Why the future looks good for old admen – if you don’t get turned out to grass aged 50

Whoever said advertising was a young person’s business? The conventional wisdom is that at 40, most ad executives would be advised to investigate a second career. And at 50, they’ll be positively clapped out and have “post-economic” freedom foisted upon them whether they like it or not.

Superficially, membership statistics for the Institute of Practitioners in Advertisers (IPA – the UK adman’s trade body) bear this theory out. When I last looked (which was admittedly a while ago, but I doubt the demographic profile has improved), the number of members surviving their 50th birthday was a vanishingly small six per cent.

But these are just the worker bees. Look at the nerve centre of the hive – the main board of the world’s leading advertising holding companies – and you’ll find that gerontocracy has never had it so good.

I was forcibly reminded of this the other day by Marketing Services Financial Intelligence editor Bob Willott.

Willott has done a demographic survey of the Omnicom main board and found the average age to be an astonishing 70. In his own words:

The oldest of the 13 board members is the chairman and former chief executive officer Bruce Crawford (left). He is 84 and has been a director for 24 years. His successor as CEO John Wren is a sprightly 60 and has served on the board for 20 years.

I have yet to do the arithmetic upon the board composition of other global holding companies, but the most superficial of surveys suggests a similar age-profile, if their chief executives are anything to go by.

At WPP Group, there is an evergreen Sir Martin Sorrell – still incontrovertibly ruling the roost at 68; and likely to do so for a good while yet unless shareholders go nuclear over his annual pay review. Interpublic Group chairman and CEO Michael Roth sails imperturbably on at 67, despite repeated attempts by the media to unseat him or sell his company to a rival. And at Publicis Groupe we have the grand-daddy of them all Maurice Lévy – 71 – with no successor in sight, despite repeated attempts to pretend he has found one.

All this looks terribly good for that comparative whipper-snapper, David Jones. At only 46, the global CEO of Havas can anticipate at least another 25 years at the helm.

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About Stuart Smith

Stuart Smith is one of the most incisive and knowledgeable commentators on global marketing. He was a long-time editor of Marketing Week during the period when it was the UK’s leading marketing, media and advertising specialist publication. Visit Stuart Smith Blog.

2 comments

  1. My learned friend Stuart is of course correct on the age range of the people heading up the big holding companies but it is much less true if one looks at the operating companies. My view is a Plc CEO is in a different strata to the CEO of an agency network. Sir Martin for example circulates amongst other Plc CEO’s. The former is a businessman whereas the latter is an adman. This has a profound impact on the age question. The buyers in client companies are mostly marketing directors and their age range is likely to be 35-45, much lower than their bosses on the board. So the service provider, the ad agency, is inevitably going to mirror the client profile. This is where the retiring marketing director aged 50 is replaced by someone aged 35 and all hell breaks loose on the agency side due to the historic relationships, now pretty worthless.
    Also in reality senior agency people are disposable if a major client decides he/her is not wanted on their account. I’ve seen many times the agency holding company insist on someone being removed from a piece of business. That is one reason why the bosses of the holding companies can survive way past their pensionable age as they can side step the bullets and put the blame on some unsuspecting 45 year old account person in the twilight of their careers.
    I have given the same advice many times about longevity of tenure in the agency world; have a life plan for becoming post 40. If you haven’t made the jump to top management by then the clock’s tick starts to get louder.

  2. Stuart…
    First, let me make a confession… As loyal readers of “AdScam” will know, I always refer to Sir Martin as “The Poisoned Dwarf.” In truth, this is an “Homage” to the days back in the seventies when I worked for BBDO International and reported to Bruce Crawford, who was always referred to by his subordinates as “The Poisoned Dwarf,” Obviously, never to his face. Proof that there is nothing new in advertising. Further disclosure, I owe my longevity, along with Bruce, Rupert (The Wizened of Oz) and Maurice (Le Patron) to that gnarly portrait in the attic. Collectively, we look forward to the next millennium.
    Cheers/George “AdScam” Parker

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