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The term ageism was coined by physician and gerontologist Robert Neil Butler in 1969. By that point, though, one suspects it was already prevalent in the advertising industry. It still is today. The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising’s 2018 Agency Census reported that 6.2 percent of the advertising workforce is over 50. Nearly two out of three workers aged 45 and over have seen or experienced age discrimination on the job, according to a 2018 national AARP survey. And since the population of people aged 65 and over is growing faster than all other age groups globally, according to the United Nations, ageism is sure to be alive and well in the coming decades.

The costs of not hiring older workers or letting them go still need to be studied. A variety of reasons are offered for behavior that highly values younger workers, like the relationship between age and salary, a focus on digitally native...

Wait. Let’s start over. We know this story already. Ageism is a (deservedly) well-covered topic in the media today. In November 2018, Ad Age declared, “Advertising has an ageism problem.” Writer and activist Ashton Applewhite’s 2017 TED Talk about ageism has accumulated more than one million views. Fast Company contributor Lydia Dishman wrote in April 2019 that “ageism is thriving.” There’s no need to reshare statistics or rehash what’s already been said. We know ageism is a problem; we’ve known it for 50 years. Ageism as a term is old enough to suffer from ageism. It’s the last ism that’s still socially acceptable, and the only way it will end is through actions and policies intended to fervently attack the problem. So let’s shift focus. I want to highlight the activists, those doing more than just commenting. We need to spotlight their efforts, encourage others to follow and create even more strategies.

This article is devoted to the doers. When you finish reading this, you’ll want to be one of them.

Microactions will lead to major results
In June 2019, Cindy Gallop, a well-known change agent who pulls no punches when expressing her beliefs, penned an article for Ad Age that laid out a series of actions aimed to end ageism. “I put a lot of thought into creating microactions that anybody at any level of an agency or client company could do,” she says. In her article, Gallop encouraged agencies to foster more cross-generational work interactions, urged publications to create 50 over 50 lists and stressed to agency leaders that they should hire for the biggest growth driver for our industry—expertise. She also coined the hashtag #sayyourage. She explains, “You are the sum total of all your learnings and life experiences to date, and that’s what makes you valuable. Your age represents your value, so always #sayyourage.”

When asked to highlight some specific ways in which the industry needs to change, Gallop says that she believes agencies should install more diverse leadership, especially female leaders. She offers up another possible solution: entrepreneurial ventures. Gallop says, “I tell all others to start your own industry. Because when any one of us starts our own venture that reconceives and reinvents the ad industry, we are starting the industry we all want to work in.”

Gallop also calls attention to the fact that ageism isn’t an issue that affects just the older crowd. “It absolutely affects 20- and 30-year-olds,” she says. “Young people encounter ageism when it’s presumed that they are too young to have opinions of their own. Young women are biased by this even more than young men. You are never too young to do anything, just as you are never too old to do anything.”

The groundswell of vocalization in recent years about age discrimination means there’s a huge opportunity to put ideas like Gallop’s into action. Even more ideas will be needed to battle this issue. “The onus is on the advertising industry,” she says. “We are an enormous force in popular culture. We have the opportunity to use our talents, skills and creativity to change the way the world views age and to benefit ourselves in doing so. I see it as our industry’s social responsibility to change depictions of aging in advertising in order to change ageism in the advertising industry in order to change ageism everywhere else. Our industry has room for so much reinvention, it’s ridiculous.”

You are the sum total of all your learnings and life experiences to date, and that’s what makes you valuable. Your age represents your value, so always #sayyourage.” —Cindy Gallop

The Society of Very Senior Creatives
Madeleine Morris is a United Kingdom–based freelance creative who’s worked for Saatchi & Saatchi, Leo Burnett and Grey London. “I have experienced ageism in ad agencies since I was in my 30s,” says Morris. “I was made redundant not long after I turned 50, but it wasn’t until I started looking around and realized how many of my contemporaries were also being made redundant that I decided to do something about it.”

Morris created a Facebook group in 2018 called The Society of Very Senior Creatives. She says, “I started it because there didn’t seem to be anywhere that older creatives could go to share their experience. I wanted to find out how widespread the problem was and see if I could raise awareness and actively make a change.”

After creating the group, she was shocked at the huge reaction it garnered. Within a year, the group had 550 members. Since then, she’s been asked to talk on panels and write articles about ageism in the industry. Morris says, “I believe that real change is starting to happen now. I was recently asked to be a judge for the new Cannes Grey Lions, which is a clear sign that the ad world is becoming more aware of the problem.”

Many of the group’s members have detailed in their posts how they’ve been consistently overlooked by recruiters and headhunters; they feel ostracized by the advertising community. Morris says, “I know respected creative directors who are now freelancing and struggling to get work.”

Morris outlines a plan: “It is essential that we retain more people over 45 in the profession and be open to returners. Flexible hours and a change in work culture would make a huge difference. Too many pitches are scheduled for a Monday morning, which makes it more difficult for those with weekend family commitments. Far too often, meetings and reviews are scheduled at inconsiderate hours. As a result, the work that is created is not produced by a diverse range of people, but by those who have the time and energy to work evenings and weekends.”

That time and energy is typically seen as a youth advantage. Author David Epstein, in his book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, writes, “Mark Zuckerberg famously noted that ‘young people are just smarter.’ And yet a tech founder who is fifty years old is nearly twice as likely to start a blockbuster company as one who is thirty, and the thirty-year-old has a better shot than a twenty-year-old.” Morris takes a similar view. She says, “These agencies think that if you’re not a digital native, you can’t write digital copy or create content. This is, of course, BS. I can write anything for anyone. A good idea should work across all media, and if you are a good creative, you can adapt and learn fast.”

She hopes that new-to-advertising employees in their 20s will help make the change happen. (The idea for the Cannes Grey Lions competition came from a Young Lion.) They are already demanding more-flexible hours and working conditions. “Young and old need to work together,” says Morris. “I love working with people in their 20s and 30s. I learn so much from them, and they from me. The more diverse and inclusive agencies become, the better their output will be.”

These agencies think that if you’re not a digital native, you can’t write digital copy or create content. This is, of course, BS.” —Madeleine Morris

Career transformation
In addition to combating ageism within agencies, there’s also a need to adapt. This is where career transition consultant and author Julia Moulden makes her life’s work. Her goal is to help others transform their careers while finding social meaning and financial security.

Moulden is not in the advertising business, but she knows a lot about it. She’s advised many marketing veterans looking for a career change after facing ageism at their firms. After noticing that more people in their mid-40s and -50s were getting laid off from advertising and communications jobs, she started the nabs ripe program in 2015 to help them reenter the workforce.

A career transition is incredibly difficult. Moulden asks her clients to first see themselves and the world with fresh eyes. Figuring out what they’ll do next is a long, highly personal process. They begin by talking about what it means to be their age. Moulden says, “Women, for example, often come into their own in their 50s and beyond; certain qualities and capabilities emerge only after a lifetime of experience, like emotional intelligence, processing ability and decision-making capacity.”

Moulden has her clients engage in scenario planning, a process that helps people create stories about how things might unfold, and zero in on several key options for future roles. Moulden says, “If staying in their sector is one of the options they’re keen to explore, we discuss the hazards, including ageism.” If they do decide to go back into advertising and media, she works with them to make the case for why they’re the ideal person for the role they have in mind. Moulden says, “I remind them that they have to think through the benefits and potential objections in order to be fully prepared.”

After aiding her clients in learning the steps, skills and mindset required to make a successful transition, she points out that it will be hard work. “Your next role won’t just wander into your living room,” she says. Her program helps shift the perspective of what it means to grow older while still maintaining a strong desire to work. Moulden insists that it’s not only possible, it’s good for us and the world.

Your turn
I wish I could finish this article with a fill-in-the-blank page for every reader to start jotting down notes because the end of ageism will be written by all of you. Ageism will only cease if more private and public institutions and people are spurred to action. Our industry is filled with incredible strategists, creatives and idea makers. Our collective brainpower can solve anything. So please reach out to others and share your ideas. Remember: this won’t end without all of us working together. Let’s make ageism old news. ca

Dave Kuhl is a writer and creative director who’s worked for top agencies in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Diego. He also cofounded a boutique agency and is a four-time Cannes Lion winner. Along with being a contributor to Communication Arts, he works as a brand creative director/writer for Bauer Hockey.


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