Are we there yet? How ageism is holding back our industry

Every week, we ask industry insiders across all job levels and titles to share personal stories about equality, diversity and inclusion in adland. We know we're not there yet, but we want to document the highs and lows as the industry slowly transforms for the better.

Libby DeLana
Co-founder/creative director

Who gets to speak, and why? This pointed question about power and control posed by author and filmmaker, Chris Kraus, feels very relevant today as our society re-examines the kinds of people we’ve traditionally handed power to, and the kinds of people we’ve historically silenced from conversations.

Despite growing mindfulness around the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, one very toxic form of discrimination is often left out of the conversation: ageism. From recent graduates who are "too young to have an opinion," to those who are "too old to be innovative," ageism in the advertising industry is pervasive. It’s damaging to both the people within our agencies, and the work we put out.

According to the 2017 IPA census, the definitive annual survey of employment trends in media, advertising and marketing communication agencies, the average age of employees in all IPA member agencies is 33.7 and has remained the average since 2009. Which leads us to wonder, where does everyone go?

Far too often older people in our industry, particularly in creative and account roles, face a greater risk of being replaced or overlooked, especially if they don’t hold an executive-level position. Yes, older employees can be more expensive, but they can also bring the kind of honed expertise in brand building and creative ideation that only comes from having years of industry experience.

There is simply no end to the wisdom and insight that an experienced advertising industry maven can pass down to a younger employee. And it’s not just our industry that is discriminating against the wisest of our workforce – a recent report by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which received 20,857 claims of age discrimination in 2017, found that 65 percent of older employees reported their age had been a barrier to getting a job.

Part of this is a reaction to the rapid digital revolution over the past decade, which has led to an over-emphasis and misguided idolization of "digital natives" who are deemed more equipped to handle the ever changing technological landscape.

This misguided mindset has led us to assume the young, tech-savvy employee will be the better hire; but meanwhile, the hyper focus on data-driven roles has caused agencies to overlook candidates with more experience and competency in invaluable areas like brand building, brand strategy and ideation – all essential vehicles for brand growth and sustainability.

Further, these older employees often possess the kind of broad experience and big thinking capabilities that can help lead brands through complex challenges and hurdles. At the end of the day, ageism isn’t just hurting our people. It’s hurting our work. It’s hurting the brands we serve. In becoming a workforce that’s dominated by young, digitally-focused people, we’re losing competency in the kind of creativity and strategy that bring about long lasting, brand building ideas.

Though, this isn’t all to say young people are thriving in our industry – the ageism problem runs both ways. For recent graduates who are just starting out, demanding schedules and high pressure work environments are pervasive, as young employees are more likely to be perceived as being untiring and tenacious.

Without the responsibilities of things like family and mortgages, their equally important need for work-life balance is often overlooked. Young employees are often shut out of the creative process as well, with little to no say in decision-making around creative and strategy.

According to a survey of advertising creatives by Ketchum, only 31 percent of those asked felt that creative decision making was shared equally by junior and senior employees, while 66 percent stated that senior staff had all the power. We all know that inexperience doesn’t equate to lack of direction, insight or influence. The recent backlash against the NRA to demand more gun control by some of our youngest members of society is a great example of how today’s youth are totally capable of leading timely and relevant conversations and impacting societal change.

Aside from hurting our employees, ageism hurts our agencies. It drastically limits the diversity of perspective that comes with having a multi-generational team, and denying workers from invaluable cross-generational mentoring that can come from having mixed-aged teams. From a hiring standpoint, ageism limits our candidate pool.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, today’s workers who are older than 65 make up the fastest-growing segment of the labor force, while the age group of 35 to 54 is increasing much more slowly. And the number of people over the age of 65 who are still working is expected to rise from 19 percent to 29 percent by 2060. By recruiting older employees, agencies gain an edge in finding the right talent, and they also bring on people who can understand an older demographic.

The big picture? The biases, stereotypes and prejudices we harbor internally in our own agencies are reflected in the work we produce; and in turn, they are perpetuated in the outside world. As an industry we have a massive opportunity to shape societal perceptions and values, and by freeing ourselves of age discrimination within, we’re more likely to improve ageism in the larger world.

Embracing talent that is diverse and multi-generational ensures we serve brands in the most holistic way – providing both digital expertise, but also the deep-rooted experience needed for brand building creative. There is no relationship between age and job performance. The world is a broad audience, and we need to be broad within if we want people to listen.

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