Ageism in Adland

Advertising, and the agency world at-large, tend to favour youth above all else – sometimes at the cost of talent, experience, and sangfroid. Some of this is down to misguided economic short-termism and the rest is, well, plain old ageism. Ageism helps precisely no-one. In fact, as a participant, you’re contributing to the very conditions that risk making you obsolete, too. In other words, ageism is getting old.

According to Creative Review and an IPA census, the average age of someone in a creative agency is just 36. Comparatively, in most other industries, your 30s and 40s are the decades you’re considered to be hitting your stride. In Adland, it seems, you age in dog years. But why is this? Is it because our nervous systems can’t take the demands? Or is it that our synapses start misfiring wildly when we reach a certain age? Apparently not…

A recent study by Germany’s Heidelberg University found that mental speed and acuity generally stayed the same until the age of 60. Far from the accepted wisdom that our brains turn to scrambled egg sometime around the age of 40, with diminishing returns thereafter. This, of course, is providing that you don’t dull the instrument with, say, two bottles of very fine Sancerre an evening and forgo knocking your head on that low hanging beam the morning after.

We’re also living longer. Something that, as a society, we’re ill-equipped for, as evidenced by precipitous NHS waiting times, and goalpost-moving pension ages. Life expectancy, skewed slightly by Covid, was 79.0 years for males and 82.9 years for females between 2018 and 2020 – that’s a lot of time to garden or court penury if we’re taken off the shelf prematurely. If you’re interested, I’m writing this a couple of weeks shy of my 35th birthday. It’s on my mind…

There are things we can do. Not to stem the ceaseless march of time, of course, but within our outlook. We needn’t roll our eyes at the latest trend, even if it does make us want to lay down in the road and pray for something quick, painless, and heavy. We don’t even need to participate – just not be outright dismissive. I think we’ve all worked with someone who consigned themselves to the scrapheap with outbursts about cultural low-ebbs and the like. Believe me – I felt exactly the same after watching Nicki Minaj’s ‘Anaconda’ video. But what I do now is grit my teeth and say it’s an ‘interesting direction’ or something similarly vague and noncommittal. And look, there’s every chance that you’ll adopt whatever’s making you write missives to your local MP down the road – just in time to make it terminally uncool. And so it goes… 

In the same breath, if you’re a junior and shit hits the fan, you’ll be grateful for a grown-up’s reassuring presence and perspective. What’s more, the thing about lived experience is the only way to acquire it is to, well, have lived it. There’s no shortcut. You can’t send someone away for a two-day course and it’s suddenly there. Once it is there however, you can let it inform the interactions you have with younger staff and impart it – that’s the beauty of experience. 

If you’re a junior reading this and an old-hand bothers to carve out some time to develop you – take it – even if that person’s finger appears to be quivering dangerously away from the pulse. Sure, not all of it will hold water. But soon enough, your newly acquired experience will dictate what’s of value. Personally, I’ve learnt just as much from what not to do from others’ shortcomings as I have from what they do well.

We don’t have to look far to see evidence of ageism, and LinkedIn is a fertile ground for discussions on the topic, or more accurately, a front line. This is where I became aware of legendary copywriter, George Tannenbaum, who was kind enough to contribute his experiences to this piece. After an enviable, longstanding career that began as a copywriter and went onto titles that scarcely fit on business cards for some of the world’s largest agencies. Then, at the beginning of 2020, aged 62, he found himself at the sharp end of ageism when he was unceremoniously let go. He had this to say:

 ‘Ageism is everywhere in the business today. You could search the term in my blog and find a couple of dozen posts. At one level, ageism is equivalent to “I Don’t Want to Pay-ism.” Let’s face it, old people, people with experience costs more. And holding company agencies are in a price race to the bottom. And frankly if all your agency produces are IG ads and TikTok videos, you’re probably fine with a raft of inexperience. I believe that brands that are founded on a belief system or a creation myth – as most of the best brands are – need people with more experience to guide them. What’s more, since upwards of 70% of the wealth in the US is controlled by baby boomers — it might make sense to have a couple around. But old people aren’t cool.’

George goes onto say: ‘The round I was fired in, 12% of those axed were 60+ — the same group that represents just 2% of the company. So, 60+ people were fired at 600% the rate of their population. But ok. Sue us. That was the response.’

With regards to the future, he added: ‘I don’t think the industry will change until its “falling apart” develops further. I.e. when the major agencies fully collapse.’

Mr Tannenbaum’s story has a happy ending, however. Since his dismissal, he’s started his own outfit and, as you’ll be able to see from his website, is doing phenomenally well. 

I’ll leave you on another note of optimism. People often attribute their long lives to staying curious. A hard thing to measure empirically of course, but even if we can’t quantify it, it makes sense and I trust it. Why? Because someone who has experienced it has imparted it, and, to me, that’s a comfort. I also think curiosity is the key to bridging this generational divide – not only curiosity and openness towards new and old ideas, but also each other. That may sound naïve, but I’d rather conserve my rage against ‘the dying of the light’, as Dylan Thomas put it, than give into cynicism. I tell myself that my best work is ahead of me, and I tell myself often enough that I’m starting to believe it.