The obsession with youthful disruption in the agency world has left a dearth of experience - long may it continue, says Mike Teasdale. 

I was in my local supermarket the other day with my teenage daughter. We saw a mum with a toddler in the seat of a trolley. The kid was toying with a tin of baked beans but then dropped it on the floor. My daughter stepped forward, picked up the tin and handed it back to the kid. The mum said to the kid “say thank you to the nice young lady” then complimented me for having such a kind granddaughter!

I was struck dumb by her remark. I managed a thin smile but inside I was shocked. I’m no spring chick, but I do have hair (albeit grey) and all my own teeth (although my dentist deserves some credit here) plus I’m in great shape due to being a dedicated runner. And yet despite all that, this lady pigeon-holed me in an instant as retired/elderly. If she’s processing me in those terms imagine how ad agency folk see me!

The issue of adland ageism is back in the news again thanks to WPP chief Mark Read’s recent gaffe when doing an investor presentation. He was asked about whether WPP has the right balance of old world and new world skills. Read said "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 under 30 – they don't hark back to the 1980s, luckily". Ouch! 

Everyone knows it’s easier to find rocking horse shit than someone in their fifties in adland. The latest IPA census shows that only 6% of staff in UK agencies are over 50. And those over 50 will likely be in a back-office function like Traffic or Finance rather than a client-facing or creative function. By contrast, 24% of UK teachers are over 50, while a whopping 48% of NHS staff are over 45. The bottom line is that people in adland leave the industry a decade or more earlier than their peers in other industries.

Everyone also knows why adland is so ageist. It’s partly due to our obsession with creative disruption and the belief that young people are more creatively disruptive than older people. This is a highly moot point and is not true in related creative industries like cinema or literature. And unlike professions such as accountancy or law or medicine which are rooted in expertise and therefore experience, we in adland seem to wilfully resist any attempt to accumulate knowledge or codify learning. Instead, we place our faith in blind imagination and pin all our hopes on youth stumbling across a disruptive creative solution via a chaotic development process. 

Our obsession with creative disruption is only part of the problem though. The other reason why adland is so ageist is because in the era of agency holding companies it’s become part of our business model. Holding companies need to shed their older more expensive talent to squeeze costs out of debt-laden balance sheets. But that is ultimately a doomed strategy, as any restaurant that tries to cut the quality of ingredients knows to its cost. 

Adland discarded me back in 2015 when I was 48. After a year of being blocked from working (due to a gardening leave exit agreement) I started Left-Handed Planning in 2017. This was set up as a vehicle to get me match fit while I sought a new role in adland. After a year of successful consultancy but unsuccessful job search, I realized that there was a different opportunity staring me in my (increasingly wrinkly) face. 

Most of my work in that year came not from agencies but from clients of agencies who wanted to look smarter when dealing with their agencies. Marketing clients hired me to help them provide better direction to their agencies. Most of it was secret and the agencies in question never knew about my involvement. All they knew was they had a smarter client asking probing questions about their brand/ad strategy.

Left-Handed Planning now focuses on this kind of assignment. The most common trigger for me getting involved is the client being underwhelmed with the strategic thinking they receive from their agency. And the most common reason behind that is the lack of experience of their planner. Typically, they appointed the agency only to find that the pitch team rapidly evaporated and was replaced by a day to day team who are not as experienced. Their agency planner will have the necessary technical/digital skills but may lack a grounding in brand/business/life knowledge. Here’s where I can add value.

So, here’s to ageism in adland. Long may it continue. If you are a marketing client who wants a planning grandpa to help you get the best out of your ad agency kids, then drop me a line.