Paul Kitcatt
Sep 29, 2020

Old enough to know better: Confronting adland’s ageism problem

The cleansing of age from agencies isn’t new, but it will gather pace in these straitened times.

Old enough to know better: Confronting adland’s ageism problem

I wrote a piece for Campaign back in 2010, describing how my father had set about buying his first-ever brand new car. He did so after he’d retired, because only then could he afford it.

As he was in the market, he started paying attention to car advertising – not for long. He called me to ask if I could decipher any of the current crop of car ads. Alas, I could not. He asked why they were incomprehensible. I told him that I suspected they had been created by people under 35, who were very unlikely to have ever bought a new car and had no idea how to talk to people who might have. Because they were overwhelmingly likely to be over 50, at least. 

My father had a double first from Cambridge and had risen to the highest levels of the civil service, among other accomplishments. He was not stupid. Just old. Not very old, either, but far older than the people whose job, he assumed, was to attract his attention to the cars their clients made.  

Now we hear the leader of one of the mighty ad agency networks (WPP) congratulating himself on the youth of his employees – and then trying to backtrack at great speed. But I’m afraid his first utterance sounded sincere and his recantations do not. Because he’s not the first to say it, still less to think it.  

What he was implying was that creative thinking is the preserve of the young. Old farts are past their sell-by dates and have little to offer. 

How very convenient for him. He can clean out the last of the old codgers and staff his agencies with fresh-faced youths, at far smaller salaries. Result!   

Or, more likely, it's a self-inflicted wound. Along with some salary costs, he’ll be losing the hardest commodity to buy: experience – or, even better, wisdom.  

When lockdown began, my business partner Chalice Croke and I launched a series of podcasts, called 168 Things We’ve Learnt About Creative Marketing. We knew everyone in the business was going to have a difficult time, probably for a lot longer than our political leaders were pretending, and we thought we could share some of our experience with everyone else. It might help them get back on their feet. 

The latest in the series is an interview I recorded with my former business partner, Marc Nohr. In it, we talk about what we learned in setting up and growing an agency – and especially the value of experience. The age range of the four partners who set up the business was 20 years, meaning we had the energy to go out and put in the hours drumming up business, tempered by the wisdom to know how not to waste it on lost causes. 

It is also beyond question that clients want to talk to people who have been often enough in the company of major brand owners and senior marketers to be at ease with them, feel free to advise and know what they’re talking about. And this can’t only be your own top table. You need it throughout the agency. When we were small, we were heavily skewed towards more experienced staff, so everyone could go out to clients and inspire them with confidence. As we grew, we brought in younger people and we all learned from each other.  

We were once accused of communism, because we let these neophytes speak up in front of their elders and took them seriously. But what went out from the agency was sifted through the more experienced heads. Never to tone it down, but to make sure it was the best work, and original. Some ideas have a habit of recurring and you need a few years behind you to spot them.  

The cleansing of age from agencies isn’t new, but it will gather pace in these straitened times. The excuse won’t be costs, but creativity. The implication of the WPP bloke’s remark was that the young are more creative. A quick glance down the list of recent Oscar winners, Pulitzer winners, Nobel winners and such will easily disprove this point. The opposite appears to be the case. 

The mistake he’s making is to confuse creative thinking with technological facility. If I want to know how to use iOS 14 to make a widget, I ask my 16-year-old daughter, because she’s put in the time to learn, so I don’t have to. But if I want some ideas for a campaign to sell a car to someone who might buy one, she’s not ready yet. 

Has technology in recent years transformed everything? Yes. Can brands talk to people the same way as they used to? Obviously not. Can creative thinkers rise to the challenge? Yes – and age has nothing to do with it. Who is the most adept at using Twitter, in our times? Unfortunately, the 74-year-old in the White House. And who was the fastest person to reach a million Instagram followers? Sir David Attenborough, aged 94. Who now has 4.3 million. 

Clients bear responsibility for this muddled thinking too. We’ve all heard them say, far too often, that they want to reach a younger audience. As if the money in old people’s bank accounts wasn’t quite fresh enough for them. But here’s the thing – there’s a lot more of it. Over-50s are richer and spend more, by far, than the young.  

Yet nobody thinks it’s worth talking to these rich, high-rolling people in a way they might enjoy. Yes, enjoy. Instead of patronising, bamboozling and pissing them off.  

The point is that while old people have all been young and know what it’s like, young people barely cast a glance at old people and have no idea about them – apart from their parents, perhaps, but they try not to think too much about them as actual human beings. Yuck. 

Being old is not at all like being young, but with wrinkles and random pains. It’s a foreign country, to paraphrase LP Hartley. They do things differently there. And as whizzy as Google Translate might be, you wouldn’t try to explore a foreign country with it – not if you wanted to understand its ways. You’d learn the language, if you were serious about doing business there. Same with the old. The good news is, interpreters are available, with loads of experience. The bad news is, they cost a bit more. But you will reap the rewards. We did. 

All of which should be obvious to the agency chief who misspoke. He looks like he’s knocking on himself. But maybe he doesn’t look very hard in the mirror – or less still into his ageing soul. He really is old enough to know better. 

One of our clients was Age UK, whose brand we launched with Karmarama. One piece we created for them was a tea towel, on which was printed: “I may be old, but I’m not washed up. Age is not a disease, or a misfortune, or a cause for pity. It is not a state, or condition. It is life. It is human. It is us.” 

Paul Kitcatt is chief executive of Kitcatt & Croke and co-founder of Kitcatt Nohr Alexander Shaw.


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