Reckoning with the reality of being 55+ in adland

Think more about stage than age

With consumer media habits less about age and more about life stage, Madeleine Morris, Creative Director at Cravens, asks why the advertising, marketing, and research industries are so focused on age and argues that retaining more older people in our agencies can change perceptions by debunking stereotypes in our ads.

I love it when no one offers me a seat on the tube! 

It makes me feel young. It makes me feel like everyone else on their way to work. It makes me feel… normal.

I know I shouldn’t want to be young. I should love the way I am now, revel in the wisdom and confidence that comes with age. Enjoy my laughter lines and rejoice in the fact that I’m still here! But, really no one wants to be old. Old is pipe and slippers. Old is giving up, uncool, unseen - isn’t it?

Youth has been celebrated, even worshipped for centuries. With myths and legends proclaiming elixirs of youth more valuable than gold. The promise of looking young has always been a lucrative business. It is a central theme in everything we are exposed to, from Disney to Shakespeare, we are bombarded with ageing villains trying to regain their youthful appearance or heroes preferring to ‘live fast and die young’.

So, is wanting to stay young an inbuilt desire because we see older people as frail and forgetful and closer to death? Or is it a media construct designed to get us to buy more ‘anti-wrinkle creams’ and pay through the nose for overpriced life extending vitamins.

I suspect it’s a little of both. But worrying about being old and grey, stressing about wrinkles and redundancy is more likely to lead to illness and unhappiness. Perhaps, if we weren’t so keen on staying young, we’d live longer, healthier, happier lives. Chasing eternal youth is disruptive, destructive and expensive.

Trending in 2024

In a recent ‘Trends’ talk I attended at the IPA, one of the trends discussed was an emerging backlash against the wellness industry and the growing popularity of a back-to-basics approach to health. When the world's oldest person was asked about the key to longevity she just said “Stay away from toxic people”!

So how can we, in the media industry, help and even benefit from changing our approach to age? When discussing this with my Mum, who is about to turn 80, she said: "One of the bad things about not seeing yourself is that you feel written out of the story."

Madeleine Morris, Creative Director at Cravens

This correlates with a report by The Behaviours Agency that came out just three months ago, which revealed that 69% of women over 45 feel ‘invisible’ to advertisers - a rise from 50% the previous year.

How are we getting it so wrong? 

It seems we are rarely included in research too. I noticed that even in the IPA Trends talk by the Foresight Factory ‘Trending 2024 - Reckoning with Reality’ the majority of the references didn’t include stats for 55+ or baby boomers, they mostly stopped at Gen X or just said 35+.

That was until Simon Frazier got to the last few slides of his presentation. Simon’s talk ‘Representing Reality’ was essentially about how little our media usage has changed over the last 20 years, even post-pandemic. Using the IPA Touchpoints database and in particular ‘Making Sense - The Commercial Media Landscape’ he showed us that commercial media is still very much alive and kicking.

I was surprised to learn that, when you take into account all UK Adults, Facebook still has a much higher reach than other digital platforms including YouTube. The only media that reaches 90% of all adults in the UK is OOH and the most popular medium is still commercial live/recorded TV! Well, I wasn’t that surprised really, as the whole country was obsessed with ‘The Traitors’ at the time, waiting on tenterhooks for the next nail-biting episode - live TV at its best.

Now this is where it gets interesting

What did really surprise me about Simon's talk was the room’s reaction to the last few slides of his presentation entitled ‘55+ NOW THIS IS WHERE IT GETS INTERESTING’!

Suddenly everyone seemed to sit up and take notice. And when it came to questioning the panel at the end, discussing how to advertise to older people dominated the conversation.

Simon was keen to point out that our viewing habits are less about age and more about life stage. It makes sense that you’ll probably spend more time at home watching TV and posting on Facebook when you’re settled with a mortgage and a family. Whereas if you have a nomadic lifestyle and disposable income it’s likely your preference will be digital mobile media.

So, if our media choices and purchasing decisions are life-stage and lifestyle driven why is advertising, marketing, and research still so focused on age? And why, oh why are the over 55s still so overlooked?!

Yes, there are 57-year-old, grey-haired empty nesters who have retired and moved to the country. But there are also 57-year-olds who are still partying like they’re 27 and there are 57-year-olds like me with teenage kids and who have just stepped their career up a gear. And that’s not even going into the disparity between the lives of 57, 67, 77, and 87-year-olds who are all lumped into the 55+ category!

Stage not age

It feels to me that what really needs to happen is a whole shift in who we target and how we target them. We’ve got to stop thinking in age groups and think more in terms of life stage groups. I would also really love to see people over 55 represented in ads in a more realistic way, a positive, celebratory way that acknowledges we’ve still got so much to give.

To be honest I’d just like to see us represented in ads.

According to a recent study by Creative X just 4% of people shown in ads globally are over 60. Most of these were shown in domestic settings with only 1% in professional or leadership roles. And yet the ‘Centre for Ageing better’ reports that over 50s are responsible for over half of all household spend in the UK.

Madeleine Morris, Creative Director at Cravens

It’s a no-brainer to link the lack of representation in ads to the fact that only a tiny percentage of people who work in advertising are over the age of 55. The last IPA survey indicated that just 6% of agency staff are over 50, which drops even more in the creative departments and even more if you think about female creatives and creative directors!

Should I stay or should I go now

We need 62-year-olds making ads alongside 26-year-olds. I’m not saying younger people can’t advertise to older people, one of our junior teams just made some great ads for First Bus senior bus passes - but it often helps to have some real experience of being older. Also, young creatives need to see older creatives, especially older women like me, working in agencies. We need to be visible to reassure young people that their career won’t end at 45. This is what a brilliant young creative wrote about working with me: “You've genuinely inspired me so much during my time at Cravens. Being able to work with a female CD has really helped me imagine that job for myself one day.”

A few years ago, I wrote an article in Campaign magazine about being made redundant at 50. And I started a Facebook group called ‘The Society of Very Senior Creatives’. You wouldn’t believe the number of exceptional creatives, men and women, who are now members of my Soc of VSCs. And most of them have suffered with lack of employment after 55. 

But what I’ve found most interesting is the amount of young people applying to join! And so many of them have said they want to know what it’s like to be older in our industry. Sadly, several have also said they quit after only a few years because they couldn’t see a future for themselves in advertising.

So come on adland. Let’s make this better. Let’s give people something to look forward to. Let’s retain more older people in our agencies and change perceptions by debunking stereotypes in our ads.

Madeleine Morris, Creative Director at Cravens

As influencers we can ensure older people are seen in the right ways. But it’s not just about visibility. It’s about changing the mindset. Thinking more about stage than age. This will benefit us, the brands we market and, in the long run, it will make everyone healthier and happier if we’re not chasing the illusion of youth. 

Just because I’m over 55 doesn’t mean I have given up. I don’t shop in the same stores as my 15-year-old daughter in an attempt to look young, but because I like to stay on trend and fun clothes have always made me feel good, as has dying my hair silly colours! Like most people my age I don’t feel old or stuck in my ways. I’m always looking for new experiences - I went to my first football match the other day and loved it! 

And, thinking about it, maybe I’m happy when no one offers me a seat on the tube because they can see I’m fit and healthy! Not because they think I’m young. And I’m OK with that. So going forward I just have to remember to avoid toxic people and make the most of that free bus pass when I’m old enough to get one!

For more on retaining your key talent and creating an inclusive workplace, attend the IPA Talent & Diversity Conference, 24 April


Madeleine is Creative Director at Cravens, the UK’s oldest independent advertising agency. She is an award winning creative and founder of the Society of Very Senior Creatives. Prior to Cravens, Madeleine worked at many of London’s biggest ad agencies including - Grey, Saatchi & Saatchi, Leo Burnett and Publicis. Madeleine lives in London with her husband, teenage daughter and small, scruffy dog.

The opinions expressed here are those of the authors 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