How Agencies Are Addressing Ageism

The advertising industry is making strides to become more diverse and inclusive, but older workers still feel sidelined

An illustration of a timer set to 50 with people surrounding it
Some agencies are beginning to rethink their recruitment strategies to ensure older candidates get a fair shot. Getty Images
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Key insights:

Go through any agency’s doors, and more likely than not, you’ll see it’s awash in millennials and even Gen Z.

In an industry obsessed with the latest and greatest, this doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. Advertising’s fixation on youth is having a real impact on older, more seasoned employees who feel as though their age is working against them. But now agencies are finally waking up and making changes to address ageism, particularly as workers with years of experience push back against the notion that younger employees are by nature more digitally savvy and cheaper.

Changing mindsets

Internally, some agencies are beginning to rethink their recruitment strategies to ensure older candidates get a fair shot.

Barry Lowenthal, CEO at media buying and planning agency The Media Kitchen, said they had sometimes previously eliminated experienced candidates from consideration based on the assumption they’d be too expensive. They recently stopped doing that, he said, explaining he’d rather let candidates choose to “opt out of taking the job because of pay” instead.

“Older people are looking for job opportunities in ways that they haven’t before,” he said. “Some people might have family responsibilities and might not want to be a director, but they’re perfectly happy being a midlevel manager.”

Advocacy groups and initiatives are also cropping up to help agencies tackle ageism. Creative Equals, a London-based organization that champions diversity and inclusion in creative industries, recently launched a program that aims to help “returners,” people who took a career break for reasons such as parenthood or illness, return to the workplace.

The group created a two-week program called Creative Comeback, which is making its U.S. debut this year. Accepted applicants will have the opportunity to receive training from awards organization D&AD and work on a brief from alcoholic beverage brand Diageo.

Agencies like BBH New York have signed on to sponsor program participants. Sarah Watson, global chief strategy officer and chairman at BBH N.Y., said the agency’s involvement will allow it to meet and potentially hire older creatives who’ve left the industry and are looking for a way back in.

“People go through stuff in life, and the older you get, naturally, the more responsibilities you have,” Watson said. “You have to create a culture that can accept people that have a slightly different story from the ones we’re used to hearing.”

A sidebar with the title, 'When it comes to ageism, advertising is the worst offender'

Outside influence

Others have gone about tackling the issue themselves.

Take 57-year-old Ian David, who was laid off from Birmingham, Ala.-based o2ideas two years ago, an agency where he’d spent the majority of his career. After months of job searching, David eventually got fed up with constantly hitting dead ends and decided to take matters into his own hands by starting Fearless, a network of freelancers with a simple manifesto: ageless creativity.

David said he was “absolutely bombarded” with responses when he officially launched Fearless earlier this year and is already in talks with potential clients.

“I started the whole thing up because I just wanted to keep working,” he explained. “I wanted to stay in the game, and it was evident that the game, as it was being played out, didn’t want me.”

Regarding his termination, a spokesperson from o2ideas said it was “simply a financial decision.”

Laurie McCann, senior attorney at the AARP Foundation, said that age discrimination charges are down right now, but it’s not necessarily because companies are doing a better job of addressing the issue. Rather, she said the healthy U.S. economy means job growth and fewer layoffs.

“There are certain industries where no matter how well the economy is doing, they seem to value youth over experience. Advertising has always been one of those industries,” she said.

However, this status quo is being challenged. Last year, Duncan Milner, a TBWA\Media Arts Lab creative executive who led some of Apple’s most iconic ad campaigns, sued the agency for age discrimination, claiming that before being terminated he was moved into a lesser role as the shop hired younger talent. Susan Walsh, former creative director at Doner, recently sued the MDC Partners agency after she was let go days before her 60th birthday. Both cases are ongoing, with Walsh’s pending after her team made a request to acquire more information from Doner.

While lawsuits such as this could prove to be a catalyst for change within agency walls, David thinks substantive change won’t happen until clients start demanding it.

“I think chief marketing officers have an important role to play in this,” he said. “At the moment, I can’t see agencies changing of their own volition.”

This story first appeared in the March 2, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@Minda_Smiley Minda Smiley is an agencies reporter at Adweek.