'Invisible and expensive': what ageism looks like in adland

Since being made redundant in my fifties, I have learned more about the reality of ageism in the industry.

In July last year, my article "The truth about being made redundant as a female creative in your fifties" was published in Campaign.

It was the summer holidays and I thought it would get lost, as most people in adland were posting palm fringed pictures of themselves on Instagram. Instead, it all went a bit mental.

Within two weeks, I had over 250 people apply to join my – hastily formed – Society of Very Senior Creatives and a flurry of coffee invitations via LinkedIn. Suddenly, I became the ad industry’s voice for the older generation. I was invited to talk on panels and write pieces for marketing mags.

All the interest was exciting but also overwhelming. So I went on holiday and ignored it for a couple of weeks.

When I got back, I slowly worked my way through the LinkedIn list and tried to meet as many people as possible. I got involved with the Jolt Academy, an initiative set up by Andy Knell to get more diversity into creative departments. I gave lectures, did book crits and became a mentor.

And my Society of Very Senior Creatives just kept growing. There are now over 300 members from all over the world.

It feels good to be wanted and needed. But I realize it could have easily gone the other way.

When people apply to join the Society of Very Senior Creatives, I ask them to tell me how age has affected their job. Many of the answers have been depressing. Some of them downright shocking.

An old bird in adland

Unsurprisingly, ageism and sexism go hand in hand. Women talk about experiencing ageism from as young as 35. Many people, men and women, take their date of birth off their CV and some even omit their first few jobs.

Here are a few examples of answers I received:

"Age and life stage make a huge impact. I lied about my age for about 2 years, then had to stop as colleagues started doing the math when I told them I have a 13-year-old son.’

"I worked in the industry for 30 years with no redundancy – after I was 50 I was made redundant 3 times – I'm now freelancing."

"I feel practically invisible. People talk over me."

"I became 'too expensive', 'too corporate' and that old chestnut 'too experienced' three years ago."

The last two are typical. Over and over, people wrote the words "invisible" and "expensive". It’s real and it’s happening everywhere.

Say your age

In my last agency, no-one knew how old I was until I hit 50. Then I decided to do a load of crazy stuff to celebrate reaching half-a-century. Because these were all for charity, I sent various emails at work asking for money. And I deliberately mentioned I was doing it to celebrate turning 50.

Although it may help us as individuals in the short term, in the long term I think hiding our age exacerbates the problem of ageism. If we’re not demonstrating to people in our industry all the advantages of being over 45, how can we show the rest of the world? It’s not surprising that people over a certain age are underrepresented and stereotyped in ads.

We need to change society’s attitude to age. And we can. Our work has a huge influence on public perception.

How old is old anyway?

When we’re in our teens, we want everyone to think we’re older. But not once we’re over 30. And the older we get, the less likely we are to tell people.

I think this is because people are frightened of ageing. This is reflected in the media’s obsession with youth. We rarely see positive images of older people and when we do they’re extreme, like running the marathon at 90. Most ads perpetuate the notion that all old people are lonely and decrepit.

We’ve got to stop showing negative stereotypes of ageing because how we perceive ageing affects how we actually age. As the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging reports: "Those holding more negative age stereotypes earlier in life had significantly steeper hippocampal volume loss and significantly greater accumulation of neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid plaques."

Skin deep

In our image-obsessed society, you are only beautiful if you are fresh-faced and wrinkle-free. And our fear of ageing is getting worse. A recent report found that 28% of 18- to 24-year-olds and 31% of 25- to 34-year-olds have had some form of cosmetic treatment (compared with an average of just 21% for the whole UK population). In fact, 16% of women would consider plastic surgery just to keep their job.

For these reasons, it is imperative that we keep older creatives in work. As a Very Senior Creative, I’m more likely to portray elder people in a positive but realistic way.

Here are some of the more positive things that some Very Senior Creatives said about being older:

"Age has made me wiser, faster and fitter in my role."

"It's given me a huge amount of experience that I now apply to help creative organisations become more creative. And profitable. And fun."

"I am now mainly hired as a problem-solver, called towards the end of productions to fix the job when things have gone wrong. Experience as a double-edge sword."

Disrupt ageing

Society has changed and our attitudes need to catch up. Especially as the retirement age keeps getting later. We can’t just lump everyone from 50 to 90 together as the Saga generation.

By 2020, there will be more people on Earth over the age of 65 than under the age of five. And with the grey pound now accounting for £320bn of annual household spending, ad agencies ignore the over-45s at their peril.

So, if you’re a Very Senior Creative, please stand up and be counted. Unless we kick up a fuss, our industry will stay in the dark ages and the notion that anyone over 45 who isn’t in a position of authority is only fit for the scrap heap will continue.

Make yourself visible. Show everyone how brilliant oldies are. Make your agency and clients acknowledge you and make sure you’re valued for who and what you are. Go on, say your age and disrupt ageing, I dare you.

And if you’re over 35, please feel free to join my Society of Very Senior Creatives.

Madeleine Morris is a senior copywriter and creative director

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