Ageism in agencies: how the oldest survive

May 08, 2016

Ageism in agencies: how the oldest survive

There is no doubt that advertising and design is an ageist industry. The only ones who will vehemently deny this are either sitting comfortably in agency management or aged under 40. Never-the-less, with a massive number of years between 40 and retirement, and an income that has to flow from somewhere, how can you ensure you remain relevant (and wanted) in an industry which has a conspicuous lack of grey hair and wrinkles?

Agency longevity is a brutal example of "survival of the fittest". To make it past the industry's mysterious use-by date, you'll need to exhibit a few key traits:

Confidence

People love to be around confident people. If you have confidence in your own value and abilities, you'll have a better chance of convincing others you do too.

Ambition

Let's face it, we're in a (young) dog-eat-(older) dog business. Those who are ambitious will get noticed, get promoted and get salary increases. They are also the ones who are not afraid to tell others their value. If you are not comfortable or willing to do the same, you will be walked over by an ambitious puppy bounding his or her way to the top.

Presentation

It's shallow, but true: if you look old you'll likely be treated as old. Think about what your clothes, hair, skin, posture, mannerisms and speech are saying about you. That's not to say you need to be mutton dressed as the 20-something lambs around you, but you should aim to look and act the best and most age-appropriate you can.

A youthful attitude

You may have been longer in the industry than some of your colleagues have been alive; and you may have become cynical, disillusioned and tired. The moment you let the weight of your (long) career reflect in your day-to-day attitude, you've lost the battle. No-one wants to work around someone who is crotchety and bah-humbug. They want to be energised by people who are upbeat, smiley, positive, interesting and interested.

Always learning

In your move up the client service ladder it is likely that you have become less of a do-er and more of a manager. The channel technicalities that were once your everyday business are now the responsibility of your direct reports. However, as you are competing (cough…I mean "working") with young pups that were weaned on social media and Netflix, you can't afford to be left behind. Keeping current with industry trends, new technologies, new channels and new lingo is vital for your long-term survival.

Wisdom

There are definitely some advantages to being the older dog in the pack. You've been there, done that, and the young pups (whether they will admit it or not) will benefit from your sage advice. Just remember never to flaunt your copious wisdom, lest you come across as haughty, arrogant or - dare we say it - old. Wise words, dispensed with wisdom, will always be highly valuable.

Tolerance

You may get to the stage where your manager is 10/15/20 years younger than you are. Will you be able to handle that situation with grace? Will you be able to show respect to your young manager when you obviously have more knowledge than they do? Will you be able to make your younger-than-you manager feel at ease? Those who learn to bite their tongue, smile genuinely and be supportive will be the ones who stick around the longest.

Help, I'm already 40+!

It's not impossible to stay in the industry when you are over 40, it's just darned hard. Here are some tips for the "older" agency folks out there:

  • If you can keep moving up the career ladder into management, do it. It's far easier for an older person to change jobs if they are already in a senior management role.
  • If you find a good job that you enjoy, there is no harm in staying there long-term.
  • Figure out what you want your life to look like in 5/10/15 years' time, so you can plan where you need to position yourself right now.
  • Network, network, network. The wider and stronger your network, the better chance you'll have of finding a new role when you need it.
  • If you are entrepreneurial, you could consider starting your own business (agency, consultancy or something totally different). Ageism is less of an issue for the self-employed.
  • Buy into your agency with an equity stake. Having "skin in the game" will help to ensure your position is (relatively) safe over the long-term.
  • Move client-side. Senior agency folk (especially those in client services) can often "cross over" into client-side marketing, brand management, general management, marketing strategy or business development roles. Client-side may offer opportunities where individual value is not defined by age or attractiveness. Yeouch!
  • Don't give up...but know when to give up. There are always exceptions to every rule, so do keep trying to stay within the industry, if that is what you really love to do. Within your heart of hearts you will know when the time is right to bow out with grace.

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