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Is it really survival of the cheapest in today’s adland?


By Richard Draycott, Associate Editor

May 2, 2024 | 12 min read

Agency leaders share their thoughts on whether older industry members are being retired early so younger people on lower salaries can deliver the work and vital cost savings.

Logan's Run

Logan's Run: Is adland ousting older people in favour of young cheaper talent?

The IPA’s latest Agency Census recently revealed that nobody ‘retired’ from adland in 2023, suggesting a worrying trend that older people are being phased out of the sector before they can reach retirement age.

A column following up on the IPA report by David Bain of BMB suggested that the key reason for lack of retirees is that older, more expensive brains are being replaced across agencyland by younger, cheaper brains to cut costs.

We asked agency leaders whether it is worth paying more for senior, experienced talent and what an older (expensive) head brings to an agency that a younger (cheaper) person doesn’t.

Focus has to be value not cost

Josh Harris, managing director, Neverland: “The problem with adland is that we don’t practice what we preach. In a world of cost-cutting, some have forgotten that our role is to provide a premium experience for our clients through the quality we deliver. So, in order to deliver that, you need the equivalent premium talent. Age is therefore neither a useful nor efficient business measure.”

Chris Woodward, CEO, CTI Digital: “We had one retiree in 2023 who did indeed reach the ripe old age of 65, so it’s good to see we are bucking the trend. In terms of paying for experience, age isn’t a factor for us. We will employ the very best talent we can find, irrespective of age, gender or ethnicity. And we have no issue paying for talent. That doesn’t automatically mean that the oldest are the highest paid, as cash follows performance. So, if you have the talent we are seeking, we will pay the market rate for it.”

James Kirkham, co-founder, Iconic77: “There is a role for senior talent to be mentors, sage advisors and wise elders – and they should be valued as such. Their insight from lessons learned through firsthand experience of a lifetime’s challenges is invaluable. But let’s not forget the major problems the industry now has – most of which come from an inability in today’s fast-moving world to adapt quickly enough or pivot successfully. To meet these challenges, we need to focus on filling adland with talented youth from the bottom up, to ensure an industry fit for purpose before as a space it is put out to pasture.”

Paul Birkhead, creative partner, Syn: “Syn hit the ground running with global clients and big expectations from day one. Three of us working in a borrowed space with only credit card funding and a growing workload. We needed to hire, but we didn’t have time to train people, so we recruited at senior levels. It wasn’t the cheapest solution on paper, but it was by far the best value. Since then, we’ve recruited at all levels and seen how more experienced creatives benefit from the fresh ideas of junior team members and equally how those juniors learn from the mentorship of their more senior colleagues.”

Peter Nicholson, chief creative officer, Hill Holliday: “Senior talent is worth it. But, the real issue is getting clients to pay for senior talent. There are two problems to solve. One, if you need to align senior talent salary to a rate card, goodbye to affording senior talent at 100% or even 80% billable. Second, procurement looks at all agencies equally, providing the same value and, therefore, at the same rate card, which makes it challenging to fund senior talent. The solution is simple – raise the rate card to the value of your talent. And, executive leadership should hold the line and do what they’re good at – selling it in.”

Age and experience is a vital ingredient

Wybe Magermans, director of growth, WMH&I: “While many believe the creative industry is reserved for the young guns, experienced pros often bring more to the table than just their golfing skills. They’re like the seasoned chefs of creativity – not only quick to identify the business problem and know how to find the solution but also have a knack for delivering them with finesse. But beware of the perilous pitfall of mistaking seniority for experience. It’s not about how long you’ve been at it; it’s about what you’ve learned along the way. So, let’s create a workplace that values performance over just clocking in years. Blending fresh perspectives with learned wisdom is the recipe for success.”

Alicia Iveson, CEO and co-founder, Hijinks: “We’re believers in investing in senior heavy hitters. On a recent pitch we thought about bringing in a junior team, but instead decided on looking to more experienced talent – and it paid off. Those with experience can often cut to the case the quickest. But the key is broadening the talent pool and bringing in people of all perspectives and levels – younger ones can learn from older ones and vice versa. Just because you reach a certain age, it doesn’t mean you want to stop learning – and earning.”

Courtney Tight, head of client management, Pearlfisher: “I would argue that the concept of seniority is undergoing a profound transformation and isn’t solely defined by age. Seniority isn’t only about length of experience, it’s about depth of experience. The most experienced people are no longer categorized by counting years but by a rich tapestry of expertise and lived wisdom. We also must pay senior talent what they’re worth. When agencies open the aperture of what seniority means, they give more people the opportunity to advance. They foster inclusivity and innovation by empowering individuals to thrive based on the merit of their contributions rather than the passage of time.”

Kat Shafer, chief client officer, EP+Co: “We learned quickly that having a stable community of long-standing employees sets the tone for a strong agency overall. So, it’s essential to keep senior talent around if we want the industry to thrive. There is generally a premium for seniority, but the output is well worth the investment and often, it’s more cost-effective. That’s why it’s important to ensure the client sees the value in having senior talent in the business. If the client only prioritizes a bottom-dollar price tag, their talent and their product will reflect that.”

Risk versus reward

Barney Worfolk-Smith, chief growth officer, Daivid: “Right now, I think the untapped excellence of senior people in advertising is as great as it has ever been. Connections rusting, skills unused and experience wasted. So, I’m firmly in the ’at least have a conversation with these more experienced people and see what they’ve got’ camp. You can make a call on whether the salary they want justifies it. More practically, I’ve faced the less experience/cheaper versus more experience/more expensive decision and my conclusion is that it’s about risk. Sure, I’ve been lucky enough to hire some whipsmart youngsters, but if it’s turbulent times, then a steady, more experienced hand on the rudder will often be less risky.”

Richard Pinder, CEO, Rankin Creative: “The creative side of our industry is increasingly in crisis. If we allow every job to be quoted on the basis of lots of cheap, unmotivated people taking overly long to create something average, then we deserve the crisis. Since that is what the standard purchasing model drives you towards and it’s more profitable for the supplier. But it’s shit and we know it. So, work differently. Take the argument to purchase and explain that experienced/expensive people working faster can be more valid than their model. Those of us who are older should be the ones doing that and proving our value!”

Alison Monk, founder and CEO, Eden Collective: “Something’s gone missing in the rush to automate media – making the right move, not the fast one. It will come back to bite agencies that don’t invest in senior-level strategists. Marketing isn’t an algorithmic platform; it’s a human endeavor that requires understanding you can only gain firsthand. People who have made the most mistakes identify what works faster. With the right experience setting strategy, you can skip test-and-learn, go straight to execute-and-optimize, and see clearly how media is helping the business. That’s the value clients will increasingly demand.”

Golden oldies need to stay relevant?

Kris Tait, MD US, Croud: “You’ve got to blend experience with youthfulness. Notice I don’t say age, as it truly doesn’t matter. It’s about what experiences people can bring to the team, what they have seen or done before, and how they have built resilience or management experience that is so valuable today. Conversely, I don’t view having ‘young’ people as a cost-cutting exercise either, as, again, they offer valuable experience and worthwhile perspectives. When marketing to Gen Z or Gen Alpha, for example, they admittedly bring a perspective that, quite honestly, I can’t. But even then, staying relevant will always matter. As you move up in the agency world, there is always someone smarter, hungrier and cheaper ready to take your job.”

Tim van der Wiel, co-founder, GoSpooky: “Senior-level talent is critical to agency culture. My co-founder and I started GoSpooky at 17 to put brands at the forefront of social media, so we rely on young creators who live the emerging platforms. Increasingly, we’re bringing in people with deep advertising experience to help us navigate industry challenges and manage more profitably. They give us crucial stability and insight while they teach us, mentor our younger talent, and elevate the business fluency of our entire team. The mix of young perspectives and deep knowledge turns edginess into true competitive edge.”

Melissa Smith, managing director and founder, The Industry Club: “Senior talent brings strategic insight, hindsight, foresight and stability – all key ingredients. But, many young or struggling businesses understandably find the salaries hard to justify. For startups (led by CEOs who’ve probably not been around as long as my mascara), they almost always end up hiring a ‘been there, done it’ half-centurion to take them to long-term success. Fortunately, some seniors are now ‘spreading the love’ as fractional business partners, allowing agencies to harness experience and mentorship without the full-time cost, balancing financial constraints with the invaluable depth of knowledge. We’re working with a good number of them and it’s a model that will continue to grow.”

Patti Mcconnell, co-founder & managing partner, Something Different: “The very ‘institutional knowledge’ of life experience has long been devalued in our industry. For sure, talent isn’t defined by age, but no doubt many view it to decline with age, which is BS. Experience should count, not to mention the education we’re missing out on providing to younger talent because we’re removing a generation. The industry has forever negated the importance of ‘experienced’ talent believing younger talent is faster and more innovative, which is dreadfully shortsighted.”

Carlton Wood, partner/EVP business development, Lewis Communications: “As a 35-year ad agency veteran, I frequently see the value of expertise that senior level talent provides, but I know juniors contribute greatly with their energy and fresh perspectives. There’s no question that agencies have been hurt, especially during Covid, with senior talent moving to client-side or pursuing other career paths. Although we have made senior-level hires to bolster our teams, very few of those hires work out in the long term. Agency culture is difficult to ascertain from the outside and we’ve just had much more success retaining senior talent and promoting from within.”

Zaid Al-Zaidy, founder and group CEO, The Beyond Collective: “If you think for a moment that younger should be cheaper or cheaper is better, then you’ve got another thing coming. AI? The implication that there’s a shortcut to building brand and business through creativity is very naïve. Even if a machine were operating on autopilot, it would need experienced human intervention. I suspect that the brands or organizations who do think this way are merely controlling their own decline and are equally engaged with swapping the quilted toilet paper in their bathrooms with the paper stuff we had to use at primary school.”

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