There are not many people over 50 left standing in the agency business. It’s a stupid fact of agency life, but a fact nonetheless.
According to an IPA Excellence paper, written by AMV BBDO’s Strategy Director Olivia Stubbings, people over 50 represent just 6% of adland’s workforce. To put that in perspective, 22% of those in finance, 28% in medicine, 30% in science and 35% in law are over 50.
I wonder how many of the people over 50 are working in the creative department. I wonder how many of those who do work in creative are copywriters and art directors, not creative directors.
The more I wonder the smaller the numbers get.
Alex Murrell put up an excellent article about ageism in advertising. He mentions a survey conducted by Campaign and MEC that found that 79% of industry employees agree that the industry is ageist. In other words, everyone knows the score. What everyone does not know is why things are this bad and how much it costs the industry in lost revenue, lost talent and lost relevancy.
Sutherland explains why senior people decide to vacate the premises (not why they’re likely to be sent packing):
Now there are all kind of economic reasons why there are so few people over the age of 50 working in advertising. But I cannot help feeling that one reason why people in their fifties abandon advertising (far more, for sure, than their contemporaries in law, medicine, accountancy or management consultancy) is for the following two reasons.
- Advertising, by failing to ally itself to any recognisable science or body of knowledge, does not really pay a premium for experience. There is no mental framework on which you can hang a lifetime of accumulated experience. This means that we habitually value youth and vitality over wisdom and maturity.
- Engineers, doctors, lawyers, have the advantage of an argument from authority. We have no such luxury. Every argument, every point of view, has to be defended from scratch. This becomes increasingly frustrating with time.
I agree that ad pros don’t have the automatic authority or credibility that comes with passing the bar exam, state boards, or working one’s way through med school. That’s not going to change anytime soon. However, I wonder if ad people truly lack authority in the eyes of the client, or if it’s mostly an imagined malady. After all, an experienced team of ad pros who are steeped in the fundamentals has the power to make the client rich.
To help establish greater authority for the profession, the ad industry would do itself a service to institute a set of practice standards that are recognized by the 4As, the American Ad Fed and its members, and so on–something equivalent to the Certified Public Accountant standing for accountants.
Why Senior Talent Is Ignored, Weeded Out or Worse
I landed my first agency job as a junior copywriter at 31 and I left my last agency job as a content director at 43. For the past 10 years, I’ve leveraged my experience to go directly to clients and win and manage their accounts. I can see the problem from both sides. As someone who hires and as someone who gets hired.
People with real experience tend to have a set way of doing things, which is not the same thing as being set in their ways. Through years of trial and error, people learn a way of conduct that makes sense, even when it’s far from perfect. This patterning can make senior talent a bit less flexible than they sometimes need to be—a fault they share with junior and mid-level talent too.
Here’s a triple whammy of perception becomes reality: Senior talent is outspoken, expensive and has a family life that’s more important to them than work.
Highly accomplished ad people, generally speaking, are not meek and rarely mild. Those traits do not come with the territory. Politeness and professionalism do.
As for money, even when the experienced worker is worth every dime and the nicest person in the room, the price pressure is intense and it’s coming from every angle. Just this morning I received an appeal on LinkedIn from a web development firm that charges $25/hour. The firm leads with price because it works. People see dollar signs and go for it. They may not bother to account for quality or how many hours will be run up on their tab, because damn it man, look at that price.
Then there’s the cold hard fact that family life intrudes on late nights and weekends at the agency. Young staffers may be more apt to take this abuse without too much complaint.
What this all points to is gross mismanagement. Furthermore, the perpetrators of ageist mindsets and behaviors, and those capable of fixing the problem are not young themselves. Whether they’re driven by economic factors or they feel that senior talent won’t drink the proper amount of company Kool-Aid, the people in the agency C-suite must believe that their number isn’t up next. Where’s the strategic thinking in that?