Kevin Chesters: Don't just say your age, sell it!

Kevin Chesters is the incoming partner/CSO of The Harbour Collective and former chief strategy officer of Ogilvy UK.

There is a very necessary debate going on in our industry at the moment about all forms of diversity and difference, and how we need to get better at it. Gender, BAME, socio-economic diversity is all being increasingly discussed (and slowly being addressed) but perhaps the least discussed issue is still ageism.

According to the latest IPA Census, the average age of an employee at a member agency is 33. I read a few articles recently bemoaning the fact that people in the creative industries tend to disappear at 40. If you’re reading this in an agency now, look around you. How many people do you see over 40? Over 50? 55+, forget it, especially in creative departments.

I think age needs a serious reframe. Just like the London 2012 Olympics turned ‘volunteers’ into ‘Gamesmakers’ and in the 80s we renamed the person who wasn’t drinking the heroic ‘designated driver’, our industry needs to reframe age as experience.

This should be simple, but we consistently prove that we don’t value experience as much as other industries. In my opinion, not only don’t value it, we literally, ludicrously undervalue it compared to any other industry beyond fashion or Olympic gymnastics.

Creative Director (ex-colleague and all-around good egg) Louis Loizou wrote a piece on LinkedIn recently (200,000+ likes suggest it hit a nerve) titled “I’m not 54. I’m 22 with 32 years of experience.” In the post, he argued that agencies are very ageist when it comes to most things, but especially creatives. His point was that experience is something we should value as highly as expertise, but we don’t. The industry fetishization of the new over the right, the latest over the proven, the young over the not-so-young is not only wrong, but I think it’s proving pretty damaging to our business model.

Experience is valuable. Clients like to talk to people who’ve been about a bit. The issues clients need help within the age of zero-based budgeting and category disruption tend to be a little bit beyond selling in a bit of creative work or talking about chatbots. Clients want a partner who can help to write a proper marketing plan (not just a comms plan), or they want help to write the case for investment. They want to talk to a grown up. I don’t think it is a surprise, therefore, that clients are looking more to consultants for advice than to their traditional ad agency.

Every other industry out there gets this. If you employ the services of a law firm, you’ll be met with a price list with an ascending scale based on experience. It’s the same in industries such as film and publishing. Probably the most pertinent example for agencies is management consultancy. The firms like McKinsey understand the value of experience, and price and charge for it accordingly. And funnily enough…clients are increasingly going to consultancies to have the conversations they used to have with their ‘main’ agency. Clients will pay for it; McKinsey are proof.

It’s hardly surprising that agencies are no longer in the boardrooms with clients if they don’t have the experience to have those boardroom conversations. This tends to come from people who have run businesses or have just been around a bit longer. Experience is useful to clients. I remember hearing Dan Wieden say that no one was of any use to him unless they’d failed three times – and he knows a thing or two about the industry, right?

But in our love of the new (a Western societal trait to worship youth over age which started with the Greeks and Romans), we also run a bigger commercial risk in not employing more experienced creative talent. And that risk is developing work that doesn’t resonate with the audience. Only 5% of global ad budgets are targeted at the over 50s, with 80% of spend being focused on 18-34s (I refuse to call them ‘millennials’). It’s a bit weird why more advertisers haven’t cottoned on to the fact that 80% of all the wealth of the UK is held by people over 50.

The brilliant and eternally useful website Mumsnet also has a sister site called Gransnet, targeting over-50s. Google searches for the former outweigh searches the latter by 70:1. This is bonkers based on consumer behaviour. The most sobering fact for our industry should be that research showed that three-quarters of all over-50s said they didn’t pay attention to ads because they weren’t relevant to them.

Now you don’t have to be a cow to sell milk, and I’m not saying only older people can write work for an older audience. What I am saying is that you are more likely to get to work that resonates with the over-50s if it’s not exclusively written someone in a trucker cap who's 25.

Perhaps invest in some brilliant, experienced creatives who watched Charles and Di’s wedding rather than Harry and Meg’s. Investing in more experienced creative talent will reap massive dividends not only on the balance sheet, but also in the effectiveness awards.

Now please don’t read this point-of-view as anti-youth. Loving new ideas/expertise and lauding experience are not mutually exclusive. You need a value exchange of new ideas and experienced practitioners. My concern is when the industry lurches too far one way or the other – the shiny marble problem. We need to tilt the dial back in favour of some more brilliant, experienced heads if we are to break back into the boardroom.

I’m going to leave the final word on the value of experience to Michael Caine.

I was listening to a brilliant interview with him recently when they asked him if he thought he was worth the millions he was paid for his last film. His answer was that, of course, he wasn’t worth the money, but his career was. They were paying for a lifetime of credibility, experience and knowledge. They were paying to access his unrivaled organic hard-drive.

Most other industries have worked out that not only is experience valuable, but it is also actually a premium product with a literal price premium attached to it.

I am 100% behind Cindy Gallop’s #sayyourage crusade – but she doesn’t go far enough for me. Let’s not just SAY our age; maybe it’s time that as an industry we start to SELL our age too.

Kevin Chesters is the incoming partner/CSO of The Harbour Collective

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