Advertising's War on Workers Over 40 Doesn't Apply to Its Elderly CEOs

Last Updated Jun 9, 2011 6:33 PM EDT

Publicis (PUB) and WPP (WPPGY) have lifted retirement restrictions on their CEOS so that Publicis' Maurice Levy can stay on until he's 75 and Martin Sorrell can stay on forever. This will come as no comfort to their ad agency employees, who are routinely discriminated against when they hit 40.

Levy and Sorrell are famous rivals, often taking time out to needle each other personally. Levy is 69 and turns 70 in February, and had announced he would retire this year from the parent company of Saatchi & Saatchi and Leo Burnett. Sorrell thus might have expected to "win" the rivalry, given that he's 66, runs the bigger ad agency network (it includes Ogilvy & Mather and JWT), and could have ruled for a few years without Levy referring to him as a "little Englishman" behind his back. Now, it seems, the two are destined to remain locked in combat until they die.

It's a different picture in the agencies they run. The advertising world routinely discriminates against anyone over 40. In creative departments, executives often find themselves regarded as over the hill at 30.

The current "justification" for axing graybeards is their inability to deal with an "increasingly complicated media environment." That was the alleged reason George Hayes was let go at 54 from Universal McCann, where he'd been a media planner and buyer for 30 years.

True, it does sometimes feel as if the olds just don't "get" Twitter. But this is a ruse. Agencies were discriminating against employees with experience a long time before the digital age arrived and "changed everything":
She was repeatedly referred to as a "senior" member of the sales staff and other younger female ad reps were called "hot honeys," according to the court records.
Eye candy
Agencies have always been keen to look and hire young because they need to demonstrate to clients that they are hip, cool and on the cutting edge of everything. Plus, it's nice to work in an office where there's a lot of 25-year-old eye-candy running around, none of whom know how to dress appropriately, particularly in the summer. (What, you thought you were hired because your college portfolio is amazing? Riiiight...) And da yoof are a lot cheaper than someone with actual knowledge of the business. John Zweig, an internal consultant to WPP, once told Adweek:
Writers and art directors are usually between 25 and 35. Anyone older has likely either made it to the executive floor, been pushed out altogether because of downsizing or they've gone off and opened a B&B. The preoccupation with youth in the advertising business affects us at a profound level.
No one loses the ability to learn new software. It's just that older workers know that a lot of new media turns out to be a waste of time. How many of you are still using ICQ to chat with your buddies? (And if you're in your 20s, do you even know what ICQ is?) Precisely.

The oddest thing about age discrimination in advertising is that agencies know full well that one of the largest, fastest growing and most lucrative demographics in the U.S. are the middle-aged and elderly. Young people are a declining portion of the population. Eventually, Madison Avenue and its clients will figure out that it needs to start paying a lot more attention to the silver dollar. At that point it might find its cadre of 20-somethings rather lacking in insights.

And finally ...
I asked George Parker, adman, blogger and famously cantankerous old timer, about his experience with age discrimination in the business. He replied:
Some years ago, when I was freelancing at JWT, a young [creative] team asked for my advice on an ad they were working on ... What they showed me was shit, but, being a kind soul, and as it was before lunch, so I wasn't fucked up ... I suggested that what they had come up with had been done several times before.

Oh, by who, they asked.

Well, I said, Mary Wells did that thirty years ago.

Mary who? They replied.

Mary Wells, at DDB who then went on to start Wells, Rich Greene.

Wells, Rich and who? They replied.

I immediately went out and got fucked up ... With Mary, at the King Cole Bar, in the St Regis. I am getting too old for this shit.
Related: Image by Flickr users mufan96, crest of the wave, CC.

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