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Marketing Diversity & Inclusion

Why the marketing industry needs to expand its age range

By christopher evans

January 7, 2020 | 7 min read

Why aren’t there any retirement parties in our business?


Why our industry needs to expand its age range

"I’ve never been to one", says Sam Phillips, chief marketing officer of Omnicom Media Group UK and chair of OPEN (Omnicom People Engagement Network), Omnicom’s diversity and inclusion program.

We were discussing OMG UK’s noble and lofty mission of reflecting 'real Britain’ in its workforce and its work, but both agree there is an area that is perhaps worthy of more exposure, that of inter-generational representation. The numbers present such a gulf of disconnection from the real world as to be almost laughable.

The last IPA Census in 2018 revealed the average age of employees in our humble profession to be a positively doddering 34. It also identified that only 6% of staff in member agencies are over 50, compared with 31% of the UK workforce or nearly half of the total population. Even more shockingly, the number of over 50s plummets to a little over 3% for media folk.

In other words, you’re 10 times more likely to keep your job after 50 if you do something else for a living.

One would think this would be ringing alarm bells all over an industry that purports to put empathy and progress at the very core of its discipline, right?

Well, apparently not. Such has been the case since 2009. So great progress everyone, well done!

This is despite our long-established knowledge of people living longer and the ongoing acceleration of growth in older demographics. We are simply not reflecting real people in our workforce.

It is little surprise then that 78% of over 50s feel that their age group is under-represented and mispresented in advertising.

Lest we forget, we millennial myopes are in the business of selling stuff. So we might want to consider applying all that fabled empathy and progressive thinking of ours to where the money resides.

A recent study shows that wealth distribution is becoming ever more generationally polarised, with baby boomers seeing a 96% increase in their household wealth during the past decade.

One in five over 65s is now a millionaire. Compare that with individuals aged between 25 and 54 whose wealth has only grown by 9% over the same period. The result is an ever-increasing wealth gap between young and old which makes our ongoing refusal to better represent older people, not just bad ethics but really bad business.

Yet incredibly, age is largely de-prioritised or excluded from corporate diversity and inclusion programs.

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that amongst global businesses included in its Annual CEO survey, nearly 2/3 had diversity and inclusion strategies, but only 8% of those included age. There’s a tragic irony here.

In other words, 92% of corporate diversity and inclusion initiatives aren’t nearly diverse enough or don’t consider that inclusion should extend to age diversity.

So what’s going on?

The truth is that ours is an industry of rampant neophiles.

We fetishise novelty and innovation often at the expense of wisdom and experience.

We obsess over the latest shiny tactic or technology; Tik Tok, AR, AI, blockchain.

We’ve bought into the pervading narrative of digital natives and hyper-specialisation, of Mark Zuckerberg’s ignorant insistence that only the ‘young and technical’ are of value.

In so doing, we’ve lost sight of the value of the older head and the generalist.

We have seemingly come to believe that the passing of years brings a passing of ideas. That creativity has an age limit. This is simply not true.

Consider the case of chemical engineering research professor John B. Fenn. Aged 70, he was forcibly retired from Yale University. Believing he had plenty more to offer, Fenn moved to Virginia Commonwealth University, where, aged 72, he published a ground-breaking paper that aided the discovery of new drugs and our understanding of human molecular makeup.

He was later awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2002, aged 85.

The credibility crisis

‘To worship at the altar of youth’ and obsess over the new is to undermine and reject the breadth and depth of work that has preceded it.

Perhaps because we work in a business with a lack of compulsory qualifications and a dearth of industry-standard training.

In our appetite for the future, we have lost an appreciation of the past, of experience and interdisciplinary thinking.

We have lost sight of the bigger picture, that of real people rather than some idealist view of a millennial, or Gen Z purpose activist we want our brands to be associated with.

We risk slipping into parody and surrendering what low levels of credibility we still have in the boardroom.

A manifesto for maturity

So there it is - a manifesto for maturity. As an industry, we have to work harder to better reflect real people. It sounds trite. But there is huge ambition in the idea. A veritable maturity mountain to climb and we are barely circling its craggy bottom.

Become truly representative of the real world in our people and we stand to become more truly representative in our product. That means creating richer, more nuanced and effective work, that grows brands for our clients and credibility for our discipline, both in the public domain and the boardroom.

It means proving the worth of advertising as an investment in a business rather than a cost to it, and it means inspiring people of all ages to join our ranks in the knowledge that they can stay a little longer.

Then maybe they might even attend a retirement party or two.

Chris Evans is group projects director at Omnicom Media Group.

This piece is one of a series generated as part of the IPA Excellence Diploma course for 2019. The course was supported by The Drum's editorial team to help develop the writing skills of the students taking part to help them learn to pitch and write effectively for an audience of their peers.

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