When I told a recruitment consultant, who is a friend, that I was writing this article, her response was: "My clients don’t stipulate a particular gender or ethnicity, but they do openly say that I shouldn’t put any candidate forward who is over the age of 40."
That is a worry for all of us with the retirement age predicted to rise to above 70.
Ageism is the one remaining "ism" that is still acceptable in our industry. In a survey conducted by Campaign last year, 80% of respondents said they felt the ad industry was ageist. Can you imagine an agency chief executive saying "Don’t get any more women in", or "I’m not sure we should be looking at ethnic minority candidates"? Yet that is the sort of statement sometimes made, quite openly, about creative folk who have 20 years or more experience.
We can be more concerned with the cosmetic appearance of creative departments than the quality of what they produce. Having young, creative-looking types hanging around the Nespresso machine is seen to be more important than having truly creative and dynamic ideas going out of the door. Why? Do we have so many uncreative people running agencies these days that they can merely ape what they think creativity looks like? Or is the reason more prosaic, with the continuing financial squeeze making us seek out cheaper (younger) people?
A delicate balance
The ad industry, as Sir John Hegarty pointed out last year, has always been obsessed by youth and "what’s next". Yet "age engineering" upsets the very delicate balance of a successful creative department. The creative community is like any well-functioning group. Older hands mentor, nurture and guide younger recruits. Likewise, industry veterans benefit from learning about what the 23-year-olds are into. That mix can be magical and has been proven to work.
"80% of respondents said they felt the ad industry was ageist"
Nobody would dispute that a diverse creative department is very valuable. The argument has been made for greater female creative representation, as women account for more than 50% of the population and make the majority of household purchasing decisions. If you subscribe to the theory that a creative department should more closely mirror society, then take a look at our population and how it is due to change over the next few years. There are 23.6 million people over the age of 50 in the UK right now.
Personally, I don’t subscribe to that theory.
Great creatives are chameleons. An all- woman team at Ogilvy has just cracked a really tough brief for a male shaving campaign. A couple of older blokes have just done some lovely work in the femcare category.
Quite aside from the benefits of mentoring or the argument for reflecting society at large, there is a more surprising, less widely known reason why older creatives are more valuable than you might think.
As you pass 40, something happens to your outlook on life. You care less what others think. Younger people give a damn what their peers think about what they wear, the gigs they attend, the pictures they post, the stuff they flog on Depop. Older people don’t. With maturity comes greater confidence. It’s what makes older creative people really interesting.
If you’ve studied art, you’ll know about "late works", the pieces produced by an artist in the later stages of their career. In a great article about the subject published by The Guardian a few years ago (bit.ly/LateWorks), the author, Sam Smiles, a respected curator, made the point that in the art world today the late works of artists and musicians are often valued in their own right as being more daring, intransigent and non-conformist than earlier pieces.
Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci produced most of their best works in their 50s. Picasso, too, had a highly regarded late phase.
The flourishing of a braver, more radical form of creativity in later years is not confined to painters, however. Beethoven and Goethe also went against convention, for example. Music-lovers recognise early Beethoven and the "late Beethoven" as two very different epochs, equally productive and valuable, but the older composer undoubtedly pushed musical boundaries much further than his younger self.
"The argument has been made for greater female creative representation, as women account for more than 50% of the population and make the majority of household purchasing decisions"
Meanwhile, Goethe, far from going into decline, produced as his final pieces works that were "highly admired as an example of radical invention in old age", according to Smiles.
Yet the art world, like the advertising world, was also ageist to begin with and it was not until the early-20th century that later-life creativity in the arts began to be celebrated routinely. Eventually initial prejudice turned to acceptance then to admiration.
There are several theories why this is so; imminent death being one of them, lateralisation of hemispheric brain function in age being another. I’m afraid I can’t offer an opinion, but I can speak from my own experience as both an advertising writer and a creative director responsible for a large, motley crew of creatives.
My art director and I produced our most experimental and "non-conformist" work by far from our mid-30s onwards, braver than anything we had done previously. We made a series of wooden benches for Cancer Research UK where once we would have produced a TV script or a print ad. We built an app for IBM that allowed tennis fans to stream a clean video feed of the match to their phone simply by pointing it at a court. This was when people were still asking "what’s an app?" Instead of regular retail ads for the British Airways sale, we made a little boy identify the destinations of BA planes flying overhead.
It’s the work of which we are most proud and I can honestly say that it wouldn’t have come about if we hadn’t had a few years ‘ experience under our belts, plus the confidence to go against the status quo.
So having more 40-plus creatives in your agency isn’t just about challenging discrim-ination, mentoring and reflecting society. Age plays a valuable creative role in art, music and, yes, advertising. Age and increased creative potential go hand in hand. The art world has recognised that. The music industry has too. I hope advertising is not too far behind.