The ageism in advertising

Photo credit: J C Bonassin

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.

Margret Atwood was 79 when she acted as creative consultant for the adaptation of her book The Handmaid’s Tale. Guillermo del Toro was 53 when he won the best director Oscar for The Shape of Water.

In an article titled The Age of Creativity Bob Hoffman, author of four Amazon #1 best-selling books, makes a compelling case that creativity flourishes, rather than flounders, with age. The post is worth quoting at length:

“There is only one Nobel Prize in a creative field. It is the prize for Literature. Last year it went to Kazuo Ishiguro who is 64.
The recent Pulitzer Prize awards were interesting. The Pulitzer for Drama went to Lynn Nottage who is 54. The Pulitzer for History went to Heather Ann Thompson, age 55. The Pulitzer for Poetry went to Tyehimba Jess, age 53.
Meanwhile at this year’s Academy Awards, three of the four winners for acting were over 50: Francis McDormand, 60; Gary Oldman, 59, and Allison Janney, 58. The fourth, Sam Rockwell, will be 50 in November. The Oscar for Best Director went to Guillermo del Toro, who is 53.
Next we move to television. The Emmy for Best Drama Series went to The Handmaid’s Tale. The novel was written by Margaret Atwood who is 79 and is creative consultant on the show. The Best Comedy Series went to Veep, executive produced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, 57. She also won for Best Actress. Best Limited Series went to Big Little Lies created by David E Kelley, 62. The Best Supporting Actor was John Lithgow, 73; Best Supporting Actress was Ann Dowd, 62.”

Hoffman’s point is clear: the ad industry treats those over 50 as creatively exhausted, yet they dominate the world’s most coveted creative awards. It’s clear our disrespect is misplaced. By undervaluing the over 50s, we risk leaving one of our richest sources of creativity on the table.

And it isn’t just creativity that’s at risk.

McKinsey’s Diversity Matters report examined proprietary data sets for 366 publicly trading companies across a range of industries and markets.

The research found that companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry medians.

The report goes on to tackle the question of age:

“This in turn suggests that other kinds of diversity — for example, in age, sexual orientation, and experience (such as a global mind-set and cultural fluency) — are also likely to bring some level of competitive advantage for companies that can attract and retain such diverse talent.”

So, a diverse workforce, including a range of generations, is likely to be more creative and more financially successful.

In this light, the the fact that the over 50s are so dramatically under-represented in our agencies appears to be commercially reckless.

But it doesn’t stop there.

Gary Oldman was 59 when he won the best actor Oscar for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in The Darkest Hour.

The ageism in our audiences

Just as the over 50s are under-represented in our agencies, so too are they under-represented in our audiences.

This occurs despite them controlling the majority of wealth.

According to Campaign’s Simon Gwynn, the over 50s make up a third of the UK population but hold 80% of the wealth. But not only does this older age group have more money, they’re also not afraid to spend it. Nielsen broached this subject in a recent report:

“While it’s well established that Boomers have the most money to spend, there is a bias to believe that older people spend less of what they have. While this may have been true of the generations of older consumers that preceded the Boomers, it simply does not apply to this generation.”

The over 50s spending is so high, in fact, that they account for the majority of value in many categories. Campaign found they make up 60% of all car sales. Lonely Planet claim they account for 58% of spending in travel and tourism. Barclays believe they are responsible for 58% of hospitality and leisure sales. Kantar found they account for 50% of healthy and beauty value sales and Nielsen report that they make up 49% of all FMCG sales.

To put it bluntly, the over 50s are the most valuable generation in the history of marketing.

And yet they are ignored by almost all advertising.

It is estimated that only 5% of advertising dollars are targeted to adults aged 35–64. Imagine how small that figure would be if we were to focus in on the over 50s only. The world’s TV screens, social feeds, billboards and press ads are full of shiny, happy twenty-somethings. Not a wrinkle, spare hour or bulging bank account in sight.

Back to Bob Hoffman:

“Marketers, it seems, would rather pander fruitlessly to young people than make real money selling things to old people. The idea of people over 50 driving their cars, drinking their coffee, eating their hamburgers, and wearing their sneakers is so appalling and such an embarrassment that they wilfully ignore and disparage the most valuable economic group in the history of the world.”

Again though, this isn’t just an industry conversation. It doesn’t slip under the radar. It is noticed, acknowledged and resented by society at large.

The over 50s insurance company SunLife conducted a survey of 50,000 people in order to uncover their perceptions of the ad industry. Three quarters thought that they were never represented in mainstream ads. Never. Nada. Not once.

But, again, it gets worse.

On the few occasions when their age group is represented, it is a tired stereotype that is depicted. According to a YouGov poll of 1,000 people over the age of 50, 79% didn’t believe they were portrayed accurately.

The common reason marketing and advertising people give for this youth-bias is that older generations are stuck in their ways. They are highly loyal to their chosen brands. And any attempt to convert them will be difficult if not impossible.

This, again, is unfounded. Back to the Nielsen study:

“Boomers’ brand loyalty levels are the same as other age groups. [The net result is], if Boomers are exhibiting the same brand relationships and responsiveness to marketing as other consumers, then they should be approached the same way.”

So, the over 50s are one of the largest, wealthiest and most underserved audiences available.

In this light, the fact that the over 50s are so dramatically under-represented in our advertising appears to be commercially reckless.

Photo credits: Paola Aguilar (left) and Shamim Nakhaei (Right)

Conclusion

So there you have it. Our industry is comprised of inexperienced staff who systematically ignore the world’s most valuable audience. No wonder our influence in the boardroom is waning.

Fortunately, there is room for hope.

Firstly, Ogilvy has a six-month creative internship programme, called The Pipe, with no upper age limit.

Secondly WPP has seen the proportion of workers aged between 20 and 29 decrease from 38% in 2011 to less than 35% in 2016 suggesting a flattening of the company’s workforce distribution across the age brackets.

This is a good start. But it is just a start.

Yes, we need young, challenging minds, but we also need experienced, expert advisors. We need brands that target young, vibrant consumers but we also need brands that service older, wealthier ones. Ultimately, we need balance. Balance in our agencies, balance in our audiences and, most of all, balance in our approach.

Only then will we gain the respect of the C-suite.

One thing’s clear, advertising needs to grow up.