The position described to recruiter Jacqui Barratt sounded intriguing: a blossoming Southeast Asian ecommerce startup, with lots of opportunity and excitement. But there was a catch. “‘Just so you know’, the company said, 'we can’t have anyone over 32’” recalls Barratt. “The CEO was 35, they said, so they thought that would be better.” When she pointed out that diversity—including age groups—has been proven to boost profitability, they burst out laughing.
As Asia-Pacific CEO of Salt, a creative, marketing and tech recruitment company, Barratt has often encountered such scenarios. In her mind, there is no doubt that Asia is ageist and the advertising industry especially so, given its preoccupation with appearing young and cool.
Age discrimination isn’t a popular discussion. It is worth comparing it with the gender-equality movement: while the latter has reached a stage where calls of ‘too much talk, not enough action’ are frequent, the former still suffers from an almost complete lack of air time, let alone research projects. Many Asian countries are yet to include age-related clauses in employment policy laws, although most accept that equality based on age is a human right.
While the problem undoubtedly cuts both ways, there is a deafening silence around bias against workers over 50. The few who are willing to talk about it say innate prejudice and re-employment struggles are widespread.
Over 50s need not apply
Barry Lustig, managing partner of consultancy Cormorant Group and a former employee of BBDO, says he sees people over 50 getting laid off “all the time”. Because it’s rarely high profile executives losing their jobs, the issue stays under the radar. “It’s the little guys who have had ordinary careers who are being pushed out, like the group account director who turns 52 or something like that. This is where it becomes sad.”
Once out, getting back in is not easy. Recruitment firms act as a “buffer”, says Tyron Giuliani, an executive recruiter at Tokyo-based Optia Partners, sparing companies from noticing they are shutting out older people. In 10 years of placing candidates in media and creative positions across Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and China, Giuliani says just 2.7 percent have been over 50. “None of my clients ever asks, ‘can you find me an over 50’” he says. “Obviously they can’t write it in job descriptions and stuff like that but the message that comes to recruiters is very much 'don't bother'.”
Hiring through recruiters also leaves agencies free to favour more youthful candidates, whether via requests for ‘digital natives’ or an insistence that birthdates and photographs be included in application forms, if not outright demands. Jai Cha, associate director of talent at JWT Japan, confirms that his agency tells recruiters they don't want people over 40, even though they know they are not supposed to.
In four years of hiring talent, the oldest person he has placed was around 44. "We don't have any roles for [over 50s]," he states. "The generation gap is pretty harsh in this country. In order to get rid of those perceptions for young people we don't try to hire pretty much aged people."
This assessment is far more blunt than that of most agencies and HR directors we approached, who replied with a variation on the claim “compatibility is more important than age” when it comes to hiring. This may be true: but it is also true that age bias is harder to prove than gender or race bias, and there is little hard evidence that companies are acting to prevent it.
A few other insiders do acknowledge that times are harder now for older people. “I'm sure it's tougher to position yourself, present yourself as a wise, experienced 50-plus manager just on the strength of that,” says Alan Couldrey, Vietnam-based chief talent officer for Ogilvy & Mather, who has worked for the firm since 1984.
There is still an active role for those with over 30 years of experience as long as they stay in touch with current developments, thinks Couldrey, who makes a conscious effort to do this himself. While meetings he attends are frequently full of 24-year-olds, he says the different age groups can work in harmony. “The negative spin on it is that you don't need as many old wise 50-year-olds as you do bright young sparks,” he accepts.
This appears to be particularly true agency-side, and sources say that many are having to face the prospect of abandoning the agency world altogether. Issei Matsui, for instance, was president and CEO of DDB Japan until he found himself out of a job when DDB folded its Japan business into BBDO last January. Matsui had his own consultancy practice to fall back on, but has also found work as a consultant for Sony. He thinks there is so little hope of re-entry to agencies that recruiters need to start directing mature adlanders towards the client-side or other sectors—even other countries—where their skills and experience will be more appreciated.
“Companies like Sony are in need of people who have ad agency experience,” says Matsui, who is around 60. “Headhunters are still looking for agency guys to introduce to other agencies. This used to work OK but now they need to introduce agency people to other industries.”
Why older workers are being shunned
If top-level firms such as Sony can see the value of workers with many years of know-how, why can’t agencies?
Older people are, sometimes rightly, seen as lacking technological understanding, which Barratt says drives companies to hire young, even if those candidates lack the experience to link technology to business strategy. But vanity may be a bigger reason.
According to Lustig, “everyone wants cool, young, good-looking people at their agency, somehow thinking that that’s going to make them more creative or better. It’s stunningly shortsighted”.
Take Australia. The average age of an agency employee is just 29, according to the Media Federation of Australia’s latest census, and 48 percent of workers have 0-4 years of experience (just 26 percent have over 10). “When you have these people that are double the age or close to double the age of the agency it's not congruent with the message that they are trying to put out to the market,” says Giuliani.
More on this subject?
Ageism in the advertising world is Campaign Asia-Pacific's 'Front and Centre' theme throughout September. Look out for articles addressing the issue from different angles over the coming weeks, or click the links below for published stories.
This attitude is perhaps understandable in very young markets. In traditionally older markets like Japan, things are heading in the same direction. Cha is unapologetic. "When the time comes when people are getting older, we tend to push them out because client-side marketing executives are younger and younger and to leverage on the account partner's point of view, we try to have them be the same age group," he says.
Of course, younger staff are very often cheaper. Matsui thinks that financials are the biggest barrier to hiring more seniors. When he set up the ‘60 Project’ to recruit mature employees at DDB, reasoning that their experience and connections would be an asset, his efforts were stonewalled. Any prospective hires (including an experienced creative director) apparently had to guarantee new business of 2.5 times their salary up front.
The blame game
If it’s true that some staff over 50 may not have the same natural feel for social media and tech as younger people, it’s also true that few companies invest in training that would help them get up to scratch.
“Training in agencies is really poor, and workshops don’t really cut it,” says Lustig. He advocates investment in academics to teach older staff in custom strategy classes, or funding for MBAs, as companies like P&G do. It’s cheaper to upgrade skills than paying legal fees and lump sums to get people out and then replace them, he reasons.
Still, many older people need to think differently too if they want to stay relevant. They can’t just expect to supervise. In India, Michelle Suradkar, group chief HR officer at the MullenLowe Lintas Group, notes that of the 10 percent of their staff who are over 50 (the nationwide average is 15 percent) very few still have leadership roles and instead hold support functions.
Matsui says this shift in the roles available to older people is particularly evident in Japan. Survival for seniors is dependent on finding and marketing your own niche, he says, perhaps strong connections with certain industries or international or government contacts. “There aren’t many of these people,” is his stark assessment: and many simply don’t make the effort to stand out.
“Pretty horrible” is how Giuliani describes many senior candidates' attempts at self promotion. They shoot themselves in the foot with five-page CVs and ‘animated resumes’, when most recruiters use applicant tracking systems that can only cope with simply presented data.
A case for reinvention
Aside from the personal impact of age discrimination, there is a cost to the industry. One reason for the constant churn at lower levels is that junior staff often work unsupervised on projects beyond their capabilities, which causes burnout and unhappy clients. Another obvious point is that work targeting senior consumers is best developed by people who can relate to that audience directly. Finally, digital has not killed traditional media just yet. TV is still far too important a source of revenue in many markets to simply discard the people with decades of experience working on it.
If change is to take place, both older people and the industry must be prepared to reinvent. Recruiters and in-house HR staff advise the over-50s to define their individual talents, identifying which competencies are transferable between roles and absorbing everything there is to be absorbed about new technologies and trends. This applies to those approaching 50 too, says Couldrey. People can be tempted to ‘coast’ through their 40s, but that would be a big mistake.
On the agency side, the focus should be on upgrading and retaining those at the older end of the spectrum, not out of charity, but because it will be good for business. A true policy of diversity means recognising ability no matter where it comes from, and makes sense even for those in their 20s.
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David Blecken, executive editor of Campaign Japan, contributed reporting to this article.