It’s been well-documented that PR agencies have a diversity problem. Yet when the industry talks about becoming more inclusive and agencies better reflecting their clients’ customers, they usually mean in terms of gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation.
However, confirmation bias, agency structure and hiring practices can also disadvantage and discriminate against employees based on another characteristic: their age. Agency and corporate veterans tell PRWeek that the industry has become more ageist as digital and social media have become central to client counsel.
Ageism can cause agencies to devalue the career experience, life experience, institutional knowledge and expertise that seasoned employees bring to their roles. Simultaneously, it can allow firms to take advantage of younger talent for cheaper salaries, hoodwinking clients into thinking that only young people truly get social media.
As a result, seasoned talent is getting pushed out and, when it comes to new job opportunities, passed over for being “overqualified,” say industry veterans. Yet they suspect another reason.
“When we hear that a candidate is ‘overqualified for the role,’ that is often code for ‘too old,’” notes Jim Delulio, president of recruitment firm PR Talent.
Yet age hasn’t been much of a talking point in creating diverse agency teams. The PR Council, for instance, has no data or research on the topic, although president Kim Sample says it is “maybe something we tackle in the future.”
Ogilvy’s former global PR leader, Stuart Smith, who left the WPP firm in January 2019 to join Vegolutionary Foods in a marketing role, says agencies need to start thinking about it.
“Other areas of diversity need fixing first. There are more important areas right now,” he says. “But it is the next area of diversity that needs to be addressed, especially as the world’s population grows older.”
In particular, he says people on both ends of the age spectrum need to examine their own unconscious biases of the other.
“Not all young people understand the internet,” notes Smith, just as he says it is erroneous to think that people of a certain age have no idea how to code.
“Ageism is a bigger problem than what most people are willing to talk about,” contends Scott Monty, former global digital comms leader at Ford and former EVP at Shift Communications who is now principal at Scott Monty Strategies and publishes the newsletter Timeless & Timely.
“The problem has become extremely pervasive,” says Monty. “I know of a lot of industry players and ex-industry players in tight-knit circles, such as on Facebook groups and community boards, who share how unfair business practices seem to take advantage of youth at the expense of the ‘greys.’”
Last month, WPP CEO Mark Read was asked by an analyst on an investor call if the holding company had the right mix of people with skills in digital versus TV. He responded: “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,” which some observers took to mean Read saying employees over age 40 are of little value to marcomms work.
Following social-media pushback, Read tried to walk back his comments, tweeting, “People over 40 can do great digital marketing just as people under 30 can make great TV ads” and that “we are 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.”
Read was speaking about ad agencies. But WPP also owns PR firms BCW, Hill+Knowlton Strategies and Finsbury Glover Hering.
Some sources told PRWeek that agencies are more like “strategic advisers” than creative shops and less susceptible to ageism. Agency executives note that they already employ leaders across various age groups.
“We have many generations of leaders represented in our company and it is a differentiator for us with each generation bringing unique insights, skill sets and contributions to the work.” says Jennifer Gottlieb, global president at W2O.
“Although we are always looking for bright, young talent, finding experienced senior talent is just as important,” she adds. “The best workforce is one that is diverse in all ways – age, race, gender, sexual orientation and more.”
Others, like Cindy Gallop, founder and CEO of Make Love, Not Porn and former president of BBH in the U.S., argue the problem is persistent across all marcomms service providers, and will be until the senior ranks get a massive shake-up.
She says most agencies are led by older white men who “fetishize youth,” favor young hires even though they are old themselves and hold being young as something everyone should aspire to, when in reality older people don’t want to be young again.
“We’re at an age where we don’t give a damn what anyone thinks anymore and have the freedom to be ourselves,” she says. “The fact is, young people aspire to be everything we represent and our industry should tap into that aspirational culture.”
As for the idea that she couldn’t possibly be digitally savvy at age 60?
“The idea that older people are somehow behind the time is completely nonsensical,” she responds. “We’ve been honing digital and social media for decades now. You can’t actually exist in this world without being digital savvy. It is a fact of life.”
She thinks the future of work needs to be a hybrid of ages – because “when you combine the wisdom, expertise and experience of older people with the freshness, objectivity and perspectives of younger people, you unlock something enormously powerful that connects to your audiences.”
Top recruiters in PR back up Gallop’s assertion that older people are often purposefully sidestepped.
“There is definitely an inherent bias when it comes to hiring someone for execution and even strategy of social and digital media,” says Delulio. “Hiring managers on both the agency and in-house side feel senior executives don’t have the digital DNA of someone in their 20s and 30s.”
Senior talent can, of course be just as “talented with social media” as young people, and he says the former has an edge on strategic thinking.
“I would say the internet is second-nature to young people, but older people can take their experience and turn it into a strategic plan and campaign in a way younger people can’t,” notes Delulio.
But just as companies eliminate young candidates by requiring so many years of experience, he says clients will also include a maximum to exclude older ones.
“We don’t hear companies saying, ‘We don’t want an older person in this role,’ but they will say, ‘We want someone with no more than 20 years of experience.’”
“It has long been a canard to think it is best to give social media to the recent college graduate,” agrees Monty, who was well into his career before joining Ford to lead its social media and digital comms. “But I don’t think social and digital is a young person’s bailiwick. That is short-sighted, because it only credits and gives them responsibility for the platform rather than the broader strategic direction.”
“Anybody who is curious and interested and engaged can understand and work with it,” he adds.
In underscoring the importance of experience, Smith recalls sitting in on a meeting for a client crisis at Ogilvy PR. He says those in the meeting, which included social media people, became fixated on drafting a tweet without understanding the client’s policy stance on the issue at hand.
“Everyone was worried about the tweet, and no one was worried about the strategic consequences of what that tweet would mean for the company,” he says. “And that just comes with experience; it doesn’t have to be an age thing, but it's an expertise thing.”
Still, expertise often builds with age.
Sources also note that ageism in the agency world has been around for decades, and all to do with misconceptions about people who are later in their careers.
“Ageism has existed for the entire 36 years I’ve been in search,” says Karen Bloom, principal at recruitment firm Bloom, Gross & Associates.
“There have been periods of time when we have had clients express the desire to have a more senior person – someone with gravitas and some ‘grey around the temples’ – in order to command respect,” says Bloom. “But there has always been a bit of hesitancy to bring on people who the client feels is on their way out and might not have the energy and focus on their career and jobs as an ‘up-and-comer.’”
“I have battled it for the entire time I have worked with clients,” says Bloom.