Wednesday 11 December 2019

John McGee: Advertising is no industry for old men and women

For an industry that is supposed to be enlightened, the advertising industry appears to be stuck in a time warp where ageism and sexism prevail

Some 58pc of the people who work in media agencies are under the age of 30, according to IAPI (Stock picture)
Some 58pc of the people who work in media agencies are under the age of 30, according to IAPI (Stock picture)

John McGee

While diversity and gender inequality within the advertising industry have become a hot topic in recent years, simmering below the surface is the equally troubling issue of ageism.

To paraphrase WB Yeats and his 1926 poem Sailing to Byzantium, this is not an industry for old men and their monuments of "unageing intellect". If you are over 50, then you are often dismissed as a "tattered coat upon a stick".

In the same way that many women working within the industry feel uncomfortable about discussing diversity and sexism, for fear of some form of recrimination, it's an issue that many of those over the age of 50 have difficulty talking about. Few agency chiefs will admit that it's a problem. Those that do often say that advertising is no different to other sectors or highlight the fact that senior staff often leave to set up their own business.

But in case anybody is deluded or inclined to dismiss ageism as a non-issue, the Institute of Advertising Practitioners of Ireland's 2016 census shows that 45pc of all staff working in the industry were under the age of 30 while just 7pc were over 50.

When broken down by creative and media agencies, the census revealed that 76pc of those working for creative agencies were under the age of 40, with 37pc under the age of 30. Just 6pc were over the age of 50. Given the profile of the respondents to the survey, one can deduce that the vast majority of those over the age of 50 were company owners and directors.

Among media agencies - the people who hold the purse strings and make key investment decisions on behalf of their clients - the age profile is even younger. Some 58pc of the people who work in media agencies are under the age of 30, according to IAPI. Although 29pc were aged between 30 and 40, just 7pc were over the age of 50. Again, it's fair to deduce that most of them are agency chief executives and directors.

"There's no doubt about - ageism in the Irish advertising industry is rife, but it's not spoken about and it's very difficult for people to raise it as an issue amongst your peers. Agencies are under huge pressure from their clients to cut costs - and very often it's the senior people, who tend to be on bigger salaries than their younger colleagues, who are first in the firing line," said one industry source who didn't want to be named.

"There's numerous cases of this happening over the last 10 years and it's a problem that's not going to go away any time soon. It's also happening on the client side where marketing departments are increasingly turning to younger and less experienced marketing people to manage their brands."

Of course, the problem is not confined to Ireland. In a recent industry survey carried out by Campaign magazine in the UK, 79pc of those surveyed said they believed that ageism was a problem in the advertising industry while 77pc believed that it would be better if agencies had more staff over the age of 50. And like Ireland, the age profile of the advertising industry is skewed very much in favour of a younger cohort.

Depending on who you talk to within the industry, there are numerous reasons why ageism has become an issue. The drive to cut costs is a very real one, particularly among agencies that are part of large international networks. Each year they have to meet certain targets in terms of revenue and profit growth as well as the expected dividends they are supposed to cough up. A failure to meet these targets often results in a missive from head office in London or New York to cut their costs accordingly - and senior staffers are often the first to feel the axe.

Others argue that the race to embrace the next new shiny digital thing has led to HR policies that are skewed towards the hiring of digital-savvy millennials rather than upskilling existing senior staff.

This, many would say, has also led to a severe decline in both creative effectiveness, one of the masts agencies have historically nailed their colours to.

Others would also argue that these digitally-savvy natives may not even be the right people to make substantial media investment decisions given that, as consumers, they may never read a newspaper, magazine or watch linear TV. But that's a topic I will save for another day.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with having a young, talented and trained workforce working within the industry. In fact, long may it continue. And few people would like to see positive discrimination, favouring older staff, embedded into HR policies - at least not yet.

But for an industry that dines out on its creative talent and its ability to solve the increasingly complex business challenges of its clients, surely it will need to tap into the collective "unageing intellect" of its older and more experienced people who have been there and done that?

That old dog who has seen may hard roads does have a lot more life in him. The industry, and the people who run it, just need to be cognisant of it a lot more.

Contact John McGee at

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