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Ageism Work & Wellbeing Agency Culture

Ageism is a big problem in advertising, so what are agencies doing about it?

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By Sam Bradley, Journalist

December 6, 2021 | 10 min read

As part of our Deep Dive on Marketing and the Marginalized, The Drum explores potential solutions to ageism from agencies across the world, from recruitment reforms and mentorship programs to flexible work and healthcare policies.

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What are ad agencies doing to combat ageism in the industry?

The case for advertising and marketing agencies to take action on ageism is pretty solid. Not only might companies be discriminating against older staff, but they’re also alienating their most experienced (and potentially effective) team members –reducing their capacity to reach older consumers in turn.

From a recruitment perspective, as advertising firms struggle to recruit staff, they’re ignoring a potential source of new talent by only targeting younger applicants – even though the over-40s and over-60s were hit hardest by job losses during the onset of the pandemic, according to the IPA Agency Census.

What that action looks like, though, is still a matter of debate. Increasingly, agencies are designing specific staff policies intended to prevent prejudice informing decisions and company culture – and which intersect with policies on dimensions of discrimination, such as gender.

”Experience is often sidelined by youth and the perceived link between that and innovation in our industry,” says Nicky Harris, director of strategy and development at industry welfare body Nabs. ”Your practices need to help broaden the mix of who is sitting on your teams, and how well those people are supported to thrive at work.

”Research shows that women in particular start to feel ‘invisible’ when they hit 50, and repeated surveys reveal that individuals can start to experience ageism from the age of 30. It’s essential for agencies to take positive action, especially when you consider our aging population.”

At Omnicom agency network Rapp, Leigh Ober, global chief people officer, says agencies ”have to consider ageism as a concern and a sensitivity. It’s integral to everything we’re experiencing.”

A principal element of Rapp’s efforts to reduce ageism is its mentorship program, Ober says. ”That’s really strong here in the US, and we’re expanding it into the UK and elsewhere.”

She explains it’s as much about keeping older staff members on their toes (and therefore, less likely to feel excluded by technological or strategic developments) as it is about sharing expertise with younger ones. ”I think I get more out of it than my mentees – often I’m the mentee in that relationship because there’s so much to learn from the newer generations based on their different experiences.”

As well as formal mentoring schemes, employee networks are another relevant vehicle. Emma Honeybone, head of relationship marketing at Engine, says her agency operates a number of ’inclusion networks’ focusing on specific areas (gender, ethnicity and age), which bring together staff from across the business for support and skill-sharing; its age-focused one is called ’Vintage Engine’ and is open to anyone in the business.

”It’s a group of volunteers who feel passionately that they want to make sure there’s a place in this organization for people of any age, at any level,” she explains. ”At the moment we’re working quite hard with HR to see what practices need to change,” such as altering the language used in job descriptions and instituting ’blind’ CV screening.

At US agency Eleven, mentorship and mutual support between employees is a critical element of its organizational structure. Courtney Buechert, the agency’s president, tells The Drum the agency has always valued having a ”spectrum” of staff across various ages and each of its core teams is a ”mixed environment” with a blend of ages.

Crucially, Eleven binds its mentorship program to its team structure; rather than waiting for staff to opt in, every employee is paired with another so that they can share skills and expertise. ”One person might know customer experience (CX), but another might know the brand,” he explains.

The menopause gap

Ober says that her team ”try not to focus on any one singular element of diversity,” and its efforts on age are closely tied to parallel work on gender. ”Looking at that holistically is the more important metric for us,” she says.

Amid recruitment struggles in the United States, that means ”looking for ways to attract people back into the workforce ... maybe they left to care for an elderly parent, or children. So how do we accommodate the need for any flexibility people have as they’re returning?”

Flexible family policies are certainly one way of tackling issues around both gender and age in the workforce. It’s not just about parenting commitments, but caregiving responsibilities (the Center for Disease Control reports that 24.4% of US adults aged 45-64 are caregivers; in addition, 25.4% of US women are carers) and their own healthcare concerns, such as entering the menopause. As Buechert puts it: ”Making the industry more workable for women makes it more workable for everyone.”

”We need to support the business to have a more balanced workforce from an age perspective,” says Les Marshall, head of talent and leadership at Dentsu UK & Ireland.

The median age of staff across the holding company’s British agencies is 33, he tells The Drum. As part of a wider push on diversity and inclusion initiatives over the last two years, he explains Dentsu has taken a greater interest in ageism than before. Earlier this year, it debuted a toolkit to support staff going through menopause.

”We developed that in partnership with employees who have lived experience. It’s given line managers greater knowledge and awareness of what people in their team might be going through.”

Marshall says Dentsu is set to introduce an age-themed employee network next year, based on the success of internal networks which focused on social mobility. As well as the toolkit it has run internal events with campaign group Creative Equals and bolstered its family policies, allowing for more flexibility around parenting and caregiving responsibilities.

Honeybone says better awareness of the symptoms of menopause is needed. ”There’s a high percentage of women who, when they reach menopause age, will leave the workplace because it’s so hard. The big thing is raising awareness and educating that these are the symptoms.”

She says employers must give staff ”the tools to say, ’you know what, I can’t do this meeting at the moment because I’m having physical symptoms.’ It doesn’t mean they’re incapable, it means they’re trying to work under duress of a difficult health condition.”

According to Momentum’s senior vice-president and the global director of marketing communication Anna Dalziel, menopause policies are ”a must” in the industry. The agency joined agency Dark Horses this year as one of the few companies in Britain with an explicit menopause policy.

Backed by data

Regarding the company’s hiring practices, Ober says Rapp uses specialized software to make sure job descriptions use sensitive, appropriate language that doesn’t exclude older applicants. ”We’re trying to move away from being too narrow in the number of years of experience we’re requiring, and move away from degrees... to widen the net,” she explains. While the agency has tried to emphasize the value of ”professional wisdom and expertise” in older workers (particularly parents returning to work), it’s also begun using a ”talent dashboard” to track the diversity of its staff.

”We track and measure age for both those that we’re hiring and those that may be leaving... and we’re just starting to get into really deep analysis of promotions and mobility relative to age, just to make sure that we’re keeping an eye on it,” she says.

This year in the UK, Dentsu began using a diversity and inclusion ’dashboard’ which allows the company to understand the demographics of its workforce. ”Age is included in that,” explains Marshall. He hopes it will make issues previously ignored, such as ageism, more visible.

The importance of visibility

Visibility is itself an aim of several campaigns and groups set up by advertising professionals in recent years, such as the 30 Over 30 project, which profiles creative directors and strategists above that age bracket, and Jane Evans’ Uninvisibility project, which aims to create a network of middle-aged women working in the ad business.

At Nabs, for example, Harris advises that making ”older employees visible where you can, for example by profiling them and their successes in your internal comms,” can aid agency culture.

Back in January 2020, Dalziel co-founded 40 Over Forty ”to celebrate people in media, marketing and advertising who felt overlooked.”

By highlighting the brilliance of professionals over 40, Dalziel and co-founders Charlotte Read and Anna Scholes hope to defy broader social taboos around age – and the industry’s own cult of youth. ”People feel a little bit ashamed of sharing how old they are and they shouldn’t, they should celebrate that.”

40 Over Forty has been working with the Advertising Association (AA) to design off-the-shelf policies and actions for agencies to use. While there’s interest, she suggests agencies need to be kept under scrutiny to ensure they deliver.

”If they sign up to it, they have to deliver. That’s the problem... a lot of the time we’re not seeing the action. They talk the talk but it’s about really making that action.”

While efforts among agencies to address industry ageism are still young, Ober argues that action and changing attitudes are making serious progress. ”Several years ago there was a lot of stigma associated with the older workforce because people wanted young, hip ’digital natives.’ I think that’s leveling out now as people recognize there’s real value in having a seasoned manager.”

But there are still plenty of companies not taking action. Harris says: ”As an industry, we need to do so much more to celebrate and champion more experienced talent. Creating diverse teams is proven to help everyone to thrive and produce more innovative, creative work that authentically represents consumers. Age discrimination can block this potential success.”

The ad business doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and social attitudes regarding age and youth play a huge role here. But while HR policies and corporate initiatives will never be a cure-all, they give staff the ”the conditions that make it possible,” concludes Bouchuert. ”It’s about human alchemy.”

If you’ve experienced ageism in the workplace, you can call the Nabs Advice Line on 0800 707 6607 or email support@nabs.org.uk.

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