Close-Up: Live Issue - Is advertising's workforce too young?

Advertising is dominated by the under-40s but is this harming its effectiveness, Noel Bussey asks.

The advertising workforce is dominated by people under 40, while hardly anyone continues their career into their fifties.

These are key findings of last week's IPA 2005 Census Report, the annual analysis of the employment base in the ad industry.

Detailed figures reveal 48.1 per cent of the industry is under 30 and 33.4 per cent is between 31 and 40 years old. Just 5 per cent of the workforce is older than 50.

Commentators argue that advertising isn't the long career it used to be: many leave the industry after a relatively short career. They also point to a prevalent ageism that sees older employees passed over for top jobs or forced out of the industry altogether.

Advertising's promotion structure is rapid for talented people early in their careers, but slows dramatically at middle-management level. The few senior positions are filled by a select few who have made the right impressions - and contacts - early in their careers.

"There is a glass ceiling," Gary Stolkin, the managing partner at Stolkin + Partners, says. "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."

The demands of agency life can also cause people to drop out of the industry before settling into a role. However, it is at this point that an older, wiser head could ease the pressure on younger staff.

"There's clearly a danger of burnout, but I'd rather be worrying about that than getting bored," Daniel Hill, 27, a planner at JWT and a former Campaign Face to Watch, says. "It's a demanding job, but that's why I enjoy it. Advertising has a full flavour and you know if you like it or not very quickly."

Older executives can also be expensive. "Unfortunately, the obvious reason is cost," Tim Lindsay, the UK group chairman of Publicis, says. "There are a lot of jobs that can be done by younger people for a lot less money."

This thinking leads to the self-perpetuating cycle that places extreme pressure on younger staff and lowers the average age of managing directors and chief executives, meaning even fewer roles are available for older staff.

There is also a knock-on effect on the relationship agencies have with their clients. Hamish Pringle, the IPA director-general, argues that the traditional close relationship between agency chief executives and their marketing counterparts is in decline as a result of shorter tenures in senior positions.

While a youthful industry might lead to greater energy and enthusiasm, it can also cause problems when attempting to reach an older demographic.

Reg Starkey is the consultant creative director at Millennium, an agency aimed specifically at the older market, which created the Age Concern "Wonderbra" poster. He says: "We surveyed 12,000 people over 50, and 86 per cent said they didn't relate to advertising. The industry is obsessive about youth. Agencies are missing a massive opportunity."

Stolkin believes all these problems need to be addressed: "They are detrimental to the effectiveness of the industry, and to the number of people who actually want to join the business."

However, new European Union guidelines on ageism in industry, set to be released later in the year, will make it more difficult to remove staff for reasons of age and may go some way to alleviating a few of these problems.

Lindsay says: "Over a reasonable period, this whole attitude is going to change. We're a reactive industry and the new EU legislation will be the catalyst for this."

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TWENTYSOMETHING - Daniel Hill, planner, JWT

"I'm not sure the industry is young by design. I think generally there's an 'up or out' mentality in advertising, and so it's less likely you'll settle at one level than in many other industries.

"The upside of this is that there's an abundance of energy and ambition, the downside being that momentum and novelty are often valued above continuity and experience.

"In my experience, where it works best is where there's a mixture of ages. It's great that you are given responsibilities early on in your career, but it's also nice to have someone to turn to who has years of knowledge."

TRADE BODY CHIEF - Hamish Pringle, director-general, IPA

"The industry pays well at the top end of the scale, so if an account manager in their mid-twenties can do the project management element of a 50-year-old account director's job for substantially less money, it becomes a procurement issue. If agencies have failed to demonstrate the added value of experience and professional advice, they will struggle to justify the higher costs of senior people.

"Agencies do shed older employees continually, which may well become a problem when the new EU directives on ageism are introduced this year. However, there is a client benefit in having so many young people in the industry, because they are often quicker to pick up on new trends."

UK GROUP CHAIRMAN - Tim Lindsay, UK group chairman, Publicis

"There are a group of people who get their passport stamped at an early age, giving them an entry point into a world of management that is just not open to many other people. Anyone who doesn't have this eventually ends up moving out of the industry.

"Also, the workload forces women out of the industry. Even after two decades of agencies becoming flexible and accommodating, the workload and pressure can be too much, especially for account handlers more than creatives and planners."

HEADHUNTER - Gary Stolkin, managing partner, Stolkin + Partners

"Agencies are now looking for older chief executives, but a few years ago there was a trend towards younger people. There have been a number of cases where young chief executives haven't worked, and this scares agencies.

"However, a lot of people leave agency life in their early thirties because the job opportunities dry up. There is definitely a ceiling for a large percentage of agency staff.

"Ageism in the industry does exist, but people often confuse getting old with a lack of enthusiasm, and I think this is just not the case. People need to be judged on their own merits, not their age."