Creativity, particularly in advertising, is almost exclusively associated with youth, but an Ohio State University report published earlier this year showed that this is a fallacy. Using a study of Nobel Prize laureates, its research showed that there are two different life cycles of creativity: one that hits some people early in their career and another that more often strikes later in life. This later peak hits some in their mid-fifties.
For a variety of reasons, this is a cohort that is poorly represented in agencies.
According to the 2019 IPA Census, only 6.2% of its members’ workforce is over the age of 50, indicating that they are missing out on a rich vein of talent. Redundancy, discrimination, health issues or the need to take on caring responsibilities, for example for elderly parents, can all contribute to older employees being forced to leave the industry. Equally, some might look around their agencies and not see it as a welcoming place as they get older.
This obsession with venerating the young is one of the reasons that Robert Campbell, founder of Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe, since subsumed into VMLY&R, set up the lifestyle website High50 after becoming sick of the fact marketers obsess about youth, when it’s 50- to 65-year-olds who control three-quarters of all wealth. How can agencies claim to have a genuine connection to that audience, when it doesn’t hire enough of them?
"I think it’s a tragedy for the industry," he says. "While we’re all bending over backwards to be inclusive in other ways, there’s a massive ageism in the industry, I think. It’s not about being fair, it’s about having a good business and doing well for your clients. To think all the skill and wisdom exists under 33 is extraordinary. It’s nuts."
Creative Equals is an organisation that champions diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Earlier this year, it launched its Creative Comeback scheme to help women from the creative industries return to the workplace. In March 2020 it is scaling up the programme with Diageo globally to give 100 returners the opportunity to take part. It aims to support people who have had time off for a host of reasons to get back the requisite confidence and skills (see "Creative comebacks" below). For the first time the global programme running in 2020 will also be open to men struggling to get back into the industry – for example, as a result of redundancy, health issues, ageism or personal circumstances. Diageo said it is backing the scheme because it believes diverse teams shape better work, create better solutions and bring fresh insights.
"There is the old adage that you’re only as good as your last piece of work. But if someone’s had a career break, it doesn’t mean that they’re not as good as someone who hasn’t, it just means they’ve had a career break," Ali Hanan, founder of Creative Equals, says.
Because adland is demanding, and has been slow to embrace flexible working, when life gets in the way, people can struggle to readjust after a period of time off, whether that be for maternity leave, sickness or burnout as a result of the industry’s relentless pace.
Hanan thinks the industry has already taken "huge strides" to be more inclusive, but when adland overlooks this talent it misses out on a rich seam. And that’s not only devastating for the people left behind, it’s a big mistake for an industry that needs to understand human experience to develop effective campaigns for brands.
"We’ve got this huge pool of untapped talent that bring rich, incredible life experience. If you’ve survived cancer, for example, you have a new way of looking at the world and emotional depth. People who have had a career break or have been through some of life’s more crazy challenges come back to the workplace with all this depth, knowledge, compassion and empathy. Why would we want to miss out on all of that? It’s crazy," Hanan says.
She adds that ageism is, in part, why the Creative Equals scheme will be opened up to men. "Men get older, they get made redundant, they have mental-health breakdowns. All those things that happen to women also happen to men," she says. "Our focus is still on changing the overall ratio of women but we want to be inclusive."
Agencies are already making positive inroads to be more inclusive across the board but would benefit from adapting at an even greater pace, Hanan argues. "I’ve been in this industry for 20 years, and I love it. We need to align the industry with the way that the needs of talent are shifting."
If you’d like to apply for the 2020 Creative Comeback programme, go to creativeequals.org/creativecomeback
Monica Whittick had to make the 3,500-mile journey back home from New York to London in 2011 when her father had a stroke that hospitalised him for three months. She was working as an associate art director at Elle magazine in New York when she heard the news that her father, who was also a carer for her mother, a dementia sufferer, was ill.
In common with many women, Whittick found herself choosing between her immediate career and her family, and took the decision to become carer to both her parents. What was meant to be a temporary move became permanent, and she became a freelancer to fit work around caring responsibilities.
Unfortunately, both her parents died in 2017 and Whittick, battling grief and facing a challenging hiring environment, found herself out of work for a year, which, to her, felt like 10 years. In particular, she found it hard to compete for jobs with younger candidates. "They want you young and they want you fresh, and, because you’re older, you’re not given the opportunity to shine," she says.
It was at this time that she heard about the Creative Equals comeback scheme on LinkedIn and applied. She’s since had two job interviews, which has boosted her confidence and given her a network of other women in a similar situation.
Following an unexpected pregnancy after graduating from university, Agatha O’Neill put her career plans on hold while she cared for her son. "My son’s father was out of the picture, he left, and it was really, really difficult to get into the workplace. I felt really lost for a long time," she says. "I realise that I’m extremely privileged but it was really hard being a single mum. The cost of childcare was unfeasible."
O’Neill got a job as a graphic designer when her son started school, gaining training on the job before moving to a start-up media agency. As a single parent, though, she wasn’t earning enough to make ends meet and decided to leave to seek new opportunities.
"As women, we are burdened with a lot more and we tend to take on the carer role, and I think that’s massively detrimental to society as a whole; companies just have to pick up the pace."
In April she started a six-month placement with MRM McCann as a designer. "It’s been absolutely amazing. My manager is the best I’ve ever had and I feel really, really valued. They’re totally flexible, and it’s so refreshing because I work better for it."
Amy Parkhill’s second child was born just two weeks before she embarked on the Creative Equals comeback scheme in February. She says her confidence had been dented by a former manager who warned her that if she left agency life, it would be "like taking your hand out of a bucket of sand, meaning that I was replaceable".
Parkhill applied for the scheme after becoming pregnant (a "terrifying time" career-wise) because she felt it would help give her an "in" with the major London agencies, where she’d always aspired to work. However, she had feared this goal would be stymied by her need for flexibility, and her career until that point had been spent working for agencies in her home county of Kent, where she had never felt her career goals had been fulfilled. She was worried that a second pregnancy would be a "hurdle" to achieving her aims.
It was during this time that she was accepted on the Creative Equals scheme. "It just spoke to me completely. I realised it was going to be the best opportunity to get in front of these people. I was mentored by [group chief creative officer] Justin Tindall at M&C Saatchi and offered a three-month placement here, which is what I’m doing now."