Lifestage Marketing: Death of the age specialist?

Why would a brand choose an agency that only targets one lifestage? Because they know their market, Glen Mutel says.

Advertising today is a complicated business. Creative strategies are researched harder than ever and targeting is more sophisticated. Today's marketing director is able to split a demographic set into a million sub-categories and then sell to them all individually.

So surely, in this environment, there can no longer be a place for anything as crude as lifestage marketing? After all, what 50-year-old appreciates being lumped with their geriatric parents in the so-called "grey market"?

Yet, surprisingly, this age of behavioural marketing has not heralded the death of the lifestage specialist. In an industry seemingly obsessed with 16- to 34-year-olds, there are still countless youth marketing specialists plying their trade.

One of the market's success stories is Iris, which employs more than 120 people and boasts a client list including Budweiser, Disney, Adidas and Coca-Cola. In recent years, Iris has evolved beyond its youth positioning.

However, it was this expertise that brought it to the attention of clients.

Iris' managing director, Ian Millner, explains: "Clients are looking for high added value early in the relationship, and you can only really do that if you know something about the target audience that they don't."

However, critics of the sector, such as Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy's head of planning, Andy Nairn, believe that specialist agencies lack the breadth of experience to really benefit their clients. "Specialists assume that their clients' businesses are set in stone," he explains.

"For a minority of businesses this may be true. But most businesses are more dynamic. Where is the incentive for a grey consultancy to recommend aiming at a younger audience, or for a youth agency to suggest going after an older customer?"

Millner feels this viewpoint misunderstands the motivation of a client seeking a specialist. "Impartiality is just not a concern," he says. "People go to a youth marketing agency because they've already decided who to target."

Kirsten Clayton, the marketing manager at Complan foods, uses two agencies.

M&C Saatchi handles Complan's brand advertising, while Millennium is helping Clayton reposition the product. Complan's core market has traditionally been people in their 70s and 80s who have difficulty eating. However, Clayton believes the brand has more potential and has drafted in the grey specialist Millennium to help her solicit customers as young as 50.

But why use a grey specialist? "You don't get a lot of old people working in agencies," she says "We didn't want someone who was going to tell us that our audience are just a bunch of old people who sit around smoking pipes all day."

However, those wishing to follow Clayton's example be warned: unlike their youth marketing counterparts, grey marketing specialists are in extremely short supply.

Millennium's consultant creative director, Reg Starkey, explains: "So far, no-one, apart from us, has grown a decent business in this market and we've only done so on direct marketing."

But Starkey is optimistic. "This is the market of the future," he says.

"The centre of gravity is changing. Last year, for the first time in UK history we had more people over 60 than under 16. When marketers begin to understand that this purchasing power could actually vote with their wallets, they'll take them more seriously."

Whatever the future holds for lifestage specialists, it's unlikely that they'll disappear - even if the best campaigns targeting the mature market, such as Ogilvy & Mather's Dove "campaign for real beauty", are being created by the generalist shops. Even their critics, such as Nairn, concede that in the grossly over-supplied advertising market, there will always be a place for niche operators.

And it could also be argued that, as there are now more clearly defined customer lifestages than ever, there are therefore more areas for agencies to focus on. There are already outfits such as Logistix, that specialise in marketing to young children and their parents, with clients including Burton's Foods. Perhaps we may soon see an influx of agencies specialising in target groups such as empty nesters, first-time home buyers or adults in their second youth.

But, whatever happens, one problem looks likely to remain for the marketing specialist - the problem of being niche. "If you have a deep specialism, it will define your agency's ability to grow," Millner explains. "Agencies who specialise in youth or grey or whatever tend to remain quite small."