The advertising industry is addicted to youth.
We are obsessed and possessed. We crave it in our agencies and we covet it in our audiences. We believe younger staff are more creative and younger consumers are more valuable.
But this is nothing more than received wisdom. Dogma upon which we have all been indoctrinated. Spurious beliefs and specious myths; unquestioned, unfounded and ultimately unsound.
By undervaluing older staff we undervalue expertise. By overlooking older audiences we overlook opportunity.
This article makes the case that changing our ageist attitudes is not only a moral decision but a commercial one. A decision that would improve the quality of our work. And a decision that would improve the quality of our standing.
Let’s start close to home.
The ageism in our agencies
Today it seems every other advert extols the virtues of openness, equality and inclusivity. Campaigns rally against racism, slam sexism and denounce discrimination. And yet the practices of the agencies that produce them do not stand up to scrutiny.
Nowhere is this hypocrisy better highlighted than in adland’s approach to age.
A survey conducted by Campaign and MEC uncovered some startling results: 42% of advertising, marketing, media and PR employees have witnessed ageism towards a colleague. What’s more, 32% have experienced ageism themselves.
But perhaps worst of all, 79% of industry employees agree that the industry is ageist. Seventy. Nine. Percent. Clearly the industry’s ageist attitude is understood, entrenched and established. It is an open secret. A culturally accepted practice of prejudice. Suddenly, all of the worthy, purpose-driven ads seem somewhat shallow.
If you work in an agency, you may not find this unusual. You may think this bias is a norm that is reflected across other sectors; a societal problem rather than an industry one. But you’d be wrong.
According to an IPA Excellence paper, written by AMV BBDO’s Strategy Director Olivia Stubbings, the over 50s represent just 6% of adland’s workforce. To put that in perspective, 22% of those in finance, 28% in medicine, 30% in science and 35% in law are over 50.
So why is this the case? Rory Sutherland, Ogilvy’s Vice Chairman, provides not one answer, but two.
“I cannot help feeling that one reason why people in their fifties abandon advertising (…) is for the following two reasons.
1) Advertising, by failing to ally itself to any recognisable science or body of knowledge, does not really pay a premium for experience. There is no mental framework on which you can hang a lifetime of accumulated experience. This means that we habitually value youth and vitality over wisdom and maturity.
2) Engineers, doctors, lawyers, have the advantage of “an argument from authority”. We have no such luxury. Every argument, every point of view, has to be defended from scratch. This becomes increasingly frustrating with time.”
In short, accountants, lawyers and doctors are professions that are grounded in expertise. And they understand that expertise is a product of experience. But where they value the proficiency that comes with practice, advertising does the opposite. We worship at the altar of innovation. Of “disruption”. Of imagination.
We glorify youth because we conflate it with creativity. We believe the young are free and fearless where the old are slow and sceptical. We see the young challenging the status quo and the old maintaining it. The young breaking down boundaries and the old raising them up.
But none of this true.