Age Old Dilemma

Ad agencies are dominated by 20-somethings, so it’s little wonder that campaigns targeting an older female market show scant understanding of what appeals to them.

Where are the grown-ups in advertising? It’s a toss-up whether there are fewer in the ads themselves or between the walls of the agencies that create them. But, either way, they are as rare as teetotallers at the Groucho Club.

The most recent census from the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA), conducted in 1998, makes alarming reading for anyone on what is usually termed the wrong side of 40. More than 80 per cent of staff at IPA member agencies were under that age and more than half were under 30. So it’s little wonder that they get it so wrong when trying to target a more mature market.

Ageism in the workforce is not confined to the advertising and marketing world, as the Department for Education and Employment well knows. Its new campaign aimed at encouraging employers to wake up to the benefits of an age-diverse workforce admonishes: “Age prejudice? You’re old enough to know better.”

At the campaign’s launch on February 14, Minister for Employment and Equal Opportunities Margaret Hodge said: “Prejudices based on age are short-sighted. We need to change the culture of a society in which a person’s age consigns them to early retirement and life on the dole.”

Of course, retired admen tend not to be a huge burden on the State. Employees in industries such as advertising and media enjoy high salaries; early retirement is more likely to see them lining up at the marina or upmarket estate agent than the dole office.

But the fact remains that the industry is a young one, and this has repercussions for the employees’ ability to understand diverse target markets and for the work that is produced.

As Hodge pointed out at the age diversity campaign launch: “In the next ten years, 40 per cent of the workforce will be over 45 and only 17 per cent will be under 24, so it makes sense for employers to change how they think about older employees now. A number of leading employers are already doing that. They are enjoying business benefits from employing a varied workforce which reflects and is sensitive to their diverse customer base.”

If the workforce is getting older, then so is the sector of the public with money to spend. And the problem with having an agency staff in their 20s is that they may not be in the best position to understand the markets they are selling to. What’s more, the average age of the brand managers who brief them is also dropping.

“People move on more quickly on the client side than in agencies,” says Larry Barker, creative director of BMP and the new president of D&AD. “They used to manage a brand for ten years, but that’s not the model anymore. Now they follow the US model of working three or four years and then moving up a layer.

“I like dealing with people who have my experience – 20 years – but they usually go on to executive, rubber-stamping positions. They are no longer at the heart of creative thinking. It’s marketing’s loss. Some of them have launched megabrands – it’s dreadful to waste that experience.”

Not only are younger clients less knowledgeable, they are often more rigid in their thinking, believes Barker. He says: “Ours is a strange role. One minute we’re suppliers, the next we’re doctors. The young clients find it harder to take me in my doctor role, when I say things such as: ‘It won’t work; I tried it back in 1982.’ They find it harder to bow to us and to admit they might be wrong or ignorant.”

Manning Gottlieb Media managing partner Colin Gottlieb also laments the lack of experience in the industry. “If someone only has TV experience and you ask them for a solution, they’re not going to come up with a great idea for outdoor,” he says.

“Likewise, computer-mad 23-year-olds may be fine working on PlayStation, but they won’t be appropriate for more conservative brands.

“Some of the worst culprits are the clients themselves,” he adds. “They can be really subjective about their own brands. Sometimes they make comments which if we made, they’d fire us.”

So young brand managers work with young agency creatives and young media buyers to come up with campaigns. Inevitably, they end up positioning brands at the market they know best: themselves. And when it comes to products aimed at an older market, they can get it hopelessly wrong.

Michelle Lewin, creative consultant at strategic branding consultancy The Value Engineers, explains: “When targeting the over-40s, marketers still seem to be aiming for food products that they ‘don’t have to chew’ or cars that they can ‘easily get into using a Zimmer-frame’. But most 40-, 50-, even 70-year-olds aren’t held back by their age; they are out and about living and loving life, and they certainly don’t take kindly to being patronised by 20-somethings. When shown an image of a retired person riding a bike, their likely response is to say: ‘No thank you. I’d rather go scuba diving’.”

Times are changing. The Oxo family may have reflected real life for many people in the Seventies and Eighties, but shared family meals are much rarer now, as the brand’s latest advertising has recognised. The roles – and disposable income – of many women have changed enormously.

As Gottlieb points out, when today’s successful woman sees a Ferrari in a car park, she no longer dreams of being introduced to whoever owns it, but of going down to the showroom to put in an order herself.

Marketing to grown-up women can be very difficult, however. Walker Media managing partner Christine Walker thinks it is the most challenging segment in modern-day communication.

She says: “Women over 40 are very difficult to pigeonhole. There are people such as Iman, Cherie Blair and myself having children in our 40s. How do you talk to a wealthy group of women who one minute are looking after their children’s welfare, the next are doing a deal and the next simply want to relax?

“Look at how quickly Viva radio hit the rubbish bin. People like me don’t want women’s issues all day – I want news, weather, business and laughs.

“But it’s easy to criticise as a consumer,” she admits. “It’s harder as a professional to work out what to do. And if you get it wrong, will you have done more core damage than if you hadn’t tried?”

Walker has several suggestions about targeting mature women: “First, you have to understand how messages are received in different environments. There is no one piece of perfect communication. You have to be prepared to put the business case for different treatments in different environments. There will be a higher cost, but also a higher payback.”

Walker says involving women over 40 in campaigns designed to reach them can help to improve targeting, and points out that she is starting to see client companies that have 40-something women as non-executive directors.

Lewin agrees: “When we’re dealing with older brands, we tend to use our associates who are in the target market. We do consumer exploration, too, to check our ideas.”

She suggests that advertising can avoid alienating potential customers by recognising the individualism of consumers yet treating them with equality. She reckons the best brand messages are those with a proposition that travels across gender and age, pointing to Marmite’s “You either love it or you hate it” campaign. The advertising may be youth-oriented but the proposition strikes a chord with consumers of all ages.

There is another element that militates against the accurate targeting of grown-up women: the gender imbalance in agencies. WCRS head of planning Debbie Klein is working on a Women in Advertising report for the IPA. Its last report on the subject came out in 1989, when women made up 20 per cent of copywriters and art directors – a figure that has since fallen to 16 per cent. The number of women in senior management roles has also fallen in that time.

However, women are well represented in account handling, planning and media departments, says Klein, pointing out that planning was one of the first disciplines to accept flexible working patterns, making it more attractive to working mothers than departments that are “on call for clients 24 hours a day”.

BMP’s Barker has put the recruitment of women by creative departments high on the agenda for his D&AD presidency.

If the efforts of the IPA and D&AD have an impact, then more women may join creative departments and stay long enough to create great advertising that speaks to its target, or even to swell the percentage of female board directors in IPA agencies from its current 21 per cent.

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