50 and Fired? Why Seniors Shouldn’t Be Exiled From the Ad Industry

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When I started out in advertising almost 30 years ago, it struck me that there were no old people to be seen anywhere. And with old, I mean 50 years and over.

Me and my then teammate started believing in a conspiracy theory that all people were gruesomely eliminated at a certain age. It felt like an episode of Logan’s Run, the cult science fiction film set in a dystopian future where people are killed when they reach the age of 30.

In advertising, this age is between 45 and 50. When I turned 45, I stood still in the hallway of the office, waiting for the secret to be revealed. There are two ways to be eliminated: you either get fired or you get tired. In my case, 15 years ago I got fired. But I wasn’t tired. So, I bounced back and today, at 58, I’m still here, having the best years of my life and career. In retrospect, it was a good thing to be slingshot out of my auto-repeat modus 15 years ago, into an upward spiraling movement of continuous renewal.

Fired or tired

Statistically, I should have known what was coming my way, since only 3 percent of all people in advertising are over 50. As opposed to 33 percent in other industries. These are U.K. figures, but I assume they apply to other countries as well. So, we definitely have a problem with age. And if you dig deeper into those figures, you would see we even have a bigger problem with the combination of gender and age. 

Why are talents filtered out of the system from the moment they turn 50? One reason is salary: you simply became too expensive. Over the years, you have built a track record and a matching paycheck. This makes you an easy target when cost-cutting is in order. And as you know, since the banking crisis of 2008—plus ensuing the double-digit inflation, economizing clients and numerous mergers—cost-cutting has become a way of life. 

This means that at a certain age, you are replaced by younger replicas of yourself. You can only justify your salary if you prove you are twice as good and twice as fast. 

Another reason is bias. Agency folks like to surround themselves with others who share their interests—and those of the same age. 

Thirdly, some senior profiles just decide to quit, because they get tired. They look for more fulfillment in life and don’t want to go the extra mile anymore for our industry culture which is based on competing and comparing.

A vast percentage of seniors use their experience to start teaching in art school or they pursue that long-awaited artist career, where they can finally sign off work with their own name, not a brand’s name.

And then you have those who settle for anonymous freelance life, where they are loved by account managers, because they are old enough to take feedback without moaning and groaning. 

The junior senior

Remember the 1988 ad for The Economist? It’s an old-school poster with a headline reading, “I never read The Economist. Management trainee, Age 42.”  The ad makes fun of still being a trainee at 42. Today, it should be everyone’s goal to be a trainee at something at the age of 42. And again at the age of 52. Or 62. Be the senior with the attitude of a junior.  

I may look older than my colleagues, but I never feel it. 

The Dutch novelist Harry Mulish once said that everyone has a mental age; this is the age you have throughout your life. So, some people are “born old.” And some never grow old. It’s a mental thing. Age should never be something you have to justify yourself for. It’s time for agencies and brands to see the added value of seniors for their business.

Don’t forget these are fabulous times to be 50+. Technological evolutions happen so fast, even people in their mid-20s feel they cannot keep up anymore. A Flemish study shows that 1 in 3 youngsters admit technological evolutions outpace them. This puts every age on the same page, I guess. A.I., the metaverse, TikTok, GDPR, Sora—it’s new to everyone, regardless of age.

You even have advantages, because everything from your youth is coming back. Tears for Fears and Kate Bush are hits on TikTok. And so is Rick Astley, sadly enough. Your clothes are not old anymore; they’re vintage. 

The age of ageism

The perfect combination is the energy of young employees and the vision of older ones, resulting in richer ideas with greater viability. Here are five ways in which seniors can contribute to the success of an agency.

  • They offer a different perspective. You could say that our world gets bigger as our eyesight gets worse. Seniors bring a unique perspective based on their years of experience in the industry. They have seen trends come and go, giving them the power to recognize patterns and life cycles more rapidly. 
  • They are good for mentorship. Once you achieve your personal goals, you can start passing on your knowledge. You remain ambitious for yourself, of course, but you become more generous. Seniors can serve as mentors to younger employees but also to the whole industry, sharing their knowledge and skills. 
  • They can bring stability. Seniors often provide stability within a company. They are typically more loyal and less likely to job hop. 
  • They can relate to certain age groups: Older employees might relate better to certain customer demographics, understanding their needs and concerns more effectively due to shared life experiences. 
  • The older you are, the more strategic you become; ideas become a means, not a goal. Being experienced enough, also means that you might know the brand better than most people on the client side. 

At first, I thought we needed a new term like “sageism” to refer to the richness seniors bring, or “rageism,” a plea to seniors to keep renewing themselves. But let’s keep the term “ageism,” but turn its meaning into something positive. This can become the age of ageism, where we celebrate the value and contributions of older employees in the industry.

Pro tip: Don’t look at the physical age, look at the mental age.


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