Too young to have an opinion, too old to innovate: lifting the lid on ageism in advertising

Ageism is toxic both for the culture of the advertising industry and its creative output.

Too young to have an opinion, too old to innovate: lifting the lid on ageism in advertising

Lifting the lid on ageism in advertising

‘The CMO of one of the top two advertisers in the world asked if I am old enough to remember VHS when my suitability to advise was questioned.’  


‘The assumption that you would not be committed to a new challenging role because of your age and the exception of leave for children.’


‘Older men are wise. OIder women are just old and past their prime.’

These three stark and highly personal takes on how ageism affects the advertising industry and the people who work within it were shared on the confessions board of this week’s Bloom event tackling the issue. The event, which was held in support of Women’s Aid, shone a light on the untold stories of ageism in the industry. From young people who had been belittled or ignored, to those who had been told they were the right or wrong side of 30 and others who had had to hide their engagement ring in an interview, the tales of ageism shared on the night spanned the generations. The event, held at Publicis Media's offices, lifted the lid on the toxic implications of ageism in advertising, both for the industry itself and its creative output.

Gina Hood, president of Bloom, said: "From the obsession of youth you see in the media, to the assumption that older people can’t be innovative, the pressure on young people to hit certain goals by certain times in their lives helps create an environment in which we are held to and judged by our age."

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A toxic approach

The average age of employees at all IPA membership agencies is just under 34. If you look around your average London creative shop, you would be forgiven for believing that women simply shrivel up and turn to dust after the age of 35. There remains a misconception in the industry that age and innovation are mutually exclusive pursuits.

When Campaign and MEC undertook research into ageism in the advertising industry last year, the results were not pretty. Among respondents, 79% agreed that the industry comes across as ageist. A quarter had been told they were "too old" when being turned down for a job.

Age discrimination is particularly toxic for women. Almost half of women don’t see themselves in the industry past the age of 50, and it is difficult not to conclude that a red thread runs between this lack of older women in the industry and its continued inability to represent older women in advertising.

The things we have lost

In a passionate debate on the impact of this ageism, Stephanie Matthews, commercial audiences manager for ITV and head of marketing at Bloom, said:  "We’ve lost the love and respect for people. People are going to come to the table with different experiences and age, but we have to judge them on their outputs."

Robyn Frost, a creative at Poke London, urged the industry to listen to young people because "we do have things to add of value". It is not, she argued, simply about expecting them to look to leaders at the top of business with a "yes whatever you say" approach. She believes that trust needs to be built on both sides, and leaders need to offer more tangible solutions to the industry’s well-documented diversity crisis, rather than simply putting forward more empty words and "thought-leadership" articles. She explained: "We are coming up and we are going to address things if they don’t."

Working fast and slow

The panel also addressed the fact that companies need to evolve their approach to employees at different stages in their lives – from menopause to fertility treatment to financial challenges. Shifts that demand companies think harder about how to be truly progressive, inclusive and supportive of their employees' wellbeing.

Ali Hanan, founder of Creative Equals, pointed to her organisation's research, which showed just 9% of people have their best ideas in the office. She said: "We don’t come to work to have our best ideas. Different people have different rhythms; the office isn’t the only place work happens."

She believes that getting workplaces to adapt culturally is key to the success of our industry. Suggesting that companies create a "shadow board" to solve the problems usually handled by the traditional board, the time for a new approach, she insisted, is now.

"Hiring young people on low salaries, working them into the ground and burning them out isn’t working," Hanan said.

It is a trend exacerbated by cost-cutting, which means the industry is shedding older people, who could be those important role models, supporters and mentors to the next generation of talent.

In the midst of this caphony of pressures, Jonathan Durden, co-founder of PHD and male-grooming brand Below the Belt Grooming, suggested that companies should invest in house therapy for people to be able to talk openly and find the space to discover what really makes than happy.

He said: "Happy people mean energy and a great place to turn up. At the end of the day, [the office] is where we spend our lives and there isn’t the room to find out if you are happy. It’s an investment by a company and it makes a difference."

Here the speakers share their own personal experiences of ageism:

Ali Hanan

Founder, Creative Equals

"The concept of age is being turned on its head"

According to Hanan, just 5% of the industry is over the age of 50, but age discrimination can happen in myriad ways. "Ageism isn’t just about getting older, it can happen at different times in your career, particularly as a woman," she said.

According to research from Creative Equals, older people are often the first out of the door when it comes to restructuring and cost-cutting. Particularly if they are not seen as climbing the corporate ladder.

"Particularly in a creative career not everyone goes on this  career trajectory to become a leader," Hanan said. "Some people end up being incredible craft people for their whole career. The problem is as they go on that singular career trajectory, when it comes to redundancy, they are seen as not achieving their potential and they are first to go."

Hanan believes the whole concept of age is being turned on its head and agencies need to work harder to better reflect society in the midst of an ageing population. Even the Facebook algorithm has some way to go to recognise "middle youth", rather than endlessly targeting people with Saga holidays once they hit a certain age.

Robyn Frost

Journalist and creative, Poke

"It doesn’t matter if you are starting out in the industry you can still effect change."

Frost was galvanised into finding her voice after being told that she would never be a chief creative officer, or earn as much as Nils Leonard. Her subsequent blog post became the most-shared in the history of the School of Communications Arts, an experience she wrote about in Campaign.

Speaking of the challenges faced by a young woman taking a stand in the industry, she said that the pace of change is being negatively affected by the "messy middle" of management, who don’t want to talk about any of the issues for fear of harming their career trajectory.

Frost shared her experience of challenging the "Top 5" emails that came out of The & Partnership, alongside Sara Keegan, a strategist at 18 Feet & Rising. She explained: "They say you should pick your battles and we thought, you know what, this is a battle we are going to pick, because we believe we can make a difference with this, and screw being young, it doesn’t matter."

The duo suggested a new tradition and encouraged people in the industry to share their top five women. She explained: "We challenged the industry to rewrite the narrative around the 'Top 5' and [create] something positive out of this negativity. You don’t need to be in leadership to make a difference."

It was a stand that led to the duo being accused of "virtue-signalling" on social media. Clearly, as a young woman taking a stand, she has felt pressure to be silenced.

However, she said: "We pointed out systemic misogyny, we pointed out an actionable solution. Many of our leaders play lip service to diversity and inclusion. They write many articles [about it] and don’t actually offer any tangible solutions."

Frost urged people to look at their own privilege and ask: "How can I use that to help make a difference in our industry?"

Jonathan Durden

Founder, Below the Belt Grooming, and brand consultant

"To overcome ageism you have to meet it halfway."

Durden believes that both age and gender are  lazy, arbitrary ways of judging people when it should be all about talent. He shared a highly personal journey of his own experiences of ageism.

When he was 52, Durden went to live in Andalucia in Spain with his wife and young baby for three years, before returning to the UK to launch Below the Belt Grooming. His products are stocked in Boots, but it was nonetheless a challenging endeavour. "Its fucking slow to try and build an entirely new category," he said.

"I was already 57 and I wanted to get some more work and it is terrifying," added Durden.

He asked the audience: "Who here doesn’t wake up every morning thinking I’m going to get found out today? Well, 40 years later, I’m sorry to tell you that that doesn’t go away, particularly if you have been away from it for a while."

Faced with this uncertainty, Durden started putting up barriers and blurting out all his weaknesses and vulnerabilities at any given meeting. So he wrote a list of every single thing he was frightened of and then addressed them all head-on.

Having met a woman who ran the Child’s Eye Foundation, Durden went to Uganda to help at an orphanage for abandoned babies with Aids. He said: "What that did was change my head. The noisy bit in front which doesn’t ever shut up was in shock."

It was a tectonic shift, which meant he was able to go back into the workplace and start working immediately with people at brands such as LadBible (who are younger than his oldest children) among a wide range of other innovative start-ups and brands.

"In order for older people such as myself to overcome ageism, you have to meet it halfway," Durden said. "You have to believe, you sometimes have to do some kind of work on yourself in order to be employable. It’s not all a one-way street – everyone hates me, everyone is against me – there is also a responsibility for an older generation to do something about it themselves and meet people halfway, and it’s amazing what happens when you do that."

Stephanie Matthews

Commercial audiences manager, ITV, and head of marketing, Bloom

"Sometimes we are in a rush to promote young people too quickly and it is too much too soon"

Matthews shared an often overlooked, but nonetheless important aspect of the industry’s love affair with youth: the pressure on young people to rise up the ranks quickly. Having started her career at Channel 4 in TV research, Matthews did just this, working on the launch of Big Brother. She said: "I put my hand up for everything and I created work that I am still proud of today. But I was promoted quite quickly and I struggled with that ascent. I felt like a charlatan."

She added that the role made her I feel like she was "pretending to be someone else".  

"Fun is one of my values, but back then, I thought I had to be corporate and be someone else because I didn’t have the self-belief."

She continued: "For me, it was too much too soon, I was out of my comfort zone. I expected a lot from myself and I don’t believe I had enough life experience, so I opted out."

Matthews subsequently left Channel 4, taking a gap year in South America before spending six years in Australia and becoming an Australian citizen. She made the switch into client-side marketing and worked with the RAC at its travel brands.

Seven years later, Matthews returned to the UK and landed at ITV. She said: "I'm older; I'm 37, and I feel completely comfortable in my own skin. I’m stronger, more confident in my actions. I wish I had had that self-awareness 10 years ago."

Reflecting on her experience, she said the industry needs to ask itself whether we have the right networks and support for the next generation of female talent.

"Not 'management 101', but the real deep and hard stuff to understand your values. If you can define self-awareness, we can help young women kill it as they are rising through the ranks," she argued.

Pointing to the fantastic role models she has at ITV, Matthews said it is time to ensure we have more experienced women in charge across the the creative industries. She explained: "If you think it is bad for white, older women, try being BAME, too. I would struggle to name five BAME women – on- or off-screen – over the age of 50."

According to Matthews, ageism is happening at both ends of the spectrum: there is the issue of not hiring older people at one end of the spectrum, and at the other, chasing the allure of youth because it is cheaper and you can really tap into their enthusiasm.

She added: "The downside is we are in a rush to promote young people and they are not always ready for it. This can be quite damaging to mental health. By focusing on youth, we use the value of wisdom and knowledge and self-awareness. Let’s have a mix of old and young to better reflect the world we live in."