Ad land’s obsession with youth will come at a cost

Discrimination against experienced older employees in ad land leads to missed opportunities and lost revenue. It’s high time the industry adopts a more mature approach.


Medically speaking, the term ‘elderly’ refers to someone over the age of 65. And, having once worked in medicine, I can tell you that a person of 65 or even 70 does not take kindly to being called elderly. They may even respond by calling you something rather more colourful.

But if the medical definition of an older person seems a little harsh, the advertising industry’s definition is nothing short of brutal.

If you work in advertising and you’re over the age of 35, you can expect to be called ‘old’. Oh, OK, I’m exaggerating – it’s actually more like 30.

People who work in big ad agencies will tell you that employees in their 30s (and the vanishingly few in their later decades) tend to be regarded with bemusement and suspicion, if not outright contempt.

And they’re the lucky ones. Older people looking for work in advertising face a monumental challenge. When not openly discriminated against, they are likely to encounter such thinly veiled criteria as “must be a digital native”.

The demographic make-up of the advertising industry sends a pretty clear message to people who have the gall to a) stay alive and b) keep working past the age of 30. And that message is: “Fuck you and the mobility scooter you rode in on.”

The industry is, quite simply, obsessed with youth.

Unwelcome reception

There are the endless lists of the ’30 under 30′. The constant talk about ‘millennials’ (notwithstanding the fact that some millennials are now on the cusp of 40). The breathless predictions about Snapchat and TikTok.

Suffice to say, then, that advertising does not go out of its way to make older people feel welcome. And the impact of that goes well beyond those who are personally affected. When you don’t have older people involved in creating ads, those ads don’t cater to older people. As Ad Contrarian blogger Bob Hoffman points out, people aged over 50 are responsible for about half of all consumer spending, but most advertising completely ignores them.

A paucity of older people in advertising leads to a poorer output and a missed opportunity for brands.

Consider, for example, that consumers over 50 account for around 60% of all car sales. And yet when did you last see a car ad that didn’t feature attractive 20-somethings zipping around to an electropop soundtrack?

For some (if not most) brands, this is commercial insanity.

READ MORE: Stop defining over-50s by age alone or risk long-term brand decay

Alex Murrell, head of planning at Epoch Design, recently wrote an excellent article in which he compared the proportion of people aged over 50 in various industries. In fields such as science and law, he noted, the figure is more than 30%. In advertising? Just 6%, according to an IPA paper.

So ad land inhabitants might be surprised to hear that people over 50 in other fields are sometimes consulted for their experience and wisdom, rather than ridiculed for their Jurassic tendencies. In medicine, for example, it’s generally recognised that older, more experienced doctors can get to the nub of a diagnostic problem more quickly, because they’re likely to have encountered it many times before.

If medicine used the ad land model, however, almost all doctors would be forced out of the profession by the age of 40. And hospital spokespeople would justify this on the basis that “only young doctors are savvy enough to understand the needs of tomorrow’s patients, today”.

That sounds ridiculous, right? But there is an undeniably pervasive opinion in the advertising industry that young people are more creative than older people. That opinion is not just discriminatory but also total bollocks.

In his article ‘The Age of Creativity’, Hoffman reeled off a long list of people who have won the world’s highest creative honours, despite being veritably ancient in ad land terms. As he memorably concluded: “People over 50 aren’t creative enough to write a fucking banner ad, but they are creative enough to dominate in Nobels, Pulitzers, Oscars and Emmys.”

Time to grow up

Intrigued by this point, I recently asked people on Twitter who they would nominate for a hypothetical list of the ’50 over 50′ in advertising. The responses were, by turns, illuminating, disheartening and inspiring.

First, I learnt that a similar list already exists. New Digital Age has recently started a series of interviews known as ‘Rebels, Misfits & Innovators: 50over50’.

Second, I discovered that most of the people over 50 in our industry are ridiculously creative and talented. To wit, Rory Sutherland quipped that “everyone over 50 in advertising is great”, on the basis of survivorship bias.

Tellingly, though, many of these people work for themselves or have started their own agencies. In some cases, this is by choice, but in others it clearly stems from ad land’s hostility towards older people.

Several people have pointed out to me that this hostility may not be anything personal – that it’s simply a matter of economic pragmatism. After all, why would an agency employ a 50-something when they could employ two 20-somethings for the same amount?

Ad land inhabitants might be surprised to hear that people over 50 in other fields are sometimes consulted for their experience and wisdom, rather than ridiculed for their Jurassic tendencies.

But that’s a false economy, of course, because ignoring the value of experience carries an opportunity cost. As the inimitable entrepreneur and former ad executive Cindy Gallop says: “They don’t understand that experience and expertise are incredibly time- and cost-efficient, and that they could be making huge amounts more money by hiring, promoting, valuing and retaining older employees.”

READ MORE: ‘It’s not altruism’ – How Aviva’s support of over-45s is delivering ‘commercial advantage’

According to Gallop, ageist attitudes in the advertising industry – and in business more broadly – are particularly egregious towards women. This wouldn’t come as a shock to most people, given the low representation of women in senior roles and the apparently endemic culture of sexism at some agencies.

If Gallop has anything to do with it (spoiler alert: she will), this situation will change soon enough. And fortunately, she’s not the only one fighting for the cause. Jane Evans, an industry dynamo who runs her own agency, recently set up the Uninvisibility Project, which tells the stories of women over 50 who work in advertising creative departments. Evans started the project because she wondered whether there were any women over 50 making ads – which in itself speaks volumes.

Clearly, there is still much to be done to address the problem of ageism in advertising. But addressing it is in everyone’s interest: employees, agencies, clients and consumers. Aside from the human cost of ageism, almost all brands are paying the price for the way things stand – so it will pay off in spades if we all take a stand.

Generally speaking, a paucity of older people in advertising leads to a poorer output and a missed opportunity for brands. Ultimately, that results in lower brand equity and lost revenue.

It’s time for advertising to take a more mature approach.

Ryan Wallman is associate creative director and head of copy at Wellmark Health



There are 3 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Anne Miles 15 Apr 2019

    This is great that Marketing Week is talking about this important topic and the 50 over 50 idea is a pretty good one which is a fresh idea on this topic. Sadly, I feel a bit sick of people talking about it now and want to see the changes made. I for one have built my entire company to get around the problems and I train agencies and clients on unconscious bias and how that is a strategic misfire impacting brand reputation and brand growth. Can we please celebrate more of what people are doing that is good!?

    Those of us who are trained in consumer psychology know that this social proof of people being ageist is just perpetuating more of it. Let’s celebrate the successes and the wins and where the over 50’s are nailing creativity and awards. Until we stop complaining and start acting and showing what great looks like we wont get change.

  2. Marcelo Salup 15 Apr 2019

    We need more articles like these. For sure. But we also need a more aggressive attitude from those over 50 in how they address the problem.

  3. Bill Downie 2 May 2019

    Thank you! That needed to be said and it is 100% accurate. I am in my late 50’s and have worked in Canada as an Art Director/Creative Director/Managing Partner/etc my whole career. I have worked in local agencies, nationals, multi-nationals, started agencies, sold agencies, and just climbed out of a mental hole in which I questioned my relevance and value as a creative person and business leader. I am currently working with my twin daughters (who are both Designers) and am thrilled that clients are choosing to work with us because they realize the incredible value in having grey hairs and youth in the room. Those who don’t come to this realization, hire us or not, can go to somewhere unfriendly.

    My recent adventure with my daughters has been reassuring and supports the messages in this article. Again, thank you!

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