Ageism - the Cinderella of diversity and inclusion

A Future of Fairness includes a roadmap for companies to follow no matter where they are on their diversity and inclusion journey.

Our new report, A Future of Fairness, aims to give brands and agencies a series of tangible actions to consider on diversity and inclusion. In this chapter, we look at whether agencies are failing to reflect an ageing population, both in the workforce and in the creative output.

Vicki Maguire, Chief Creative Officer of Havas London says, "I have absolutely no problem waging a 55-year old menopausal one-woman crusade against ageism, because I know I can deliver. I value experience, and I value people who are vital, who go out and explore and bring new things to the table – they can be 22 or they can be 60... I’ve got such a burst of energy and love for the industry. I’m nowhere near finished yet."

Maguire is a living embodiment of the fact that society is changing, and traditional ageing norms are being challenged – yet the stereotypes of the older consumer and the older worker prevail. It seems to be worse in advertising than in other creative industries, but this disrespect is misplaced: the Nobel prize for literature; the Booker prize; the best director and best actress at the Oscars; best drama and comedy directors at the Emmys – all were won by over 50s in 2020.

Older employees more vulnerable to cost cutting

Adrian Holmes, co-founder of agency Ancient & Modern, which bills itself as "London’s oldest ad agency", thinks the problem is just as much "expensivism" as "ageism".

Talking about the wave of senior creatives losing their jobs in the COVID-19 fallout, Holmes says, “It’s classic thinking – they’re old, they’re expensive, they may be incredibly experienced and wise and talented, but they’ve got to go. In losing people like that, agencies will really feel it in the long term. There’s a saying that when an old man dies, a library burns down.”

But it doesn’t need to be this way, according to Kate Bruges, Director of Learning and Development at Wunderman Thompson EMEA. She says, "More experience almost always means better productivity, so let’s think about how we can use over 50s in a way that’s affordable. They might be happy to work three days a week, but they won’t start that discussion because they worry it’ll be used against them. We need transparency, and to be more imaginative in our approach."

As the main wage earner in her household, Bruges is still working in her 50s, but it hasn’t been easy. She took only nine weeks’ maternity leave for each of her three children, and in a pre-digital age, she used to go home at the end of the working day, put the kids to bed, then get in the car and drive back to the office.

With better parental policies and more flexible working options, agency life should be getting easier for those with caring responsibilities. In theory, this means the industry will be more likely to retain an experienced workforce, although Bruges admits that it can be a "lonely place" at her age.

Combining different skillsets

Younger members of workforces benefit from the different skillsets that older workers bring, according to Tara Macleod, founder of The Commonland, a consultancy focused on tackling conventions around age. She says, "The most productive groups mix ages, skills and perspectives to get to a solution faster," and she points out that many older creatives are still working behind the scenes, quietly producing high-profile work on a freelance basis but not getting the credit for it.

Bruges insists, "There’s an overt assumption that the older you get the more out of touch you are. It’s completely discriminatory but it’s seen as the norm. From my experience, a parent in their 30s and 40s is just in survival mode; it’s when you come out the other side that you have the time to be really plugged in to what’s going on in culture and the arts and whatever form of creativity excites you."

At 66, Tess Alps, former Chair of Thinkbox, offers solidarity. "It was easier for me because I had a certain status, but we need to make it possible for someone of my age to be valued at all levels of the business. The industry is losing out, not only in terms of experience, but in the different ways of looking at the world that older people have. We need to stop being obsessed with youth, and value both ends of the age scale."

It is so important for the images we see to positively reflect all sectors of society, yet all too often older people are portrayed in a one-dimensional manner or simply not shown at all.

Dr Debbie Weekes-Bernard, Deputy Mayor for Social Integration, Social Mobility and Community Engagement

This year’s Transport for London and Mayor of London Diversity in Advertising competition aims to help tackle inauthentic and one-dimensional portrayals of older people within adverts by inviting brands to come up with campaigns that better reflect this important group of people. The winner will be announced in early 2021.

The UK has an ageing population and Lloyds Bank’s research in 2016 found that while those over 65 years old made up 17.7% of the population, they only featured in 6.17% of advertising. This is echoed by the research carried out by UCL for TfL and the Mayor of London ahead of the launch of their Diversity in Advertising competition in 2018, which showed that people over the age of 55 reported feeling "invisible" and "irrelevant", with fewer than one in four respondents being able to recall seeing an advert featuring someone with wrinkles. The Lloyds research also highlighted the stereotypical nature of the presentation of older people; it found that when they did appear in advertising, older people were typically shown as a wise, generous, engaged parent or grandparent in a nuclear family.

This is the opening to our chapter on Age in advertising in 'A Future of Fairness', our new report which seeks to hold a mirror to the industry’s progress, celebrate those who have pioneered change and offer up-to-date guidance on how agencies can recruit, retain and motivate top talent.

Continue reading A Future of Fairness
Last updated 15 March 2021