The big debate: Is age discrimination rife in the marketing profession?

Nearly a third of marketers feel ‘older people’ are under-represented or not represented at all within their business, so is there an issue of age discrimination in the workplace and if so what can marketers do to level the playing field?

Age catches up with us all, but in the marketing profession it may catch up with you quicker than you think. The rapid rate of technological change in recent years has led many organisations to prioritise new digital skills at the expense of more traditional forms of expertise, prompting some senior marketers to complain of feeling edged out as they are replaced by younger ‘digital natives’.

Anecdotal evidence of age discrimination is easy to come by, but it is more difficult to say whether it is a widespread problem across the marketing profession. The Marketing Week Career and Salary Survey 2017 finds that 29% of marketers feel that ‘older people’ are either under-represented or not represented within their companies, making it the third least visible group after people with disabilities (56%) and people from an ethnic minority (40%).

This disparity in employing older people also varies greatly by sector. The issue is most pronounced in the beauty sector, where 44% of marketers feel older people are either under-represented or not represented. By contrast, only 27% of marketers in the financial industry identify the same issue.

Tackling discrimination

Different marketers offer different interpretations. Jan Gooding, global inclusion director at Aviva, believes age discrimination “has always been acute in advertising agencies [but] probably less so in client marketing departments”. She recalls her own experience of facing age discrimination in her mid-40s when, having run her own consultancy and worked as head of strategic communications at BT for three years, she considered returning to agency management.

“I was told by two top head-hunters that I was too old and wouldn’t even get an interview – it was that blunt,” she says. “Ironically, I don’t see younger people being given as much responsibility as I felt I had in my early thirties. So there is ageism at both ends of the tunnel.”

I was told by two top head-hunters that I was too old and wouldn’t even get an interview – it was that blunt.

Jan Gooding, Aviva

Indeed, Gooding believes the restructuring of marketing roles in recent years has affected both young and old people alike, with younger people given “smaller jobs” that require less of a broad overview of a brand’s strategy across all marketing disciplines. “The truth is that younger people are simply less expensive to employ and that may be where the value equation has caused discrimination,” she adds.

The Government appointed Andy Briggs, CEO at Aviva UK Insurance, as its business champion for older workers last October. As part of this drive, Briggs wants to increase the employment rate for people aged 50 to 69 in the UK from its current level of 59% to 66% by 2022.

The role involves speaking to other CEOs and the wider business community to encourage them to support the target, while Gooding says that Aviva “will be putting a great deal of focus on this whole area over the next few years – not just in marketing but across our UK operations”.

The issue is perhaps even more pronounced in agencies. In a column posted on LinkedIn, Tom Goodwin, executive vice-president and head of innovation at Zenith Media, called his elders a “secret population” that he is “never exposed to, let alone have the pleasure of working alongside”.

He says “these days we lazily assume that things have changed and their knowledge would be out of date” but experience means they “can see the changes in business and marketing in the context of decades of what has happened before”.

“We need to carefully ensure that we understand these changes in context. We need to establish what aspects are changing and what aspects are fundamental. We need to understand what is a fad and what is a cultural shift. And what would really help do that would be a wise person of a certain age who understands change.”

READ MORE: Tom Goodwin – Make shopping practical or an experience, don’t do both

Embracing difference

However, not all marketers agree that age discrimination is prevalent in their business. Kristof Fahy, chief customer officer at Ladbrokes Coral, says that while there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that younger colleagues are replacing older stalwarts, it does not necessarily signify discrimination.

“It also begs the question as to whether there is anything intrinsically ‘new’ in this trend,” he adds. “I am not entirely convinced that we are in the midst of an alarming era of discrimination, rather an industry that is constantly renewing.”

Fahy says that it is wrong to assume that older marketers cannot be pioneers of new technology or innovative approaches. He argues, though, that it may be suitable for companies to prioritise particular age brackets or levels of experience to ensure that recruits align with their strategies and business cultures.

Older, experienced candidates still need to find their cultural fit, which celebrates their qualities rather than exposes their unsuitability.

Kristof Fahy, Ladbrokes Coral

“Some industries are right to expect a young, ​ruthlessly restless culture within its colleagues whereas others place a premium on experience and a professional DNA that values heritage,” he says. “Neither approach is wrong nor should it warrant criticism: older, experienced candidates still need to find their cultural fit, which celebrates their qualities rather than exposes their unsuitability.”

Jeremy Ellis, marketing and customer experience director at TUI UK and Ireland, states he has not witnessed age discrimination during his 25-year spell at the travel group. Instead, he suggests bringing together a mixture of ages and experience levels has been key to building the business over that time.

“Marketing is one of the fastest changing functions in a business, and you need people who understand the really new stuff, but you also need people who understand how things have been done traditionally,” he says. “It’s like in a football team where you need the fit young athletes but you also need the wise old heads at the back, helping to manage things.”

Ellis notes that in many ways, senior marketers are in higher demand as businesses generate more and more data that requires insight and interpretation. “It’s not just about bringing youngsters in with all that digital tech expertise – it’s about having people who really understands how data can work and how you can be more savvy with the use of that data,” he says.

“We have been employing as many senior people, even for junior roles, as much as we’re bringing in new guys who understand the Snapchats [of this world] and all the new technology that’s out there.”

Updating skills

Ellis argues that in order to stay up-to-date, senior marketers must focus on having a breadth of skill that allows them to think strategically across different media and technologies. This requires older marketers to ensure they have a good working relationship “with the likes of Google and Facebook”, he contends, as well as their creative and media agencies.

READ MORE: Google and Facebook hiding behind customer privacy instead of sorting out ad fraud is a cop-out, says TUI

This view is shared by Patrick Venning, marketing director at Pernod Ricard UK, who urges older marketers to avoid having a “fixed mindset” and to be open to new ideas and ways of thinking. He explains that the drinks group undertakes regular training days with agencies and publishers “to help us become more agile and forward thinking”.

“We do have a broad mix [of ages] from 21 to 55, which works extremely well for us as we have a rich blend of youthful insight together mixed with industry experience,” says Venning. “While there is no substitute for great creative thinking, there is also no substitute for a bit of grey hair to help nurture the younger members of the team. It is a mix that works well.”

Ultimately, it is important for brands to appreciate the different qualities that people of different ages can bring. According to Nationwide Building Society’s CMO Sara Bennison, this appreciation will allow businesses to better utilise the skills and experience available to them.

“It’s important to acknowledge that there is a huge generational difference between the digital natives and those of us who learnt our craft before,” she says. “But if we let that become a divide, then we miss the real magic that comes when the two combine. That is no different from any other aspect of diversity of thought, which we must always be vigilant in capturing.”



There are 9 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Jim Norris 20 Mar 2017

    I am recruiting in marketing at the ripe old age of 69 and still spotting talent. Age is a frame of mind. 70 is the new 50. Experience and the ability to avoid costly mistakes are not invested in the young. Marketing is the measurement and management of risk. It needs experience – contact me at Case closed.

  2. Steve Jex 20 Mar 2017

    Just go to the “meet the team” page of almost any agency and you’ll struggle to find anyone over the age of 12, (only kidding). Of course they discriminate on the basis of age but they’ll never admit it. They might even believe it. But they do. The founders of the business are often that bitolder but beneath them it is usually a kindergarten.
    As a very active, and very experienced, 60 year old who has worked in marketing all of my life,I no longer even bother going for jobs with agencies anymore, I just satisfy myself with the knowldege that I almost certainly know more than they do and get paid three times as much working freelance as they would want to pay me – they can get a younger person cheaper, so what if they don’t know as much.

  3. P Errington 20 Mar 2017

    Agree with both Jim and Tim. Seems really short-sighted – given that as already said, experience and expertise avoids mistakes.

    I find the level of breadth and depth of understanding of the range of marketing disciplines required is disappointing in both the agency and client side. Brands are losing out on sales and retention; companies are making costly errors in reaching and converting markets and the wrong consumers are being addressed in the wrong way.

    Attracting the millenials may be fashionable and achieve “profile”, but how much of that noise is converted into profitable sales? It’s ironic that those in the best position to purchase, not only for themselves, but for other generations (the grey-heads) are patronised or otherwise ignored by the vast majority of marketing campaigns.

    The UK seems particularly bad at addressing their markets effectively. Other countries in Europe are better and the US in particular has long recognised the value of employing senior personnel with the age and experience to deliver.

    Still, it means that when things don’t pan out, companies come and talk to the grown-ups!
    Pip Errington

  4. Everest Xu 21 Mar 2017

    Anything where different populations of people have a large difference in type of contribution can arguably have this problem. It begs the question of when something becomes discrimination rather than company preference or criteria. For example, would requiring a 4 year degree be education-level discrimination? If a degree was required to use a public restroom, for example, it would certainly be cause for alarm, but at when a company is looking for a certain level of employee capability, a degree ensures a certain demographic that reliably can be said to have the skills the company is searching for. For companies who deal with fast-paced digital or social media marketing, which constantly outdates itself every few months, perhaps it’s only reasonable and cost effective to only interview people who are in the correct demographic to have a thorough immersion within this type of culture. It’s difficult to train someone in something like that because it really resembles learning a completely different culture than just a skill set that requires only theoretical comprehension. The level of intuition that someone can have regarding such an environment is extremely different depending on whether they grew up immersed in the culture or not. However, I do believe that if the idea that older employees are generally unviable as a rule in the entire field, without really even taking into consideration whether such a difference even matters to their situation, is problematic and discriminatory. Habitually disregarding a demographic (who had no control over being within this demographic) on a large, market-wide scale, does seem to me to be fundamentally wrong.

  5. Matthew Connaughton 21 Mar 2017

    Couldn’t agree more with Pip, especially with how campaigns patronise even slightly older customers who they should actually be talking to.

    Most people who buy new cars are something like aged 50-to-dead, but you’ll always see someone in their twenties driving around a city (weird ones which don’t exist – since they always have no traffic) in the ads because “we want to target millennials” (which is a nonsense, as they don’t exist).

    And don’t get me started on why husbands are always portrayed as inept, older-than-the-wife, punching-above-their-weight idiots who need constantly saving. How have these mythical stereotypes managed to get the amazing wife we’re supposed to believe they’re wed to?? Anyway.

    There’s lots of of value in the experience of older people, (and of course the tactical nous of younger people) on both sides of the curtain.

    B&Q have the right idea. It’s just a shame we’re a magpie profession who like the shiny new toys and all the BS that goes with it (i.e. abandonment of strategy and objectivity).

  6. Shanghai61 27 Mar 2017

    It’s rather pointless to be debating this.

    Why would Marketing Departments need to bother with older staff, when 25 year-old Brand Managers already know absolutely everything about everything?

  7. aoneil 28 Mar 2017

    I agree that there is a lot to be learned from the more mature marketers, however I also see the value in taking on fresh talent as well. Although I am still in college, it seems to me that there has always been the fear of young people taking over in the majority of industries. In particular with new tools such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. I can see how one could easily fall behind with age. However, great marketers stay open and are flexible learning how to adapt to the consumer and customer. I read this article right after another claiming that there is age discrimination in advertisements. With that being said, it is so important for consulting firms to reach out to a more mature audience as well as the younger generations. So, it seems that there is a need for a diverse work force to correct this problem. Unfortunately, there is not much to do about the issue of pay. Those new to the workforce are cheaper to employ. There is no way around that. Companies need to be placing more of a stress on loyalty, experience, and quality when hiring. With so much stress on meeting a bottom line and for recruiters to stay within budget this is not an easy task. At the end of this article I still have some questions. It appears that many agree, however there are also those who disagree. For me, the information was inconclusive and I plan to look in to it further.

  8. Old Father Time 29 Mar 2017

    “We do have a broad mix [of ages] from 21 to 55.”

    Because 55 is practically dead!

  9. Greg Myers 4 May 2019

    This debate is silly. How many 60+ year olds have you seen hired in a marketing department – ever?

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