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Advertising's ageism or comms gaffe? Why Mark Read's remarks backfired

WPP boss Mark Read has faced an industry backlash after being accused of making 'ageist' comments on an investor call. Here, advertising writer Paul Burke explains why he, and his fellow wise old heads, took such offence to Read's remarks.

Poor Mark Read.

Hang on a minute. According to WPP’s annual report, he was paid £2.6m last year so "poor" may not be the most apposite descriptor. Let me start again…

Foolish Mark Read. On last week's investor call, he made that now infamous comment: “The average age of someone who works at WPP is under 30 – they don't hark back to the 1980s, luckily."

I know. It beggars belief that in an industry doing its best to tackle all forms of discrimination, we have one of its most high-profile leaders appearing to boast about a discriminatory culture within his own organisation.

What’s worse, he didn’t need to say it. Like a hapless defender who concedes an unnecessary penalty, he handed his opponents an open goal. Diverse representatives of the entire industry have been lining up to take the penalty and, as I place the ball on the spot, I don’t see Mark Read in goal, I see Gerald Ratner.

For the benefit of the large swathes of WPP employees who weren’t born when this happened, Gerald Ratner was also was a rich and powerful businessman. He was chief executive of the Ratners Group of jewellery shops, with a branch on almost every UK high street. In 1991, when giving a speech to the Institute of Directors, he described one of its products as “total crap”. That one quote led to the downfall of Ratners for one simple reason. Customers may have suspected that its cheap and cheerful jewellery wasn’t of the highest quality, but when the chief executive publicly said so, they felt they were being taken for fools and abandoned Ratners in their droves.

Similarly, Read's comment may lead clients to wonder if WPP has replaced experienced employees with younger, cheaper substitutes. They may also question the wisdom of such an apparently ageist policy. They’ll know that throughout their organisations, many of their best, most respected and most valuable people are the older ones. The business problems these people face are often similar to ones they’ve seen and solved many times before.

What’s more, they can embrace new technology as easily as scientists can embrace new developments in their fields. Would an NHS Trust sack a highly experienced professor of oncology because of his or her age and salary?

It’s not as though WPP is a young and hungry startup whose leaders are all in their 30s. Mark Read is in his mid-50s. So if it’s OK for him to work there, why is it not OK for his contemporaries?

Despite all this, I do understand the message he was attempting to convey. He was only trying to show his intention to make WPP leaner, more efficient and fit for the future. Fresh infusions of young talent are vital for the health and progress of any business. However, by advocating what has been interpreted as ageism to demonstrate this, he made a terrible error, then made it slightly worse by taking to Twitter to apologise. "People over 40 can do great digital marketing”, he kindly informed us, “just as people under 30 can make great TV ads”. Well, who knew? Next he’ll be telling us that, apparently, the Pope is a Catholic.

Read’s problem is that he keeps failing to communicate what he actually means and, for the chief executive of a communications company, that’s not terribly impressive. Whether he meant to or not, he implied that older people were of no value to the advertising industry. And that’s not true anywhere.

Returning to the penalty spot, it’s not even true of football. Marcelo Bielsa has just brought Leeds United back to the Premier League in a blaze of glory. He’s 65. Roy Hodgson recently rescued and restored Crystal Palace’s Premier League status. He is 73. Yet if any football manager presided over a disastrous run of results, they’d get what I’m sure Mark Read is about to get: the dreaded “vote of confidence” from the board.

And we all know what tends to happen after that.