Age before beauty

A shortage or field staff is pushing up wages and providing opportunities for experienced over-35s, but agencies that favour older workers need to be wary of discrimination laws, writes Steve Hemsley

OlderIt’s a sure bet that a field marketing campaign will fail if the people on the ground are not up to the job. As the sector has expanded and evolved to include experiential marketing, the demand for quality staff has grown. In response, pay rates have been pushed up as agencies slug it out to recruit the best talent. Wages are up by about 5% this year, according to suppliers.

Traditionally pay levels have been determined by the skills and expertise required for a particular campaign. This is still the case for most activity but a shortage of field staff during busy periods in the summer and at Christmas has sent wages shooting up, squeezing agencies’ margins in the process.

Karen Battrick, director at FDS Field Marketing, says: “When it is harder to recruit, agencies will pay more to attract the exact people their clients need. The difficulty is workers now expect the money to stay at that level all of the time.”

The shortage of has encouraged some workers to hold suppliers effectively to ransom by playing one off against another.

Complex roles
To try to keep control of staff costs, the agency Reach publishes a rate card for clients. Its events controller, Ramon Santos, says: “We flip the argument the other way and look at a client’s objectives and what we can deliver for the budget they have in terms of investment in staff and technical skills.”

One reason wages are rising so fast is that clients demand higher-quality staff to perform complex roles which often cannot be delivered by casual workers. Field staff want to be paid extra for the additional responsibility they are being given, including being asked to file activity reports on a daily basis. There are additional training costs for agencies but clients are reluctant to pay more towards staff costs because they have come to expect this level of service.

Agencies are trying to solve the shortage of traditional field staff by widening their recruitment net to attract older people.

At BEcause Experiential Marketing, the oldest person on the books is 75. Many over 35 have grown up with the business and remained with the agency because they enjoy the work. “Older people bring different life skills to campaigns which clients can tap into,” says BEcause’s operations director Alison Nolan.

Among the brands to appreciate the benefits is Nintendo, which asked Blackjack Promotions to source over-50s for activity around the Nintendo Wii. “This helped to ensure older consumers were not put off or intimidated into thinking the product was only for a young audience,” says Blackjack account director Charlotte Birley.

Bruce Burnett, CEO at i2i, says 15% of the 3,500 people on his agency’s database are over 40 and he expects this to rise to about 25% within five years. He points to a campaign for Plymouth Gin at Wyevale Garden Centres where older staff talked to consumers about gardening as they sampled.

“There is still the perception that promotional teams should be made up of young dolly birds,” says Cord Promotions commercial director Richard Finch. “Gradually clients are realising there are many products that need older people demonstrating them. More mature workers often have more success interacting with an audience.”

Brands and agencies that select people based on age could find themselves in trouble, however, as the legal profession is warning the sector not to fall foul of age discrimination legislation introduced in October 2006.

Clive Howard, an employment lawyer at solicitors Russell Jones Walker, says: “A promotional person who is part of an agency’s staff pool and who wants to be involved in a campaign could take their employer to a tribunal if he or she feels they were not chosen simply because they were considered too old or too young. Agencies need to tell brands they cannot dictate the age of their field teams.”

Mike Garnham, chief executive of Merchandising Sales Force, says this is an issue field marketing agencies must be aware of. “The industry would argue that this debate is not about age but about finding people with the most appropriate skills to do the job well,” he says. “Ironically, this is one industry where older people can enjoy a second career after leaving other trades where they were perhaps denied a job or promotion because of their age.”

This is a view echoed by Emma Gordon-Rae, staffing director for Carbon Marketing and its Union staffing agency. “There is an increase in older people taking early retirement but who want to use their skills to earn extra money,” she says. “Many of these people have retail experience and know their way around a store or they have come from a sales background client-side.”

Employment law
In September the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) launched its Field Marketing Best Practice Accreditation Scheme which covers employment law and how agencies treat their staff. The suppliers that sign up must adhere to all relevant legislation, including laws relating to age discrimination.

“Field staff will welcome agencies being opened up to independent auditing,” says DMA Field Marketing Council vice chairman Steve Radford. “It will give them confidence and should help the suppliers to recruit and retain the best people.”

Consumers come into contact with brands through the field staff they meet on the street and at events. It seems the most talented are becoming increasingly aware of their worth, however old they are. 

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