Why ageism is adland's next frontier

Diversity may be at the top of the advertising agenda but the issue of ageism has been conspicuous by its absence, Nicola Kemp writes.

Why ageism is adland's next frontier

If youth is wasted on the young, then age and experience are in danger of being wasted on the advertising industry. Diversity may top the marketing agenda but age is the final taboo at a time when, all too often, youth is mistaken for a shortcut to digital expertise. From actively hiding their age to investing in costly and invasive cosmetic procedures, those in the creative industries often view the passing years not through the accumulation of skills and experience but as a source of fear and potential rejection.

IPA data confirms that the cliché that "advertising is a young person’s game" is more than just a lazy stereotype. The average age of employees at all IPA member agencies is 33.7, a figure that has remained static since 2009 and prompts the question: "Where does everyone go?" Is it time to broaden the ongoing debate around "the war for talent" to tackle the in-herent ageism that is unpinning this great exodus from the industry?

In order to shine a light on this often neglected issue, Campaign and MEC conducted an industry-wide survey to uncover the experiences and issues surrounding ageism in marketing and advertising.  "Diversity is important in all of its forms and age is one of those areas that needs to be addressed and needs more attention," Jason Dormieux, chief executive of MEC UK, explains.

The study revealed that almost 80% of respondents agree that the industry comes across as ageist. Meanwhile, separate consumer-facing research shows that 31% of the public would like to see more older people in advertising.


The rhino in the corner

Robert Campbell, founder of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R who currently runs High50, a lifestyle brand for the over-50s, says that age is the advertising industry’s "big rhino in the corner". He explains: "We are all going to get old, but everyone is in love with youth."

According to Campbell, the industry’s dismissive approach to the value of experience is symptomatic of a wider shift away from creativity. He says: "We used to be a business that understood and celebrated creativity, but now we are anti-creative as an industry. The generation below me speaks the language of creativity but the maths class has overtaken the art class." 

Campbell believes that the digital culture the industry has colluded in creating is frightened of creative ideas as it is driven by an overwhelming desire to weigh and measure any given approach. "Over the last 25 years, creative people have been sidelined," he adds.


A creative used-by date

Shilpen Savani, a dispute resolution and employment law specialist at Gunnercooke, says that the advertising and media industries as a whole are not dealing well with the issue of age discrimination. He explains: "Innovation is valued above experience and that has created an imbalance and a focus on change. There is a misconception that age and innovation are seen as mutually exclusive." According to Savani, age has long been regarded as something that is unattractive and "there is a greater awareness and acceptance in the industry where individuals have an invisible sell-by date".

A swathe of companies in the industry are still falling foul of legislation by downsizing or restructuring in an attempt to mask unfair selection on the grounds of age. Drawing comparison with how companies handled race discrimination 20 years ago, Savani believes the industry has a fair way to go to tackle ageism. Although some have successfully tackled discrimination or negotiated a settlement over the past ten years, Savani says these offers, while significantly above the statutory minimum, "have almost halved".

It is a shift that, according to Nabs chief executive Diana Tickell, has led to a wave of industry professionals aged over 40 coming to the organisation for financial assistance. She explains: "If you are made redundant over 40, it is very difficult to get another role and we are seeing the money run out quite quickly."

From person to datapoint

The uncomfortable fact remains that as the industry continues to suffer from squeezed margins, the value of the individual to any given organisation is often reduced to a datapoint when the inevitable restructuring and redundancy processes begin. Dave Buonaguidi, chief creative officer at Crispin Porter & Bogusky London, says the industry is in danger of creating a zero-sum game: "For most people, it is just about numbers and people are reduced to a statistic. When you cut 30% of an agency, or cut out the highest earners ahead of a potential sale, this often disproportionately impacts older staff. We’ve created an extraordinarily greedy industry."

It is an approach that Buonaguidi believes is robbing not only the in-dustry of some brilliant talent but the next generation of creatives of the invaluable mentoring that experienced colleagues can provide. He says: "We need to think more about people; culture is not about simply saying we do fun stuff. It is easy to put your values on paper but we need to do something more than ask: how do I make money for myself?"

The rise of the cult of the entrepreneur, and the emerging generation of millennials who view their own success, or lack thereof, through the lens of Mark Zuckerberg, are driving a generational schism in some corners of the industry. 

Brian Cooper, chief creative officer at Oliver, believes there remains an addiction to youth in the industry. He explains:  "There is a real seduction around youth culture and everyone wants to be a part of that." 

This discrimination has been bolstered by the growth of digital communications. Cooper explains: "Digital has created its own culture and what you find at agencies is there are a lot of people who don’t get it. It fosters a culture of collaboration, is very flat and fosters different ways of working."

An attitudinal lag

This is not to say that age is a barrier to embracing these new ways of working. When culture is often viewed as the cornerstone of successful creative work, fostering one that supports diverse talent, which embraces age, is viewed by some of the industry’s leading creatives as a business imperative. 

Vicki Maguire, executive creative director at Grey London, warns that any business that turns its back on people because of a number is losing out on a huge pool of talent: "I’ve been in agencies where the old boys’ club ruled but it was about thinking and culture. I used to have to stand outside my old creative director’s office waiting to show him work while he was at The Ivy talking about the good old days, but he wasn’t even that old – it was about attitude and energy."

Just as the industry’s consumer segmentation model has evolved, agencies too need to address their own unconscious bias when it comes to the age of their employees. "The brief used to be about housewives between 22 and 40, but now it is about attitudes," Maguire adds.

Playing the long game

With millennials facing up to "the age of no retirement", where economic necessity will force many in the industry to work well beyond traditional retirement age, smart networks are tackling the issue of age head-on. WPP is one holding company to have recognised the benefit to creativity and insight that a mix of ages among its workforce can have. Some of its companies have introduced measures to support the retention of older people, such as phased retirement. 

Across the WPP network, the proportion of workers aged 20 to 29 has decreased from 38% in 2011 to less than 35% in 2016. It is a trend that suggests a flattening of the group’s age profile as the workforce becomes more evenly distributed among the age brackets. Frances Illingworth, global recruitment director at WPP, says: "I am a great supporter of having a large group of people who have maturity, are role models and can mentor others."

When working life may now span a lifetime, taking a fresh approach to how you manage your career is essential. Helen Kimber, managing partner at headhunter The Longhouse London, says: "Resting on your laurels is the real enemy, not age. And if hiring people look at the CV or mugshot before the work, then more fool them. Arguably with creative, it is even less of an issue – the book, the last award or the person’s reputation speaks before the CV and therefore the years."

Prioritising training and personal development is also crucial. "If you look at doctors, they constantly have career CPDs (continuing professional development) and, if they don’t, they become rapidly out of touch," Cooper adds. "Other professions demand people keep up to date and clients spend huge amounts of money on accelerating digital training, and agencies need to keep up."

Reinvention and resilience

Better embracing age diversity among the workforce should not be mistaken for simply allowing talent to sit back and gather moss. 

"Avoid complacency," Illingworth says. "That situation where the job becomes too easy for you; you know the environment too well." Instead, she advises that employees "re-energise and focus on what it is you want to do". In practice, this means not simply looking to fill the shoes of others, but helping to create or engineer the right job for you. Whether that is renewing an existing channel or opting to take your experience to a new discipline or switching your focus to running a client business or getting experience at a media owner or technology brand. 

According to Illingworth, employees should look differently at their working life and she segments it into three stages: learning, delivery and giving back. "Being made redundant is not unusual – two-thirds of the people I meet have been made redundant," she adds.

Nonetheless, change is at times frightening and many report a feeling of being at sea when the identity, status and routine of their position disappears. Yet as the industry’s digitally driven creative ecosystem demands that employees increasingly become chameleons, building emotional resilience is ever-more vital for success. 

"I wake up some mornings absolutely terrified," Campbell – who believes that the older you get, the more you realise that your time is finite – admits. "We need to create a culture in our society where we can work, play and live in parallel, and recognise we are all facing up to a different kind of future." 

Indeed, such is the force of the "age of no retirement" that Campbell quips he is actually getting younger as we have this conversation: "We need to accept that retirement is going to be very different; you have to use your wisdom and skills that come with age. If the ad industry doesn’t want those skills, fuck them – work for a client, start something new."

Dismissing the value of age – the role of older people in business, in society, in advertising itself – ignores the fundamental fact that growing old is one of life’s greatest privileges. We do not define ourselves by how many years we have lived on this planet, but we do have a responsibility to define people by something more meaningful than just a number.

Can age trump youth?

Robin Wight
President, Engine UK

So now a 70-year-old man gets the biggest job in the world! What a perfect age to be president (or, in my case, the perfect age is 72). Of course, being president of Engine UK isn’t quite the same as being the president of the United States of America. But it does still make the point that it is possible that "senior citizens" – that awful euphemism – aren’t always destined for the scrap heap. But are creative pensioners of genuine value to a creative business? Won’t creativity decline with age? Yes and no.

The scientific data shows that some creative types – such as lyrical poets and mathematicians – tend to have early creative peaks. Whereas others – among them historians and philosophers – are prone to later peaks and gradual, even negligible, declines. I haven’t found any scientific data on where admen fit in. But 72-year-old Sir John Hegarty seems to be as creative as ever and 71-year-old Sir Martin Sorrell shows no sign of acting his age. To stay creative and original in later life, it helps to be willing to do new things.

This doesn’t have to be learning Serbo-Croat or eating sea urchins. Hegarty has used some of his abundant creativity to set up an incubator innovator, The Garage. I set up The Ideas Foundation, getting disadvantaged young people into our industry. And many others in our industry keep themselves young by extending their creativity beyond the workplace. Smart creative businesses recognise this instinctively.

But the scientists show that looser frontal-lobe organisation can heighten creativity in older people. As Professor Rex Jung says: "You have lots of data at your hands and you have fewer brakes on your frontal inhibitors, and you are able to put things together in your novel and useful way."

No wonder McKinsey and others have discovered that the more diverse a business – in terms of gender, ethnicity and age – the more successful the business. Ageism isn’t just against the law. It’s against the interests of your business. And, maybe, even against the interests of the most powerful country in the world.

What you said: Your experiences of ageism in the advertising industry

"Discarded people because the company would have to pay more for their knowledge."

"I have heard interviewers told not to hire people of a certain age without kids because they [will] soon be going on maternity."

"A client referencing a colleague as being too old to work in social in a pitch."

"Client reaction to learning my age and thinking it is too old for they their account. Conversely, I’ve also heard clients especially ask for 'more grey hair' in the room."

"I was told by a CEO to tell people that I was under 40 - I was 42 at the time - because he wanted people to think that he only employed young, dynamic, on it people."

"At my precious previous agency women who had children tended not to get promoted into senior roles, few people over 40+ stayed and want to gowent into global roles but many left."

"Whilst sitting with colleagues in the canteen my CEO walked up to us and said 'look - it's meals on wheels'. I did point out that this was ageist and he laughed."