Katy Howell: You never see old marketers or baby pigeons

Katy is a pragmatic (often sweary) marketer. Named 4th most influential social media marketing expert by the Drum, Katy Howell, is CEO at social media agency - immediate future.

She regularly appears on BBC news, Victoria Derbyshire, TV and Radio programmes (without the swearing) and is billed as an authority on social marketing. She speaks at conferences, runs masterclasses, and guest lectures at two universities. She’s co-authored 3 books on social and is a regular contributor to the press.

Her expertise lies in helping large brands squeeze the pips out of social media marketing. Now in its 15th year, her agency works with brands including; Fujitsu, lastminute.com, Thomson Reuters, Post Office, Bargain Booze, Selfridges, Mission Foods, Google, Diageo, JD Williams, Sony Music, and many more.

With a wry smile, a talented marketing director turned to me and said, “you never see old marketers or baby pigeons”. In one sardonic phrase, she summed up our conversation about the ageism in our industry.

We’d actually been chatting about our collective experiences. The circuitous career paths we’d taken and the times we had lived through while learning our craft. We talked about how wiser heads with real-world understanding, are not often seen - especially in adland. A place where oldies can only be found squatting on boards distant from those executing client work. According to the IPA, its member agency employees have an average age of just under 34. Bleuch! So much for diversity.

I'm not gonna rant though, cos’ it’s actually not true.

Step outside of the network agencies and it changes. Hidden in a world of glorious independent agencies is a marvellous surfeit of older, wiser, more experienced marketers. Ok not all indies, but so, so many. Seasoned experts who don’t sit on high, but have actual skin in the game. They work alongside clients. They advise. They consult. They do the do.

Ok, so point made. Who bloody cares what age your agency marketer is?

Oh, it matters. And it’s going to matter a whole lot more over the next few years. Our industry has a whole lot of shit coming at us, and it’s going to get worse.

Will the marketer in the room, please stand up?

There is a big skills gap facing the industry right now. No, I don’t mean the plethora (and ever bloody multiplying) guru’s, ninjas and other snake oil professionals. I mean good old-fashioned, skilled, proficient marketers. They are thin on the ground. Especially because they leave the industry, like a brave new world parody, at the age of 35. It’s also a combination of a lack of investment in training coupled with the increasingly unattractive life in an agency (and many overstretched marketing departments) – it all means talent is hard to find. And it’s going to get harder…

... unless we start wooing Gen X (or whatever age label you like) back to the fold. We should be doing everything to get these skills to return - making it easy for them to do so with flexibility in the workplace and respect for their knowledge. And most importantly we need to stop assuming that older means less digitally savvy or lacking innovation. Sheesh! Kill the stereotype.

In fact, can we stop with the sodding digital native stuff. Being born into digital doesn’t make you a digital marketer (we should have some respect for our profession). A tweet by @garicruze, sums it up “We were all digital natives. All of us were here when the digital age hit, and we all started enjoying it at the same time, regardless of age bracket. Some just have the benefit of also knowing what it was like before the digital age. That's called experience and understanding”.

The skills gap needn’t exist if we stop the attrition and value quality and experience more than age.

The networks blew it

According to the press, trust between client and agency is at an all-time low. Brands are dragging work in-house, just so they don’t have to work with agencies anymore (OK, I know there are more reasons than that, but you get the gist). Let's be honest, the agency “trusted partner” world I started in a million years ago, is over. Done.

Except at the Indie. Here those wise heads have held strong to core values, that have been long forgotten by the big networks chasing profits. The independent founders, their culture, and teams build relationships. Strong, caring, trusted relationships that extend across tens of years, not just a few months of a campaign.

Increasingly I’m hearing of big brand wins by independents – even some smaller outfits are catching the eye of global brands with their specialisms and a whole lot of wisdom. Maturity means you’ll ask the right questions, you’ll hear what the client wants, you’ll adapt. Older peeps have a passion for their craft and the expertise to make it work hard for a brand. Maybe it’s because they don’t need to prove themselves quite so much, and they can be more honest and pragmatic. And right now, as trust is ebbing away, these values are making a difference.

Roller-coaster survival

We’re not the only indie that launched in a downturn (dot com bubble burst), and survived the bloody awful banking malarkey. We’re used to the roller-coaster ride that economic changes bring (don’t like it, but used to it). There are lots of indies large and small who made it through stronger, fitter and often more successful. We’ll weather the Brexit storm. After all, we’ve seen it, done it, got the bloody badge.

Battle scared and pragmatic, many independent agencies may be led by older folk, but they are no less agile. Listening at a recent roundtable with The Drum, it’s clear that everyone was adapting their ways of working to fit with the current economic changes. There were agencies who had staff working client side, others that flexed services and more still that could offer both consultancy as well as execution – and shift between them as the client needed. I guess agility is part of the indie mindset, but it does prove that older marketers can as nimble as their younger counterparts.

Big ships are hard to turn, even more so when your teams are not diverse enough to carry to adapt to these changing times. I for one, feel rather optimistic about the future of the independent agency. For those that are older, wiser, and more experienced it may actually present an opportunity to exhibit professional marketing, flexibility and a return to trusted partnerships. A chance for greater success.

And guess what? I have seen a baby pigeon. Not a bit cute, but they do exist.

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