’I’m glad I’m not young any more,’ sings Maurice Chevalier, sipping
a glass of red wine in MGM’s 1958 musical, Gigi, as he contemplates his
personal autumn under a summer sky in fin-de-siecle Paris.
’Poor boy, poor boy,’ he says in a mocking lament for his lovelorn young
friend. ’Downhearted, depressed and in a spin. Youth can really do a
Fast forward to a Soho bar in the summer of 1999 where two admen, one a
twentysomething, the other aged 50-plus, are eyeing a girl. ’You’re
wondering if you can have her,’ the smiling older man whispers to the
younger. ’I don’t have to worry - I know I can’t!’
Passing the half century, it seems, while not entirely welcome, has some
distinct advantages. Sex may not figure so prominently on the agenda
but, as the adman says: ’I don’t have to pretend any more.’
Chevalier’s ageing roue would have applauded the sentiment. At a time
when a man’s life expectation is now 74 and rising, many of the older
generation’s newest members are more at ease with themselves than their
forebears ever were. They are the post-war baby boomers whose lives were
defined by the swinging 60s and who, if they have managed to reach their
mature years unbruised by recession and free of redundancy’s curse, are
having - in the words of one of their number - ’an absolutely glorious
Their compensation for growing older is not only in having money but the
time and confidence to spend it. An advertiser’s and marketer’s dream
audience you might think. Yet there is a growing belief that, in their
obsession with youth and style over substance, these industries threaten
to kill their golden geese.
Steve Martyn has seen the evidence first hand. As managing partner of
Prime Advertising, Marketing and Research, a consultancy monitoring the
effects of demographic and social trends in advertising, he regularly
conducts focus groups among the so-called ’grey’ market. The results
’It’s bad enough that older people don’t understand a lot of the
commercials we show them,’ he says. ’But the worst thing is they don’t
seem to care. They’re really not bothered.’
But surely it was ever thus. Aren’t the greys so set in their ways that
they are beyond advertising’s reach? While that may be broadly true of
the over-60s, the mistake is to lump all of them into one amorphous
To do so ignores the huge differences in lifestyles and attitudes
between a fit and active woman in her mid-forties, who is willing to
change because she comes from a generation that embraced it, and a
The real battle advertisers must win is for those living the ’golden
years’ between the ages of 45 and 60 who refuse to put away childish
This was the first generation that lived in a state of perpetual war
with its parents and retains its rebellious streak; that grew up with
commercial TV and has never minded being sold to; that uses its plastic
to live now and pay later.
’It’s incredibly important that we win over the baby boomers,’ says Beth
Barry, Ogilvy & Mather’s executive planning director who is 52 and a
’Because if we can crack them they will bring the future generations
The baby boomers are differentiated by attitudes shaped during a
fabulously exciting period for music and literature and a cultural
upheaval of which advertising was the most high-profile manifestation.
The UK ad industry was reborn in the 60s and fashioned to serve the
free-spending young consumers who made up the bulk of the population.
Allen Thomas, J. Walter Thompson’s worldwide creative director,
remembers working at the agency as a young copywriter firm in his belief
that middle age began at 30.
But while the market has grown older, the ad industry has retained a
Dorian Gray-like youthfulness leaving it timelocked and facing serious
consequences if agencies continue being run by the young for the
Over-55s now control 80 per cent of Britain’s wealth and 40 per cent of
consumer spending worth pounds 145 billion a year.
Compare that with the latest census figures from the Institute of
Practitioners in Advertising. Of the 12,800 people working in its member
agencies, only 776 are over 50. Half, though, are under 30 and the
number is rising.
That trend is repeated in client companies where four out of ten
marketing directors are under 35 and only one in ten is over 50. Martin
Jones, managing director of the AAR, estimates that client marketers who
come to him are often barely out of their 20s and that their top
priority when choosing an agency is knowing they can work with its
That invariably means those of their own age and helps explain why many
agency chiefs, even those with long experience, claim never to have seen
a client brief for advertising intended to appeal to anybody beyond
No wonder that the generation gap between advertisers and consumers is
widening. Who, for example, would guess from the silken-maned Timotei
models that almost a quarter of the shampoo’s sales are to people over
65? Or that nearly four out of ten new Toyotas are bought by
Carmakers, in particular, stand accused of selecting the wrong gear when
it comes to mature consumers with Rover’s ’cool Britannia’ TV campaign
cited as a particularly dreadful example.
Craig Fabian, Volvo’s former UK marketing director, concedes the critics
have a point. ’There’s an inbuilt machismo within agencies that results
in car advertising being about speed, performance, desire and image,’ he
says. ’These things are most easily expressed in visual terms which are
bound to give the ads a more youthful appeal.’
’The ad industry is ageist,’ Belinda Kent-Lemon, a career consultant,
alleges. ’Any agency person over 35 who goes to a recruitment consultant
is much less likely to get a good reception than somebody ten years
younger. Creatives who have passed 40 have a particularly tough
Agencies acknowledge that there is no substitute for experience but deny
the charge that communication between the generations is breaking
Rupert Howell, the IPA president, brackets such a claim with the
allegation that women are unable to produce beer ads while men can’t
crack sanpro briefs.
’The intellectual challenges remain the same,’ he insists. ’Would
anybody seriously suggest that because agencies aren’t full of
housewives with a couple of kids that they can’t produce detergent
No they wouldn’t, responds Reg Starkey, 58, Prime’s creative partner,
whose agency career spans spells at Leo Burnett, Bates UK and Young &
Rubicam. But finding a common wavelength for the young and the not so
young is a problem. ’Just as women write better sanpro ads than men
because they share the life experience, so young people producing ads
for the older market have difficulty getting the tone, language and
humour right,’ he claims.
This can sometimes result is the seemingly obvious being overlooked.
How many times do advertisers consider using a slightly larger typeface
when communicating with older people, asks Andrew Cracknell, the newly
installed Bates UK executive creative director, who has been researching
Will UK agencies ever be properly equipped to chase the grey pound? The
signs aren’t promising. Compare them to their Madison Avenue
counterparts, where account directors in their 50s who have built
careers on the back of one massive piece of business are not
These executives are locked in by big salaries sustained by accounts of
a scale that British shops can only dream about. In contrast, the UK ad
industry will continue to be dominated by the young because it cannot
generate the revenue to keep many older managers in jobs.
Also, older agency account people in the US are not denied the quality
time that becomes more important as years pass. There are no long
But as Chris Clark, the British-born director of planning and strategic
development at the Bates agency in New York, says: ’Nobody is ever going
to tell me that if I’m not here until 9pm every night I’m not doing my
More important, US agencies have long recognised the colossal clout of
the grey market. Denied the safety net of jobs for life and a welfare
state, its members take retirement preparation seriously. ’Even the guy
who sweeps our floors has his share portfolio,’ Clark says.
The result is a proliferation of publications enabling older people to
make better judgments about how they live and what they buy. The
magazine of the American Association of Retired People has a circulation
of 20.3 million - the highest in the US - and is one of many titles
targeted at the mature market.
In Britain, some senior admen argue that the grey market will feel
increasingly alienated unless advertisers change their ways. ’People
over 45 want thought-provoking and informative advertising,’ says
Thomas, 55, who is contemplating combining consultancy work for JWT with
the formation of a new company through which advertisers can speak to
baby boomers. ’They also want it to be civilised,’ he adds. ’There’s
quite a lot that they find offensive.’ Cracknell, who had been
considering a similar venture, is even franker.
’They just want advertisers to cut the crap.’
Whether the arrival of specialist agencies to communicate with mature
consumers is good or bad is an open question. Some believe they may
relegate a hugely important issue to niche status and end up - in the
words of one senior adman - ’smelling of soiled bedsheets’. Thomas is
anxious that his proposed start-up should not be seen as an advertising
He says: ’This isn’t about Saga holidays and panic alarms. And I’ve no
intention of taking a stairlift account.’
No need to with the boom generation striding confidently into its mature
years and rewriting the marketing rules as it goes. ’Bet you’ll never
guess what the biggest competitor to the people who build garden
conservatories is?’ asks O&M’s Barry. ’It’s Harley-Davidson!’
GOLDEN YEARS: NOW
It’s 1999 and, at 48, Carol acknowledges that life has been good to her.
From her carefree childhood when she played around the streets in
Start-Rite sandals to a comfortable maturity enjoying a restaurant meal
for two preceded by a vodka and tonic and washed down with a decent
Carol looks forward to these nights out, whether with her husband or a
girlfriend. And they’ve become more frequent now her son and daughter
are on the verge of adulthood.
She pays with a piece of gold plastic plucked from a purse bulging with
store loyalty cards and hardly gives the pounds 50 bill a second glance.
An inheritance from her parents has left her comfortably off even
without the salary from her job as a managing director’s personal
assistant. She not only loves the work - which she has done for many
years, taking time out only to have children - but the private
healthcare scheme that goes with it.
The restaurant has been a favourite since it got reviewed in a lifestyle
supplement of the Daily Mail. She likes the paper’s championing of
Middle England - hard to believe she once outraged her parents by
dancing naked at a pop festival - and reads it along with Good
Housekeeping, a magazine closely attuned to her shopping habits.
At home she’s chucked out her chintz in favour of Habitat style and
prefers to buy her clothes at Principles or Selfridges now that Marks &
Spencer has got so dowdy. Soon it will be time to change her
three-year-old Renault Clio. For a new one, of course.
... AND THEN
It is 1965 and George has hit his 48th year bewildered by the pace of
change which is creating a society he struggles to understand.
He was born while Europe was convulsed by the bloodiest conflict ever
fought and had to give up almost five years of his life helping to win
He has known pre-war depression and post-war austerity, having married
and seen his daughter brought into the world during a time of food
shortages and ration books. These hardships have left a permanent mark.
So much so that, despite having three brothers and a sister, he and his
wife agreed that, after the birth of their child, they would not be able
to afford another. He is repelled by the ’live now, pay later’ culture
that seems to be sweeping Britain.
Conditioned never to be profligate with money, he has vowed not to buy
anything on hire purchase. He struggled to put enough money aside for
the family’s Ford Popular and is relieved that the mortgage on their
semi in a leafy London suburb, bought for pounds 2,000 in the late 40s,
is almost paid off.
He is pleased with his achievements as the breadwinner and is proud that
his wife, whose place is in the home, has never been forced to take a
job to make ends meet. His regular read, the Daily Express, backs his
view of life.
Over a couple of pints of Guinness on his weekly night out at the pub,
he and his friends sometimes grumble that prices would come down if it
wasn’t for all that advertising. And heaven knows why four long-haired
Liverpudlians make his daughter scream.