It’s a party game no one in Irish advertising wants to play: guess the average age of someone working in the industry. It’s 30. Just 6 per cent of people working in Irish advertising agencies are over 51.
When it comes to diversity issues, gender and ethnicity are seen as undeniable imperatives to get right, not least for business success, while age diversity, an equal imperative, is the great unspoken.
“When I meet people in advertising in their late 30s or early 40s I can’t help wondering if they have their exit strategy worked out,” says Pearse McCaughey, who reached the top of his profession, becoming group creative director at Dublin agency Cawley Nea/TBWA before leaving in his early 50s in 2013. He took time out to pursue long-deferred university studies, which has segued into further study. He still does some pro bono mentoring work in the industry, and consults on creative strategy for several brands, but can’t imagine working in a traditional agency again.
What is clear is that Irish agencies are out of step with other professional services, such as finance, accounting, law and architecture, in that the age at which experience is valued is the point at which staff leave.
That’s a problem on two fronts. Ireland is getting older and the chasm between the age profile of agency staff and the people they are trying to communicate with is getting ever wider.
And, as employees are getting younger, their misconceptions about older consumers – with their significant spending power – grow bigger.
How else to explain campaigns featuring generic “older couples” in tasteful pastels walking on the beach discussing insurance – when in reality the older demographic that advertisers want to reach are shopping in Zara, upskilling, working and developing expensive hobbies. With an entirely different self-image from that portrayed in advertisements, they don’t recognise themselves in one-step-from-a-stairlift campaigns.
The second problem is the skills and experience drain. If staff are out the door in their 40s they bring with them skills hard-gained over multiple campaigns, brand launches, and client and budget management.
Why the age profile drops off a cliff at 50 is down to multiple factors. Staff churn has always been a feature of agency life – at its most brutal, when accounts are lost, staff are let go. But during the recession, when payrolls were slashed, the more expensive staff, typically the older ones, were first to be culled. In addition, the profile of agency ownership has changed in the past 20 years from independent-owned Irish companies to a dominance of a few global players. And a global advertising group shopping for a local agency was always more likely to be enticed by a slimmed-down company without expensive “legacy employees”.
There is an unconscious age bias in the industry and, while it might be unconscious, a bias is a bias . . . there's no sense to it
This is not an industry which culturally sees itself holding too many bus-pass-looming retirement parties.
Then there’s the exponential growth of digital marketing and with it a perception that younger staff are simply more adept at working in the digital space because they’ve grown up with it. And with marketing executives on the client side typically in their 30s, agencies can be nervous about being perceived as being out of touch, or even intimidating, by having older staff in the room.
“There are so many ads for the lads out there,” says Eoghan Nolan, “done by 30-year-old creatives for 40-year-old clients.” He says the lack of experienced oversight on campaigns has led to a plain-to-see reduction in creative and strategic quality. “There is an unconscious age bias in the industry and, while it might be unconscious, a bias is a bias . . . there’s no sense to it.” No one, he says, wants to talk about it.
Having worked at director level in several agencies, Nolan, who is in his 50s, heads up his own creative agency, Brand Artillery.
He is succinct about two diversity issues in Irish advertising, calling it “a back door and front door” problem. As he describes it, it sounds intractable given the current agency culture. At the front door, he says, you have unpaid graduate interns coming in, and that restricts the intake to people who can afford to work for nothing in Dublin, impacting on the socio-economic profile of staff, while at the same time the culture “encourages” older, experienced staff out the back door.
No one, he says, is suggesting only older creatives can devise campaigns for older consumers – “that’s ridiculous, men write ads for Tampax, vegetarians for chicken producers”. But if a team is so young as to have little experience of the ever-expanding older demographic – and little in-house expertise to guide and mentor them – then their “projectible image” of older consumers will obviously be distorted.
There are signs the industry is trying to address the problem. Jimmy Murphy, director of Publicis Dublin and incoming president of IAPI, the industry’s representative body, says age diversity is high on his agenda. The organisation is asking agencies to encourage mentoring to build relationships between young and older employees and is holding training in unconscious bias.
Meanwhile the age profile of the incoming board of IAPI averages in the early 40s.