Why your ad agency is increasingly looking female. And middle aged.

As recently as the 1980s, there were few women in top roles in ad agencies. Men mainly filled the leadership roles, men did the hiring and men ran the agencies.

Women have made many strides since. There is parity representation in account management; they outnumber men in media agencies and in strategic planning. In the last three months alone six more major American agencies installed women CEOs. These women will do the hiring and will be the the role models to other women in their organisations over time, in all departments.

Advertising is by no means gender agnostic yet, but the good old bad old days of being a profession run by “old white men” is no longer true either.


So what changed? Clients, not the agencies, initially set the wheels in motion. There was pressure on the CEOs and HR Departments of major advertisers to hire more women generally, and many entered the company’s marketing department.

Today many of these women are General Manager, Marketing and they make the agency selection decisions. Agencies rapidly realised that walking into a pitch with an all-male team was dumb, and they quickly began recruiting (or promoting) women.

Women now hold probably a majority of all professional positions in agencies. In middle to upper-management positions, women hold about half of the roles – on par with other gender-aware industries like law firms. The finance business and some other professions lag behind, but the trail being blazed is unmissable. The glass ceiling is cracking, at the very least.

The one area in advertising that still needs improvement in female representation is among creative directors. Male dominance of the creative side of the business is notable, considering that women make 80% of household purchasing decisions. Advertising does not have a creative female recruitment problem – it has a retention problem. Portfolio schools are graduating an equal, if not greater, number of women as men.

Ageism in advertising has always been the big ignored elephant in the room. Writers and art directors are often between ages 25 and 35, and anyone older than that is likely to have either made it to the executive floor, been downsized, or they’ve gone off and become real estate agents. In the USA more than 59% of employees in the ad industry are aged 25-44, vs. 50% of all workers, and the median age of workers in advertising is 38, vs. close to 40 for all workers.

The argument that only younger people can relate to younger markets has always been a nonsense. We would never get children to write TV ads for kids. And many older agency staff are more than aware of the dynamics of younger adult markets. The perceived differences between parents and their young adult children have telescoped – today, they are as likely to be sharing a social event as hearing about it over breakfast. Indeed, many parents nowadays seem to simply wish to live long enough to embarrass their more conservative children.

MOP logoAt MOP, we’d argue that agencies haven’t helped themselves. Our industry has traditionally aided and abetted – and often directly promoted -the idea to marketers that the only valuable target audience out there is under 35, and clients were made to worry that the people who create their ads don’t look like the people who buy their products. Which is totally ridiculous in a world where older consumers now dominate spending power, with 60+ers expected to account for 60% of total urban consumption growth in Western Europe and Northeast Asia alone.

And anyway, do people think middle aged folk can’t remember what it’s like to be 30? The skill of great creatives is to imagine themselves as all sorts of consumers.

Remember that one of the most exciting retailers in Britain – French Connection – which really took off when it became the world fashion icon FCUK – was dreamed up by, yes, two middle aged men, one a client, one an agency creative. Imagination and creative excellence has no age limits.

Or to put it another way, Leonardo Da Vinci didn’t finish working on the most famous and admired painting in history, the Mona Lisa, till he was 65.

(Includes reporting from Forbes.)

Author: Erin @ MOP

Experienced entrepreneur and marketing/advertising 'head' with specialities in Government and Tourism.

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