This is an excerpt from the Mature Market Report, our extensive review of marketing and the older consumer.
Marketing departments and agencies are typically staffed by people aged under 40. This is often given as the reason why so many businesses fail to engage successfully with older people. Is this ageist, reflecting an ageist society, or do young people have the energy and creativity that older people lack? Mark Beasley evaluates the evidence.
Our personal experience is that marketing departments are staffed almost entirely by people under 40. The available evidence supports this. The IPA (Institute of Practitioners in Advertising) annual agency census has consistently shown that the average age in all member agencies was 33. 45% of employees in agencies are aged under 30, 83% are under 40. Just 5% are aged over 50. And if you are over 50, the chances are that you either own the business (Sir Martin Sorrell is 70) or are the security guard. These figures have been consistent for the past decade and data from the National Office of Statistics provides a stark contrast: 32% of the UK workforce is aged over 50 years old – not 5%!
So why is this? A strong cultural preference for youth and the attributes with which is it is associated is evident in advertising and marketing, emphasising ‘youthful’ attributes such as creativity, energy and innovation. The assumption here is that older people lack these attributes – an assumption we go on to challenge. But in an ageist society, it is inevitable that advertising and marketing will reflect the ageist employment practices evident in all businesses.
It is also the case that agencies in particular – and by association, their marketing department clients - have been expected to be at the epicentre of all that is new, fashionable and cool. It’s why most successful agencies are located in the cooler areas of large cities, it’s why the receptionists are so unattainably attractive, it’s why the creatives are so hip and it’s why the account director knows all the right bars.
This ‘coolness’ was of obvious importance when younger target audiences were the main focus - the post-war era of mass marketing, mass production and ‘baby boom’ young families and then the explosion of youth culture and consumption. However, as the age structure of the population has changed, agencies and marketers have failed to keep pace.
To provide some balance, the youthfulness of marketing department and agency staff is probably also the result of a steady process of corporate downsizing, rightsizing and de-layering. Older, more expensive, employees have been shuffled out and replaced by younger, hungrier, less expensive staff. It may also be the case that the pressured work (and social) environment drives employees to seek a different work/life balance as they get older. Women in particular find it difficult to return to work once they have started a family: that’s why most account executives are women, and most directors are men. Consolidation of the advertising industry has also allowed agency founders (inevitably older) to take early retirement.
The inward-looking advertising agency culture can create a lifestyle far removed from older consumers, with a focus on producing work to impress peers, win awards and develop careers. The discussion of older consumers in such a setting is often accompanied with humorous remarks and discussion about what ‘they’ do, as though the over-50s are a remote and obscure tribe. Which they are, if you work in Shoreditch or Soho. However, if serious insight is required, an anecdote about someone’s parents or grandparents can usually be relied upon.
Out of touch with older people?
Academics Carrigan and Szmigin reviewed the research in this area, as well as conducting their own. They concluded unequivocally that the age profile of those working in marketing and advertising contributes to “an environment which lacks empathy towards the older population”.
One reason is that, to the young, younger people are a known quantity, which is easier to understand and target. Many of the assumptions, rules and conventions of advertising and marketing are based upon younger people. The personal experience of having been (or still being) young makes the creative task much easier than when the target audience has not been experienced personally. Dick Stroud calls this ‘projectable experience’. Research (elsewhere in this report) clearly demonstrates that to a younger person, ‘old age’ is seen through a filter of bias – age is not seen as a chronological fact, but as signifying decline, decrepitude and other negative attributes.
This age bias in recruitment (and retention) is nothing new. In 1999, the IPA were quoted in Campaign magazine as warning agencies that their employment practices could fall foul of new legislation. In 2000, an IPA report branded the industry as ‘ageist, sexist and laddish’. In 2005, the OMD ‘UFO’ (Understanding Fifties and Over) project found that the main reason for the poor relationship of the advertising industry and the over-50s is ‘a lack of insight into these people and an often outdated view of how they behave as consumers’. This was supported by a report from the IPA (‘Age in Advertising, 2006) which found that 72% of respondents to their survey (themselves agency staffers) agreed that agencies risk becoming out of touch to what appeals to older consumers: in fact, 40% of agency respondents agreed strongly that the average age in agencies had contributed to agencies becoming out of touch with older consumers. The IPA director-general, Hamish Pringle, commented that ‘Adland is way out of line in terms of age’.
Has anything changed? In 2011, the Daily Telegraph (24th February 2011) , under the headline ' Battling ageism in advertising' stated that : ‘ad men’ freely admit ageism exists during recruitment. Louisa Peacock, found that industry figures admitted that ‘ageism is rife within the advertising industry'. Hamish Pringle of the IPA was again wheeled out to agree that it was ‘definitely the case’ that advertising agencies – ‘keen to churn out fresh ideas and demonstrate innovative campaigns’ are biased towards younger people. ‘Agencies look for rising stars not waning ones’, he says. The assumption here is clearly that youth equals creativity and talent – and that age is associated with physical and mental decline.
Today, in 2015, there is no evidence that anything has changed. The most recent IPA Agency Census (November 2014) tells us that the average age of employees remains 33, as it has been since at least 1999. Even age-related organisations favour youth: for example, Age UK (the UK’s largest age-related charity) appointed a new CEO aged 46, who promptly appointed an advertising agency headed by a 35 year old. Talented people, for sure, but this is hardly taking a lead.
So are older people less creative, innovative or energetic?
The inevitably about physical ageing is that mental and physical capabilities will decline with age. However, with longevity, people are staying mentally and physically active for longer – and certainly beyond the age of 40 or 50. In fact, the most significant declines take place in the years before 5 and after 75 – so this is not an issue in terms of employment.
The Equalities and Human Rights Commission report found that 62% of people over 50 claim to be feeling as fit as ever. Our everyday experience tells us that people in their 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond are as active and capable in business as anyone else. Sir Martin Sorrell, the most significant player in the global advertising industry, is 70. Warren Buffett, the world’s most successful investor, is 84. Many successful business people are active into their 60s – Richard Branson or Bill Gates, for example. Studies show that older employees are more productive, reliable and deliver superior customer satisfaction.
One of the main assumptions behind age prejudice in marketing is that creativity and innovation are the province of the young. However, there is a wealth of evidence suggesting that there is by no means a direct relationship between age and a decline in intellect. For example, analysis of 540 Nobel prizewinners by Jones and Weinberg* found that the proportion of Nobel prizes awarded to people over 40 rose from 20% in 1901-1934 to 80% by 2000. A review of literature** relating to the relationship between age and creativity found that the assumption that creativity declines with age is incorrect. In fact, the situation is more complex, with the key variable being individual characteristics.
A change in employment practices in marketing departments and service agencies seems long overdue. There seems no good reason not to employ more people aged over 40 and 50. In the short-term there may be friction – 25 year old brand managers may not want to work with 60 year old consultants, for example – but the potential benefits are huge.
Mark Beasley is planning partner of rhc Advantage, the mature marketing consultancy, and Chairman of the Mature Marketing Association.
This article is an excerpt from the Mature Market Report, an extensive review of marketing and the older consumer.
* ‘Age dynamics in scientific creativity’, Benjamin F. Jones and Bruce A. Weinberg. The relationship between age and creativity and great achievements. ** ‘Age and Creativity.’ - David W. Galenson, The Milken Institute Review, 2006
Mark Beasley, of rhc advantage, mature marketing consultants