Advertising is great at talking about diversity. It’s great at talking about change.
It’s just not that great at doing either.
It has been ageist for decades. And that’s getting worse. The arrival of digital gave the industry a case of FOMO. It feared it wasn’t cool enough. Wasn’t up-to-date enough. The answer, it reasoned (which was probably reasonable at the time) was young blood. Like all obsessions, the industry’s youth yearnings is now out of whack with reality. Digital isn’t tomorrow’s mystery now. It’s everybody’s everyday life.
And like all obsessions, being out of whack with reality comes at a cost. In The Blueprint’s 2019 report, The Truth About Talent, the top 1% of ad talent in the UK and the US said things like:
“All that incredible wisdom’s gone. We’re failing ourselves by seeing people who are older as being expensive and not valuable. We’re not keeping great people.”
“One of the things that keeps many of us up at night is what happens when we’re sixty-five. It seems less likely that you’ll still be in this industry at fifty-five, sixty-five than it was ten years ago. At some point, I feel like I would have to transition into something a little less transient to have some security when I’m older. It’s certainly something that sits at the back of my mind.”
“We wouldn’t put David Hockney on the shelf because he’s in his eighties, nor Martin Scorsese nor Steven Spielberg. There is a reverence to wisdom and experience. There is an incredibly shallow leaning in this industry [that] youth is the answer to everything. Which is ridiculous, of course – you know you don’t die when you’re thirty.”
Apparently, the top 1% of talent isn’t doing the ad agency hiring? Or maybe it is. As noted above (it’s worth repeating), advertising is great at talking about diversity. It’s great at talking about change. It’s just not that great at doing either.
I’m hoping that I can change that – at least when it comes to ageism in advertising. I know a lot of incredible wisdom that’s gone from the industry in Australia. I used to work with it (them). [:ed]
I’m sorry, John Steedman, this is a very long preamble to a Q and A of which you have bravely been the interviewee. And your answers are genuine [read:important] insights. Steedman is board director, WPP AUNZ, and chairman of WPP Media Services AUNZ:
The Stable: What has surprised you about being older – what didn’t you expect?
John Steedman: Still wanted and appreciated by the business. A calm head when solving challenges. Wisdom that (usually) only comes with age.
TS: What stereotypes about older people really bug you?
JS: They can’t learn new things because they are old and therefore less productive. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am constantly on a learning curve and never stop absorbing new information. The industry has changed significantly from when I first entered however, I have constantly kept abreast and embraced change particularly, over the last 15 years. Older people have years of experience and knowledge which they can impart to the younger generation. I absolutely love mentoring the Marketing Academy participants who are eager to learn, hear my experiences and seek advice.
TS: What can you do now better than when you were younger?
JS: Listen and suspend views. This is an incredible feat to master (still learning). We as an industry, both internally and externally, are not good listeners and many find it very difficult to suspend their views and listen to another POV. Everyone is entitled to an opinion. I personally do not make decisions without consultation. Listen to everyone’s POV and then make a well-considered decision. I recall a piece of research that stated that 70% of supplier/partner reviews are conducted because the supplier/partner did not listen.
TS: In London, I was told that advertising is a “young man’s game”. Why? What are the things that block older people from being hired?
JS: There are many that still think that way. They say that because we were not brought up in the digital age we don’t understand how consumers think and act. And that’s largely driven by the fact that the majority of targeted messages are directed at the under 50s and we don’t know how the under 50s think. Again, nothing further from the truth.
TS: Is it true that older people will never be hired or feature in target markets because it’s not costing business anything not to?
JS: The facts will win the day and here at WPP AUNZ we have some of the best market research in the country. Smart marketers will follow the money. For example: 2 in 3 new cars are purchased by people over 50. 50% of all travel and all alcohol (especially the good stuff) is purchased by people over 50. This generation has the highest disposable income by far. 60 is the new 40 and many Australians in their 50s are getting re-married, changing careers and are in the best shape of their lives. Marketers need to catch up and we are advising many of our clients to do exactly that.
TS: What do you think older people bring to any workplace? To advertising?
JS: Experience, knowledge and understanding.
TS: What do you think young people bring?
JS: Good: Energy, keen to learn, eagerness to climb the ladder, fun. Bad: hard work/put in the hours to climb the ladder, listening, moving jobs for an extra 2K.
TS: I’m an absolutely adamant that you can’t know what it’s like to be older unless you’ve experienced it – and yet when I spoke to two younger ad execs (a millennial creative and a Gen Y suit), they were convinced that data could tell them everything. What do you think?
JS: To an extent, data will help in understanding different psychographics. However, you personally don’t know what it’s like until you have experienced it. Trust me I know, I am one them.
TS: Women became an activist group fighting for equal rights – eventually. You can’t pretend not to be a woman. You fight or you suffer. But people are pretending not to be old because they can (sort of), not to be “suffering” because they’re embarrassed, and not talking about it because they feel it will kill their careers. What else can The Stable do to put equal work rights for people of all ages in the spotlight where it should be?
JS: Here at WPP AUNZ we have delivered a Thought Leadership piece called Secrets & Lies and we are currently in the process of creating a Special Report called Secrets & Lies “Ageless” because we think this audience is misunderstood and needs a fresh, more accurate perspective.