Don't let age be a barrier to success
A view from Gemma Charles

Don't let age be a barrier to success

This year's Faces to Watch shows that entering the industry later in life does not mean that you can't achieve great things

Faces to Watch is one of my favourite features in the Campaign calendar. It’s always heartening to hear stories of excellence, ingenuity and creativity about people who are starting out.

Many of the 2020 cohort not only excel in their day jobs but also go above and beyond at their workplaces, getting involved in passion projects that benefit others.

Hailing from agencies, media owners and brands, it’s great to discover that they still feel pumped up about working in adland after this miserable year. Deprived of the office social scene and more likely to be living in shared accommodation, the downsides of homeworking will be keenly felt by the younger generation.

For the past couple of years on Faces to Watch, we’ve changed the criteria so the eligibility determinant is experience; now candidates need to have worked in the industry for 10 years or less, rather than be under 30 years of age. The move was made to send a signal that someone entering the industry later in life, for whatever reason, but achieving great things, had as much right to be regarded as a face to watch as anyone else.

As is to be expected, most of the entrants have taken a conventional route into adland, joining straight after university at 21. So it was positive to read the story of Uma McCluskey, The & Partnership London’s account manager, who entered the agency world in 2018 after spending 12 years managing care homes and officiating as a magistrate. Gary Simmons, the agency’s managing director, praises her “incredible passion for creative work and attention to detail”.

If WPP boss Mark Read had known about this inspiring story from one of his agencies, he might have thought twice before making his comments that some construed as a dig at the over-thirties. During an investor presentation at the end of the summer, when asked whether WPP had the right balance of people with skills in TV versus digital, Read replied that the average age of staff was under 30, adding that “they don’t hark back to the 1980s, luckily”.

Read’s own trusted lieutenant, Karen Blackett, has spoken of how she sees WPP as the “Avengers Assemble” of talent. Boasting about homogeneity around age, therefore, seems an odd thing to do.

Read apologised quickly, saying he was “wrong to use age to try to make a point”. However, the episode re-lit the debate around ageism and how the industry seems unable to shake off its veneration of youth and value staff irrespective of how many birthdays they’ve celebrated.

And never forget the insidious gendered aspect of ageism, whereby middle-aged women in advertising are written off far quicker than their male counterparts of the same age.

This particular flavour of ageism isn’t unique to adland, of course, and can be seen in other parts of the creative world. In October, MP Harriet Harman called on Ofcom to probe the double discrimination faced by older female brodcasters. The film industry is even worse, where roles for women dry up once they are no longer in their first flush of youth.

So back to what adland can do. Ditch the stereotypical thinking on age and get serious about fostering a truly diverse workforce.

Next year in Faces to Watch, we might see more stories like that of McCluskey.

Gemma Charles is deputy editor of Campaign

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