Bright old things: advertising in the age of automation

IPA Excellence Diploma in Brands

As part of the 2022 IPA Excellence Diploma in Brands, delegates were asked to write an opinion piece outlining what brands could do to address a particular cultural or societal challenge and affect change. Here, Mark Gibbs explores age discrimination in the workplace and what the future of our industry could look like.

I am a young executive. No cuffs than mine are cleaner.

John Betjeman, Executive (1974)

Advertising has an age discrimination problem.

It’s right there in the data – just 6% of us are over 50 (IPA Census 2019) versus 33% of working adults (Office for National Statistics 2022).

Besides fearing for our futures, these figures usually raise eyebrows over effectiveness. Can a group of recent grads truly connect with empty nesters? Perhaps. Yet it’s much easier to push clients toward younger audiences we relate to, even if they have less cash to spend.

But there’s more at stake than that.

Those 33% – the ones whose money we’re missing out on – are disproportionately employed in jobs that may not be around for long.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development named the industries with the highest proportion of over 50s, including Agriculture (50.3%), Transport (39%) and Water Services (36.4%) (2015).

Meanwhile, the Office for National Statistics found that those same industries face a high likelihood of automation (2019, author’s analysis).

And that’s not in the distant future. By 2025 humans and machines are expected to play an equal role in most tasks (World Economic Forum 2020), with up to 30% of jobs becoming fully automatable by the mid-2030s (PwC 2018).

In other words, we’ll soon be living in a society where lots of people, especially those over 50, are out of work. That’s bad news for the economy, with reduced productivity negatively impacting GDP.

Thankfully, there’s hope. The ONS’ data suggests advertising is set to survive the onslaught of the machines better than most, with just a 25% probability of automation - 39% lower than the top 10 industries for the over 50s (2019).

This difference can be explained by three areas predicted to safeguard certain jobs from automation: Genuine Creativity, Building Relationships with Humans, and a High Sense of Unpredictability (Ford, cited in Stagars 2017). If that’s not the perfect description of a career in advertising, then I don’t know what is.

Diversification, therefore, isn’t simply an opportunity for advertising to become more representative. It’s our responsibility to help keep the economy afloat by providing valuable work to all.

So, what are we going to do about it?

The first step is to reframe the problem away from staff retention.

We need to stop focusing on how hard it is to sustain a creative career (Hegarty, cited in Magee 2016), or convincing employers to pay older staff higher salaries in exchange for the "honed expertise in brand building and creative ideation that only comes from having years of industry experience" (DeLana 2019).

These narratives only exacerbate the problem, alienating the over 50s with expectations that age should equal expertise.

Instead, we must turn our attention to acquisition.

After all, with the State Pension age creeping northwards, and two-thirds of people planning to work even longer (Szalay 2022), why couldn’t a novice 50-year-old start a 20-year career in Advertising? As DeLana admits, "we all know that inexperience doesn’t equate to lack of direction, insight or influence".

It’s our job to make entry to advertising appealing to the broadest audience possible by removing unconscious biases that favour younger applicants. In short: we need to advertise ourselves better.

That starts with language.

Candidates lean on their 'Affinity Bias' to find opportunities where they think they’ll fit in. Unfortunately, the same goes the other way - the Centre for Ageing Better and The Behavioural Insights Team found that the language most used in job adverts has a significant negative impact on whether older applicants think they’ll get the job (2021).

By swapping youthful terms like 'Innovative', 'Dynamic' and 'Tech Savvy' for more universal alternatives such as 'Knowledgeable', 'Enthusiastic' or 'Dependable', employers can portray an environment where applicants of all ages believe they can thrive.

Once they’re through the door, our teams must be trained to spot where their own biases unduly disqualify older candidates.

For example, hiring managers often rely on heuristics such as the 'Expectation Anchor' that prefers candidates who are carbon copies of their predecessor, or the 'Similarity-Attraction Effect' that prioritises culture-fit over competency (Johnson 2020). Meanwhile, the 'Horn Effect' puts unnecessary importance on supposed negatives like not having a degree, regardless of whether the job really needs one (hint: it probably doesn’t).

By putting structures in place to help find and eliminate these biases, we can ensure all applicants have an equal opportunity to succeed.

As automation threatens to displace workers around the world, the future of the economy relies on the Creative Industries to provide meaningful jobs for all. By pivoting our approach to age discrimination from staff retention toward recruiting people of all ages at every level, we can both reap the benefits of a more representative workforce, while ensuring there’s a sustainable market out there worth communicating with for years to come.

Mark Gibbs is Strategy Director at Wunderman Thompson UK. This piece was submitted as part of the IPA Excellence Diploma in Brands.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and were submitted in accordance with the IPA terms and conditions regarding the uploading and contribution of content to the IPA newsletters, IPA website, or other IPA media, and should not be interpreted as representing the opinion of the IPA.

Last updated 01 May 2024