After presenting WPP’s half-year results, chief executive officer, Mark Read, was asked by a business analyst via Twitter if he thought the company had the right balance of staff with TV and digital skills.
He tweeted, “We have a very broad range of skills, and if you look at our people – the average age of someone who works at WPP is less than 30 – they don’t hark back to the 1980s, luckily.”
WPP is lucky that the average WPP employee as no first-hand understanding of what 83% of its audience feel and think? Apparently he thought that no one over the age of 30 understands digital because his response to the – very justified – backlash was, “I was wrong to use age to try to make a point. People over 40 can do great digital marketing just as people under 30 can make great TV ads,” thereby patronising both age groups.
He did try to make amends later with a tweet that read, “We’re fortunate to have thousands of people at WPP who have decades of experience and expertise. They’re extremely valuable to our business and the work we do for clients, and I’m sorry my reply suggested otherwise.”
But he had already underlined one of advertising’s most ridiculous and self-imposed problems, that an industry which lives and dies on its creative thinking and deep accurate grasp of culture is ultra-conservative in its hiring and stone-deaf when it comes to current culture. Creatively, it exuberates in current fads and culturally it lives – intransigently until it is slapped in the face – in the past. The idea that only the very young are forward-thinking is a fallacy. The practice of investing primarily in cheap employees is foolish.
Happily, there are contradicting voices to Read’s in adland. George Tannenbaum, who LinkedIn bio notes, “I was kicked out of Ogilvy at the age of 62 in January, 2020. But really I didn’t leave Ogilvy. Ogilvy left me…” (he had been ECD and copy chief at Ogilvy New York), tweeted, “I am not expecting clients to trust their billion-dollar brands to a holding company whose CEO discriminates by saying ‘the average age of someone who works at WPP is less than 30 – they don’t hark back to the 1980s.’ That is, they don’t know Bernbach, Ogilvy, Gossage, Abbott, Hegarty, Riney etc. Meanwhile, they seek to ‘transform’ your business while suffering double-digit losses virtually every year.”
(Extraordinary that a 62-year-old knows how to use Twitter?)
Lorna Branton, head of media and campaigns at NHS Digital, tweeted, “What a discriminatory and prejudiced statement. I bet he doesn’t think that he is less valuable and harking back to the 80s because he isn’t 20, so why would it be the same for others at every level?”
Mary Beth West, senior strategist at Fletcher PR who also hosts the MsInterPReted podcast, tweeted, “Quite a flippant statement, when the easily inferred meaning is, ‘We’re keeping our payroll in check while charging clients full ticket’.”
But there are far too few of these, and lip-service is another extremely hindering adland habit.
Will Humphrey, strategy director at Wunderman Thompson, tweeted, “may just have been pounced upon a little too readily; it reads to me like he’s decrying the excesses of the 50s-80s, not the talent. (Yes, I think the fee structure of most agencies encourages ageism.)”
OK, I’m angry. It’s not that advertising is ageist per se, it’s that an industry in trouble persists in shooting itself in the foot by being slow to change its own culture. Slow to allow women to be equal. Slow to accept that being all-white is a handicap. Still thinking that forward-thinking is equivalent to “cool”. Still fixated on an audience that represents approx 21% of the total (in most populations).
Still telling its clients they must stand for all the things it won’t adopt.