Ageism row: WPP CEO Mark Read apologises on Twitter

Mark Read has issued an apology for a pretty dubious comment he made to investors at WPP’s first half results presentation last week.

Asked by an analyst if WPP has the right balance of people with skills in TV and digital, Read said (as reported by Campaign): “We have a very broad range of skills, and if you look at our people – the average age of someone who works at WPP is less than 30 – they don’t hark back to the 1980s, luckily.”

After a Twitter backlash, Read tweeted an apology that attempted to explain away his words. He said that he “was wrong to use age to try to make a point. People over 40 can do great digital marketing just as people under 30 can make great TV ads.”

A second tweet added: “We’re fortunate to have thousands of people at WPP who have decades of experience and expertise. They’re extremely valuable to our business and the work we do for clients, and I’m sorry my reply suggested otherwise.”

Ageism is a particularly sensitive issue at the moment. The pandemic has been a difficult time for older – for which read “more expensive” – industry employees, with many senior roles axed in a bid to save money. More and more agencies are staffed by junior people, with just the odd experienced person (like Read himself) to keep it all together.

Among the many other diversity issues we are faced with, ageism can get pushed down the list, but Read’s comment has brought the arguments out into the open.

George Tannenbaum, who until February was an executive creative director and copy chief at Ogilvy New York, wrote: “I am not expecting clients to trust their billion-dollar brands to a holding company whose CEO discriminates by saying ‘the average age of someone who works at WPP is less than 30 – they don’t hark back to the 1980s.’ That is, they don’t know Bernbach, Ogilvy, Gossage, Abbott, Hegarty, Riney etc. Meanwhile they seek to ‘transform’ your business while suffering double-digit losses virtually every year.”

If a disgruntled former employee didn’t hit home, then a tweet from Lorna Branton, head of media and campaigns at NHS Digital, would definitely have wounded. She said: “What a discriminatory and prejudiced statement. I bet he doesn’t think that he is less valuable and harking back to the 80s because he isn’t 20, wo why would it be the same for others at every level?”

Mary Beth West, a senior strategist at Fletcher PR who also hosts the MsInterPReted podcast, made her point: “Quite a flippant statement, when the easily inferred meaning is, ‘We’re keeping our payroll in check while charging clients full ticket’.”

Will Humphrey, strategy director at Wunderman Thompson, is standing up for his boss. He tweeted that Read’s quote “may just have been pounced upon a little too readily; it reads to me like he’s decrying the excesses of the 50s-80s, not the talent. (Yes, I think the fee structure of most agencies encourages ageism.)”

Maybe, but in his rush to convince analysts that WPP is digitally savvy, Read definitely slipped up. Having such a young workforce (average age under 30) isn’t necessarily something to boast about, as Read’s apology would appear to acknowledge.

There aren’t many people in the industry who hark all the way back to the 1980s, anyway. Barely even Read himself, who, according to LinkedIn, took his first job in September 1989.

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About Emma Hall

Emma Hall
Emma Hall is the former Europe Editor of Ad Age, where she covered European marketing advertising, digital and media stories. She has written for newspapers including the Financial Times, The Guardian, The Times and the Telegraph, and was previously a section editor at Campaign. Emma started her career in New York as a researcher for a biography of Keith Richards.

4 comments

  1. Avatar
    GEORGE TANNENBAUM

    I am not a “disgruntled former employee.”
    I’m angry.
    They treated me and who knows how many others like we didn’t matter.
    After decades of late nights, weekends, canceled vacations, and great work for the holding company’s
    biggest clients.
    Disgruntled is a cliche.
    Angry is the truth.

    As Arthur Miller wrote in “Death of a Salesman,” as delivered by Willy Loman,

    “You can’t just eat the orange and throw the peel away — a man’s not a piece of fruit!”

  2. Avatar

    Ironically, Mark read is 53. He’s a child of the 1980s.

  3. Avatar

    Ageism is not a product of the pandemic. It has been an issue for much longer. Recent circumstances simply make it more visible to more people. Companies have been targeting older, more expensive employees since the 80’s. Pro Publica did a ground breaking expose on IBM’s company-wide initiative of about 10 years ago to get rid of what senior company executives referred to as the “gray hairs.”

  4. Avatar

    “We have a very broad range of skills, and if you look at our people – the average age of someone who works at WPP is less than 30 – they don’t hark back to the 1980s, luckily.”

    What a horribly discriminatory statement and reality at WPP.

    Two things must happen immediately as forced by clients and or the Department of Labor:
    1) Check the history of employee hires at WPP and the age of applicants and hires. Are the ratios in line?
    2) Check the billing rates of all of those under-experienced 30 employees. Are clients paying a rate higher than appropriate?

    If the age factor was replaced by skin color or sexual orientation factor, that CEO would be out on his ass is a split second.