Shirrin S Patwa
Irecently wrote about how women are making their mark in advertising at all levels. Now we will explore an increasingly sinister problem that is lurking in the marcomms industry, but which is rarely discussed. It is ageism. It should garner our immediate attention because it affects both men and women, and unfortunately it gets hidden amidst new-age fads such as relentless agency culture, average staff age of 26-29, cost management, burnout, analytics vs creativity and digital. As per the IPA Agency Census published in 2017, only 5.9 per cent of employees are over the age of 50 in IPA member agencies.
I have spent a considerable amount of time managing talent in agencies in the Middle East, and in my observation across the entire industry, people over the age of 50 are few and far between. We can easily classify these few in three categories: first are the C-suite, who have founded the company; second are usually the first hires that have been with the founder throughout the journey; and the third category is similar to the second but they have been lucky to be working and appreciated by global management, who relocates them to a booming market to sort out their retirement and enjoy the last few years at ease.
Whenever there is a cost-cutting exercise, it is usually the older folks who are the first to go. This is due to the fact that we as an industry are so obsessed with youth culture, aligning the brand with millennials and reduction in costs that all our business strategies end up revolving around it – most times at the expense of valuable expertise and experience. Yes, millennials are the future. They are the decision makers and are starting to have the buying power. However, here’s a quote from the greatest marketer and entrepreneur, Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammad: “He who does not know his past cannot make the best of his present and future, for it is from the past that we learn.” If organisations don’t retain their experienced staff, they will keep repeating costly mistakes and reinvent the wheel every time. The problem also lies in the fact that margins are extremely squeezed in most agencies, and hence employees are reduced to data points and each data point is a cost centre. During redundancies, employees with higher salaries and perceived low income generators are the first to be let go. Invariably these are the senior staff of the organisation. This results in losing excellent mentors that all budding talent needs. Lastly, the growth of digital and analytics has brought along its own form of discriminations. However, companies forget that without wisdom, experience and insight of what patterns to look for, data is of no value.
On the other hand; it is incorrect to place the blame wholly on organisations. In many scenarios the older staff get complacent by resting on their laurels and forget that in this fast-paced economy it is easy to be left behind. Also, most organisations invest heavily in digital training but some employees are uninterested and others refuse to adopt new methods. They get too comfortable to realise that a P&L account never considers past achievement and loyalty and, in these times of pressured profit margins, every cost is a burden. In agencies, experience is considered to be expensive and there has to be an ongoing justification to prove this wrong. It also doesn’t help that the cost of sponsoring an expat over the age of 60 is tremendously high in the Middle East.
So how does a Gen X or a baby boomer prolong their employment? I have a couple of suggestions: begin with understanding that your organisation and team shouldn’t become a comfort zone. In this era of frequent management changes, you should be agile to adapt quickly. Moving jobs every three to four years is very healthy as it gives you a lot of exposure in different culture and practices. This will also help you in widening your network. Next, be in relentless pursuit of new skills. Your experience should enable you to think strategically across different media and technologies. Be ready to speak up and join debates – don’t get intimidated by the buzzwords. Invest in your future. Don’t leave this decision for another day, as every day you spend thinking only about the operational deadline is a day wasted. Position yourself against the future, not the past. Lastly, find a mentor or a coach who will hold you responsible against yourself.