'Is PR structurally ageist? Sadly, I think it is' - PR leaders respond to Mark Read's comments on age

PR must recognise and tackle its ageism problem – that's according to two senior industry figures writing in PRWeek today, after WPP chief executive Mark Read caused controversy with a comment on the topic.

Industry leaders are divided over whether PR has an ageism problem. (Photo: Getty Images)
Industry leaders are divided over whether PR has an ageism problem. (Photo: Getty Images)

As Campaign reported last week, Read was asked by an analyst, following WPP's half-results announcement, whether the group has the right balance of people with skills in TV versus digital.

The chief executive replied: “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 less than 30 – they don’t hark back to the 1980s, luckily.”

The comment received much criticism on social media, with many accusing Read of ageism. He later issued an apology:

Below, two PR bosses (both in their 40s) argue that more needs to be done to address prejudice based on age in the comms industry:

Ageism, the last 'ism'? - Ruth Kieran, chief executive, Cirkle

When I was in my 20s, I ran the PR programme for the Department for Work and Pensions’ 'Age Positive' campaign. While the irony is not lost on me, it did give me an insight into what lay ahead and the devastating effects ageism can have on people’s careers and lives.

We, as an industry, are shockingly homogenous as a workforce – primarily white, female, university educated and young. Now at the ripe old age of 45, I’m already often the oldest person in the room and, while many of my peers are in leadership positions, others have left the profession or are working as freelance consultants.

But why is this not a career for life? Is our industry structurally ageist? Sadly, I think it is.

Account teams are historically built on the expectations of a linear upward career trajectory and business success on ‘young’ cheap labour. Layered upon this is an ageist society which doesn’t value age or experience and fetishises youth. Can you, hand on heart, say you’ve never questioned why someone is still at a certain level at a certain age?

But where does this leave the vast numbers of older professionals with fantastic skills and experience, who are told they’re too experienced or expensive for the role? Often out of work or leaving the sector entirely.

As society changes and the lines between marketing specialisms blur, it’s time to address PR’s outdated structures, flatten hierarchies and think about how we can form cross-generational teams to harness our talent, regardless of age. The challenge will be evolving these structures to enable businesses and people to thrive – and certainly if we’re to give the younger generation the career longevity they will need.

We all know that there’s a huge mountain to climb on improving all forms of diversity in the PR industry. Age, I fear, may be last on the list.

An Ode to Old – Adam Mack, strategic communications consultant, Plannability

Earlier this week, Mark Read’s apology for implying that anyone over 30 ‘harked back to the 80s’ and boasting of WPP’s employees being mostly under 30 got my back up – not least because I’m significantly over 30 and I can barely remember the 80s.

There wasn’t a definitive moment I realised I was one of PR’s ‘Olds’. I just gradually realised I was, usually, the oldest person in every room. It was gradual, like ageing.

In the course of this, I’ve never encountered an ageist attitude (discounting crap age jokes, you know who you are and I’m digging two graves, amigos). Although when I look around agencies, especially, there’s very little grey-haired, balding gammon. Like flies in winter, they all disappear. Why?

Well, when the realisation you’re old hits you in PR, you have six options.

You can set up your own shop (if you haven’t already). You can go in-house for breadth. You can run an agency (or help someone run theirs). You can become a functional ‘guru’ (a strategist, for example). You can fully embrace freelance consulting. Or you can go full side hustle and open a gin still.

You can’t be selling in at an agency when you’re 60, but you can grow old in-house. Apparently agency life is a young person’s game. I call bullshit and here’s why.

  1. Clients need older, wiser heads to guide them, just as they need ideas powered by youth, especially now.
  2. Fifty-and-overs own 70 per cent of the nation’s wealth, so it makes business sense to have people who reflect that.
  3. Young practitioners learn from their elders, so keeping us around for a bit avoids institutional memory loss and keeps the wisdom alive.

Besides, diversity of thinking extends to age – the energy of youth joined to the wisdom of age is a killer combination any communications leader ignores at their peril.

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