Ageism in advertising: it’s about the (thin) margins

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The ad industry trade portals were abuzz recently on the topic of ageism in advertising following the comments made by the CEO of WPP. The crux of an argument from Bob Hoffman (‘The Ad Contrarian’) is that in other ‘creative’ domains the best work is produced by senior people while the ad industry thinks they can’t produce a web banner. In management consulting, legal practice or medicine the premium is on experience.

Since the rise of ‘digital’ marketing, there has been a perception – a belief rather, that the business of advertising is not meant for those who are 40+. The reason attributed is that it’s the youngsters – the digital natives who ‘get’ new media while the old fogeys are confounded by all the tech and new platforms. Such generalisation is obviously not a balanced perspective.

Digital advertising: the evolution

Let’s pull back a bit and see what exactly is considered new media and how the investments in digital began. The first wave of digital creatives were limited to web banners, websites and landing pages. Creativity in that limited space meant page take-overs, banners which call for some level of interaction, website design and evoking CTA’s from the viewer. Some of the creatives which were considered path-breaking back then were simply intrusive web experiences. Nothing was sacred. Apple would dominate the front page fo The New York Times’ portal with vertical banners which were pretty much mini-movies.

News portals in India would think nothing of page takeovers, splitting the web-page into two – adding all kinds of layers over the reading experience. The most common creative format – the horizontal banner was a product of offline thinking: vinyl or cloth banner shape transferred on to the web. On mobile screens such banners looked awful though some did try to make it a native mobile experience. All of this did not ask for any great technical knowledge – just a flair to adapt to a new real estate. Some knowledge of the capabilities of the mobile phone hardware features were required in order to use them creatively. Accelerometer – used to detect the orientation of the phone or the location access could be used for a relevant creative idea. All of it was not rocket science in any case.

The real ‘tech’ involvement and hardwiring of coding skills started later with agencies such as RG/A and W+K/ The former created the FuelBand for Nike and the latter produced campaigns such as Chalkbot.

The first use of robotics in advertising, Chalkbot printed inspirational messages, submitted by people all over the world via Twitter, on the route of the Tour de France. The campaign helped Nike promote their Livestrong sponsorship by reinventing the age-old tradition of fans chalking messages on the course before a race.


In my view, it takes a different kind of creative talent to get excited about and more importantly, execute such creative ideas. Many of those who are only used to print, radio and TV throughout their careers may be out of depth with such creative tasks. So to that extent there is some merit in saying that not all of the creatives who were comfortable with 30-second TV spots would be at ease with exploring new technologies and mediums.

The new advertising: the fundamentals don’t change

A majority of what passes of digital marketing includes SEO, setting up programmatic advertising, wed design, social media marketing, email campaign management, web-only films, marketing automation and analytics. Hashtag driven social media campaigns and tactical posts or films related to topical ads, landmark occasions and festivals are the visible face of digital advertising – most of which is no different from traditional advertising, except that they have to be adapted to new screens, platforms and executed faster.

The flip-side of this argument is that not all of those who are adept or excited about using new technologies such as voice or platforms such as Instagram are mature enough to see the big picture of the business and think of long-term strategies to build a brand.

In any case, far too much hype surrounds the rise of digital as if all the fundamentals of marketing communication and brand building are no longer relevant. That’s just not true. New advertising is old advertising at heart and will remain so.

In my previous agency, ‘Advertising is a senior people’s business’ was a maxim – a true one at that. And senior people from both sides need to talk strategy and chart out an execution plan which may involve use of all kinds of media – traditional or Digital (the lines are blurring in any case). It calls for generalists who have a grasp of the basics of marketing, brand building and the role of media & platforms in achieving business growth. Just as they needed to know the best practices and strengths of say radio as a medium they need to appreciate the same of social media, new technologies and platforms. Again, it calls for nothing more than common sense and a willingness to learn, adapt.

In my view, the desire to position prefer young talent over senior folks (positioned as ‘has-beens’ who don’t get digital) is directly linked to the ad business’ compensation structure. With media-spend linked 15% agency commission a thing of the past, timed with the separation of the media planning & buying entity from the ‘main’ agency, agencies only have retainer fees as source of income. The procurement departments of clients then see the agency as just another vendor and question the need for an expensive senior resource. Agencies too have to make sense of the math to retain some sense of sanity with the margins and hence cannot afford too many senior folks in a business. Of course, everyone has to prove their worth and the pressure to deliver a great ROI is higher on the senior resource.

With competition willing to be price warriors and under-cut each other, loss of a business puts even more pressure on senior resources and thus a vicious cycle starts. On the other hand, it is common for consulting companies (which have either acquired or built a digital practice too) to charge a premium for senior talent. I am sure even branding agencies such as Landor, Saffron Consulting or specialist design agencies charge a premium for brand identity projects which select clients are willing to pay. I wonder if collectively the ad industry enjoys the same perception of being premium and worth it.

The pressure is definitely on senior talent to prove their worth – that they have it in them to deliver business-building marketing communications for the digital world. Even if they do, the odds are stacked against them as they are likely to be sacrificed to preserve the already thin margins. It’s a business imperative and nothing to do with who is better equipped to make a voice-based campaign for a pizza delivery brand or set up a tactical social media post linked to COVID-19 safety measures.

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