WPP chief executive Mark Read got into hot water for his comment during an earnings call last week that the average age of the company’s staff is under 30 and "they don't hark back to the 1980s, luckily". Critics, including industry veterans Cindy Gallop and Dave Trott, accused Read of ageism, with the latter tweeting: "If you were a client over 30 years old, how would you feel about the CEO of WPP saying anyone over 30 is crap?"
Read’s words were clumsy but were meant to convey how the company is taking a forward-looking approach and diversifying its business beyond traditional advertising. Like other holding groups, WPP has been hit by the impact of Covid-19, reporting a significant drop in sales during the second quarter and cutting 5,000 jobs between January and June. To stakeholders and investors, it cannot appear to be a backwards, Mad Men-era business.
Nevertheless, Read hit a very raw nerve in this industry, especially as so many jobs have come under threat this year. Long before Covid, the insidious problem of ageism in advertising has been overlooked, even as many people have woken up to other biases and inequalities in the workforce.
“Ageism feels like one of the last taboos in our industry that need to be tackled,” Momentum Worldwide’s Anna Dalziel wrote in Campaign in February. “For some reason, we’ve become so focused on the new, the youth and innovation that we’ve forgotten age isn’t an obstacle to overcome but, for many, a superpower.”
Covid-19 has already highlighted and deepened many inequalities across society, so, as the industry looks forward, it must not let the problem of ageism worsen too. To rebuild during a global financial crisis, the sector will need all the fresh thinking and energy of young talent – but it will also need the expertise, confidence and experience that comes with age. But has Read revealed an imbalance in how the two are valued?
Chief creative officer, Havas London
I’m a female in my fifties; a digital-savvy, coding CCO who can also direct you a 60-minute piece of content or write you a TV ad that will make you cry (in a good way). I’m not sitting in the Covid-compliant Ivy looking at the QR code thinking it’s a mini-crossword and talking about the good old days. So of course I’m going to say he’s talking bollocks.
But I’m also going to cut him some slack. He’s turning the tanker around. He’s merging and trimming and getting his charge future-fit. He’s promoting a more dynamic team and talent structure to investors – I get it. I just wish he hadn’t used age as a measure of success and transformation, because he is wrong.
I’ve also sat in my fair share of WPP management meetings, and to be honest they always looked like a casting call for Cocoon.
Chief executive, Older
I’m afraid Mark's comments do indeed illustrate that the advertising industry places more value in youth than experience.
Age is as an important metric in a robust diversity agenda than any other but is all too often ignored. And talking of ignorance, almost every consumer aged over 50 states that they feel ignored by brands.
Given they are also the largest and wealthiest demographic, this statistic should terrify every brand. Equally, our industry is unlikely to do anything to redress this until we embrace the value of older practitioners within it.
I can’t put it any better than David Bowie: “Ageing is an extraordinary process where you become the person you should have always been.”
Creative, New Commercial Arts
If most employees in adland were younger than I was, I’d be pretty disappointed. As I approach the big 3-0 next year, I’ve still got a lot to learn, and thankfully I’m at an agency where I’m doing that every single day.
From my short time in the industry, I’ve learned it doesn’t take one type of person with one type of experience to make great work. Anyone who has worked in a tight team will know it takes a collaboration of minds with different experiences, knowledge and technique. It’s a willingness to learn, bring new thinking, and work your absolute arse off. And that’s got nothing to do with age.
Let’s hope the rest of the industry feels the same, otherwise by the time next year comes, I’ll already be past it.
Brand marketing apprentice, Global
As a young professional in the industry, I think it's quite apparent that adland still prizes youth above experience. Most people I have encountered, whether that's in my own company or others, came to have their jobs after starting out fresh-faced and eager from university with minimal experience. There is also an emphasis from employers that the lack of experience doesn't matter as long as you have the right attitude and a willingness to learn. I feel that youth being prized above experience is to be expected in an industry that is a magnet for young people and has quite a sociable culture.
Definitely not. If Mark Read prized youth above experience, he'd have sacked himself years ago. Though his comments do seem to suggest that, by boasting about how young (and almost certainly cheap) his employees are, he may well prize profit over creativity. If WPP clients suspect him of this, they could soon start demanding considerable reductions in their fees. And if that happens, he might have to sack himself after all.
Joint managing director, Droga5 London
Youth is certainly not prized above experience in all agencies. But we shouldn't confuse creativity with youth, or experience with age because these can and do exist in isolation. Great ideas can come from anywhere and it takes a diverse team of people to get them out in the world. Increasingly, we should be looking at precisely what we as an industry are experienced in, as our ideas show up in ever-evolving channels and spaces. On that basis, we should focus less on age, and more on building agencies that include the broadest possible range of people, with different perspectives and skills, and making sure we value all those people equally.