Addressing the distorted perception of over-50s in adland

Ageism is one of the ad industry’s most common forms of discrimination, according to the WFA’s recent census, yet the issue is often left out of DE&I initiatives. Jeremy Hine, our CEO, considers how we might begin to tackle this age-old problem for The Drum.
Addressing the distorted perception of over-50s in adland

As someone in their early fifties, I am well aware of our industry’s obsession with age. From jumping on the latest TikTok trends to the skyrocketing growth of influencer marketing, brands seem to be tireless in their desire to target younger generations, despite the fact that millennials and GenZ-ers combine to account for only 25% of UK retail spend, according to research by Clearpay.

Yet, while this ongoing issue of ageism is apparent within the creative work itself, it’s also a distinct problem that we’re facing within our industry workforce. According to last year’s All In Census, only 4.5% of adland’s employees are 50+. 43% of the 55-64 age bracket feel that age can limit their career – unsurprising when 44% of our workforce is 25-34. With figures like that, you can see how advertising continues to miss the mark when targeting the boomer generation and above. In fact, 74% of those over 50 think that they’re never represented in mainstream ads, and 72% believe that the representation portrayed of themselves is an outdated stereotype.

So, what can be done to change the dull and distorted view of the over-50s as sunhat- and sandal-clad, blissfully making their way toward retirement?

We can be changemakers too

The biggest names in advertising have become much more transparent on crucial matters such as race and gender, yet age remains neglected.

Things aren’t being helped by the ongoing obsession of making a name for yourself during your younger years. I recently saw a post by Alexandra Panousis, chief executive officer of Dentsu Canada, who commented on the fact that we’re obsessed with ‘30 under 30’ awards. Of course, we should celebrate these individuals and their achievements, but it does inadvertently fuel the idea that the only real changemakers out there are young, and that’s simply not true.

This isn’t unique to the advertising and media world. Roger Hallam: born in 1966, co-founded the Extinction Rebellion group just three years ago, which has now turned into one of the world’s most prominent environmental movements. Yet the media often portrays gen Z as the ones calling for change (Greta Thunberg, for example).

It seems like, although many of us don’t feel any older, the industry is intent on overlooking the valuable skills the over-50s have to offer, and that shouldn’t be the case. Instead, attitude should be the differentiator, not age, and more needs to be done to change these perceptions. There is a lot that people over 50 can bring to the table. Experience and leadership skills are two incredibly valuable qualities that often come with age, along with the smoothing off of the irrational and impulsive rough edges that inevitably comes through years of exposure to pressure, and helps to make us less reactive in the face of mishaps.

What is fueling the stigma?

From an agency point of view, there are several potential drivers for the lack of diversity when it comes to age. Firstly, many senior execs wrongly believe that newer platforms can only be understood and successfully managed by young people alone. Additionally, older individuals may be seen as more expensive, which can drive agencies seeking to maintain profit margins to hire younger, inexpensive talent instead (unsurprisingly, this has become a bigger issue post-pandemic, with the ONS reporting that over 180,000 fewer over-50s are working than before the pandemic).

And, while we should not disregard the ability to learn new skills at any age, working in advertising does require a certain amount of expertise learnt on the job, and therefore it’s rare for individuals to join from a completely different industry later in their career.

While it wouldn’t be fair to attribute this issue solely to the industry itself, we have to bear in mind that we have reached this stage because of our attitudes toward over-50s. Indeed, given that only 15% of adland employees are over 55, we – who have the hiring power – must surely bear a part of the blame for others of the same age feeling excluded from the industry.

There are, however, other factors to consider. For example, people in their 50s may find sidestepping careers difficult, as it’s a time that often carries much responsibility. At that age, you might have children, a mortgage and bills to pay, and, unfortunately, you need a lot of stability to counterbalance that level of responsibility. It can be a frightening period to think about changing careers and retraining, and I certainly admire and respect the people that do.

For ‘boomers,’ there was also never much flexibility when it came to working. You chose a job and stayed with it for most of your life, but the younger generation is changing that. They’re driven by purpose, and they have more opportunities to travel and explore, and less pressure to stick with the same career. Perhaps this is a more modern mindset that the over-50s should adopt, but again, the industry must meet them halfway, ensuring the right infrastructure and support is in place.

A career in advertising might not be for everyone, but for those who are suited to it and want to explore a new path later in life, we need to do more as an industry to embrace them, and the value that they can add to our work. At MullenLowe Group, we’re setting up a reverse mentorship program that will see some of the older members of our team collaborating with our youngest colleagues to facilitate an exchange of views and skills. The idea behind it is that both parties can gain something from this exchange, opening up a positive, two-way conversation that we hope will bring more diverse views and values to the table. And, while this is only a very small first step, it’s certainly a move in the right direction. After all, grey hair has value.