Ad agencies target staffing age issue with... creativity

Cannes Grey Lions competition seeks to get older people to return to advertising sector

“We have an age problem and we have to fix it,” says Charley Stoney with a bracing honesty on an issue that her industry might be expected to give nuanced, even positive spin. Stoney heads up the Institute of Advertising Practitioners in Ireland, and its 2019 industry audit published last month noted that, while other areas of agency workforce diversity – including gender equality and ethnicity – were (very) slowly improving, the age profile of the Irish advertising workforce is fast becoming ever more skewed.

Nearly half (47 per cent) of people working in Irish advertising agencies are under 30 or put another way, just six or seven years out of college, so hardly burdened with too much life experience. Last year the figure was 43 per cent.

No one goes into advertising – particularly the creative side of the business – with the expectation they’ll be leaving the building at 65 with an oversized card signed by their colleagues in one hand and an application for a bus pass in the other. With rare exceptions (mostly on the finance and management side), it’s never been seen as a job to grow old in. But the age imbalance is accelerating, putting a worrying distance between the industry age profile and the consumers they need to talk to in an aging Ireland.

It didn’t happen overnight. The last recession was a key driver and the rise of digital means young people are instantly perceived – without any evidence other than their birth cert – to be savvy “digital natives” and therefore a whizz with new changing technologies.

Fine mind exodus

“We lost some of our finest minds,” says Stoney referring to the impact of the last recession on the industry. Agency closures as well as international buyouts and consolidation of smaller Irish agencies led to brutal staff culls. Older staff with experience, typically on the more expensive end of the payroll, were first out the door.

“Some moved to freelancing or got out of the industry entirely,” says Stoney. “That’s a lot of skills, experience and wisdom that walked out the door and there’s a strong business case for trying to bring them back in.”

It’s these people that Iapi hopes will get involved with Cannes Grey Lions. Modelled on Cannes Young Lions – a competition run by the industry’s international awards festival to encourage new talent – it’s a competition thought up by Iapi and open to Irish industry professionals over the age of 50.

Paired into teams of two, participants will be given a brief on Friday, September 27th to create a campaign for an as-yet unannounced charity and pitch it to a panel of judges the following Monday. The winners will go on an all-expenses paid jolly to the Cannes advertising festival next year, sponsored by Standard Life which was targeted by Stoney for funding because of its approach to aging.

Its “My Second Life” brand campaign (devised by Publicis) glows with positivity, realistically representing retirees actively engaged with the world and not as in other pension ads dreamily walking on a beach in a pastel V-neck).

Stoney’s hope is that agency recruiters might have their minds opened to older employees once they see the talent on show.

Labelled as Luddites

“People [in agencies] in their mid-20s to mid-30s write off that age group as being non-digital natives: they feel that they are Luddites really” – and that’s the perception that she says is inaccurate and needs to change for the ongoing sake of the industry.

Luring people with experience back in might also help balance a troubling staff retention issue that dogs the industry. Advertising agencies train up graduates and “then the Faangs [Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google] are stalking them”, says Stoney.

There was – not too surprisingly – some resistance from older industry professionals when asked to give their upfront support to the Cannes Grey Lions initiative. Age diversity is a deeply unsexy issue and Iapi’s decision to put “grey” in the title with all its cultural baggage and ageist implications was found by some to be troubling. In the end, copywriters Mark Nutley, Gai Griffin and Katie Egan – all award-winning and well known in the industry – stepped up.

One of the judges will be UK copywriter and creative director Madeleine Morris who, following redundancy in 2018, founded the Society of Very Senior Creatives, to improve the prospects for people over the age of 45 working in media, which will, she hopes, affect how they are portrayed in ads. Just 5 per cent of the people in the UK industry are over 50, with the number of older women a tiny fraction of that again.

Having secured the right to use the “Cannes Lion” name, Iapi hopes that, if the Irish-led initiative is a success, it might be adopted for inclusion at future Cannes festivals to help address the global age diversity problem in the industry.

Stoney references a study she recently read about age and creativity. “Creative people have peaks, in their 20s and their 50s, and it’s thought that one of the reasons is because they are generally freer, unencumbered by dependents.”