Advertising agencies aren’t just ageist they’re racist and fatist too

By ageist I don’t mean the content of advertising, I’m more interested in the challenges of age in terms of careers and employment.

It is a real issue but one that is never discussed or acknowledged.

I was paired up with another twosome on a golf course and it turned out one of the other pair was a judge. Very nice bloke, funny, very bright and a good golfer. We got on to the subject of our respective occupations and he explained how time and experience is rewarded in the legal world, becoming a judge is the high spot where one is on a pedestal of perceived wisdom, and age is an advantage.

I then explained it was not like that in the world of advertising and he asked the obvious question ‘why squander all of that experience and knowledge?’ I didn’t have a good answer as the logic is indisputable.

A question I have posed informally many times over the years is the unseen selection process of people entering the advertising world. As a generalization, but based on a very big sample of people, 95 per cent and more of new recruits are white, of average build, middle class, 50/50 state versus private education, articulate and ambitious.

I haven’t come across an overweight, non-white person from a poor background in all the years I’ve been in the business so some sort of filtering process goes on. So apart from being ageist the industry could also be accused of being racist and fatist.

Given the nature of society today I wonder if this a wise situation or whether most clients are also white, middle class, etc., etc. Based on my experiences I would say yes but this is observation rather than any kind of factual research.

I wonder also if this is an unwritten piece of psychology lurking underneath the ad world.

I’ve always believed clients appoint agencies because they, the client, has an agenda, looking for success of some form, and therefore it is natural to gravitate towards people who have a perception of success.

Part of this perception must be about the people so how they look and handle themselves is crucial – first impressions and all that stuff. So given a level playing field of intelligence who is most likely to win the new account – a well turned out, articulate, attractive individual or a shambling wreck? I’ve met a lot of shambling wrecks in the legal world without an ounce of a bedside manner but that’s OK because they happen to be the best person for the job.

So back to the age point. A friend with more success behind him than most people is finding life less and less enjoyable because he is being slowly excluded from the day to day of the business he owns and confessed he finds dealing with clients 30 years his junior very difficult.

My advice was to stop doing it, the massive danger is turning in to the old fart and no matter how much he wears the most fashionable clothes, or name drops about Florence and the Machine he can’t stop the inevitable canyon unfolding between himself and his clients on the age front.

I think everyone in the ad world should be sat down when they enter the business by a hard nosed finance person and told to plan for their career ending on their 40th birthday. It probably will not happen but if by 40 all personal financials are in place then it is easier to cruise going forwards; the bugger is needing to pull in a big salary to keep the family outgoings under control whilst a pack of 20-somethings are circling hungry for the next promotion.

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About Paul Simons

Paul joined Cadbury-Schweppes in brand management and then moved to United Biscuits. He switched to advertising in his late 20s, at Cogent Elliott and then Gold Greenlees Trott. He founded Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson in the late 80s, one of the leading creative agencies of the 90s. Simons Palmer then merged with TBWA to create a top ten agency. Paul then joined O&M as chairman & CEO of the UK group. After three years he left to create a new AIM-quoted advertising group Cagney Plc. He is now a consultant to a number of client companies. Paul also shares his thoughts on his blog. Visit Paul Simons Blog.

One comment

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    Very interesting. I’ve always found ad agencies the home of open-minded liberal people who would never think they have an employment agenda. But as with the world of ads find it far easier to deal in short-hand and stereo types. So creatives should look like they are from Hoxton or better still Argentina. Long hair is great and credible for creatives however not for account directors. If you’re digital it helps to be swedish. An account manager it helps to be attractive and possibly blonde. It’s more akin to casting than recruiting. We even cast teams for pitches so it shouldn’t surprise us that we imagine how an agency should look and feel. The people define the agency brand.