "You can now find the talent pool at a much lower salary rate. This is not necessarily a good thing, but it's a fact of life."

Scott, however, strongly disagrees with the idea that there is a prevalent ageism that sees older employees passed over for top jobs: "There are a lot of younger people working in the industry, but this doesn't mean it's ageist. Not consciously at least. It's a meritocracy. I only have to look across to M&C Saatchi or WPP and there are a lot of wise heads at the very top."

But before you conclude the days of ageism are over, take a look at the average age of the network chiefs - grey-hairs are becoming scarce. Euro RSCG's Worldwide chief executive, David Jones, is a tender 40. And, at 46, Andrew Robertson, the president and chief executive of BBDO Worldwide, still has years ahead of him. On the whole, the advertising workforce is dominated by the under-40s. And it's getting younger every year.

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CREATIVE DIRECTOR - Steve Henry, executive creative director, TBWA\London

"I have always thought the ideal mix is to have a grey-hair at the top of an agency, who can ease the pressure on younger staff, and behind them younger staff with the energy, enthusiasm and passion to create new work.

"But the fact that there are relatively few older and wiser executives in the industry is not an ageist thing. It's an attitude thing. There is a definite 'up or out' mentality in advertising. Many people become disillusioned after seeing their career reach its peak at a relatively young age, while also watching younger people pass over them for top jobs."

TRADE BODY - Hamish Pringle, director-general, IPA

"Adland is way out of line in terms of age. The most recent IPA Census for 2005 shows that of the 15,751 people in 240 member agencies, 48 per cent of the workforce were under 30, and just 5 per cent were over 50.

"For a range of reasons - burn-out, work-life balance, pressure on agency payrolls - agencies shed the over-40s relentlessly. This results in a massive loss of valuable experience and is a real cost to clients.

"But seeing Sir Frank Lowe and Peter Scott back in the business is a timely reminder of the 'power of grey' as we approach the implementation in October of the age discrimination legislation."

CREATIVE DIRECTOR - Gerry Moira, UK director of creativity, Euro RSCG London

"I don't think advertising is endemically ageist. I think this is about money. You can hire three junior teams for the price of one seasoned art director. And with creative directors under increasing pressure to deliver more choice, there's pressure to hire more monkeys, not wiser monkeys.

"So we've created this myth that you're finished at 40. We tell ourselves that 'willingness to change' is more important than experience. I can't see how these two attributes are incompatible and I believe clients like to work with people who know stuff rather than people who are merely practising their opinions."

HEADHUNTER - Gary Stolkin, chairman and chief executive, Kendall Tarrant Worldwide

"Adland isn't getting less ageist. If you haven't reached a senior position by your early forties, you're likely to run out of road. And the generational nature of digital is exacerbating the problem.

"Steve Henry's, Sir Frank Lowe's and Peter Scott's iconic status transcends the age issue. But they do prove that energy and ambition aren't the preserve of the under-40s - and that it should be about talent, not age.

"I doubt the new employment law that comes into force next month will drive much cultural change."


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