It was Campaign’s idea to publish a piece about ageism in
advertising agency employment practice last week, but I’m happy to add
to it this week. Given what follows, I will inevitably be accused of
being a covert, crusty old fart. So I shall out myself now, by freely
admitting to overt, crusty old-fartism.
Of course agencies are ageist. You’ve only to look at IPA figures for
1997, which show that there are only 727 people over 50 working in the
industry. The often-quoted excuse that some people have priced
themselves out of the market is pretty offensive. Could they really be
expected to have had the prescience to refuse pay rises over the past 20
It’s all to do with a basic misunderstanding about an agency’s goal and
how to achieve it. Everybody knows that ’freshness’ and ’innovation’
should be the watchwords by which an agency lives.
Unfortunately, most go on to confuse this with youthfulness. But
innovation and freshness are a reflection of talent and attitude, not
age. I don’t think any of us would dispute that for sheer variety and
pyrotechnic imagination, John Webster represents the pinnacle of
advertising thinking in this country. He’s been doing it since his 20s
and he can still do it now.
Similarly, a team like Steve Hudson and Victoria Fallon has done enough
to prove that, should they wish, they will still be producing timeless
concepts like the One2One conversations well into their supposed
twilight years. Nowhere is it proven that older people are not
innovative, any more than it is the case that all young people are
fresh. Age is immaterial.
Or is it? Who are we supposed to be talking to? Increasingly, the very
people we neglect to represent within our agencies are those in society
with most of the disposable wealth and the time to choose how to dispose
of it: the ’greys’. But as long as the age profile in agencies dictates
an instinctive collective belief that, for example, Chris Evans (with
2.25 million listeners) is of greater significance than Terry Wogan
(five million listeners), we are never going to be able to talk properly
to the most lucrative market of all.
One small fact, reported in Campaign a few weeks ago, is illustrative:
up to 65 per cent of all new car purchases in this country are made by
the over-50s. Significantly, they’re buying the smaller, nippier
So how do we woo them? With Claudia Schiffer taking her clothes off,
with a twentysomething couple trying to pretend they’re not married and
with a group of glowing pubescents trying to find a bar in France
showing a soccer match.
It’s a collective denial of what’s really happening. The tastes and
lifestyles of current agencies - and, incidentally, a lot of clients -
seem to determine what we produce, but this is increasingly out of step
with what’s actually needed. Of course, great planners and creative
people can transcend the differences, but they are few and far
Maybe agencies should show more age discrimination. Positively.