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The Casting Call at NYC Agencies: Younger is Better?

Do you remember the exact moment you became old? Old, as in, “OMG, why is everyone suddenly younger than me?!” Fortunately, for me it was this moment, around 39, and not this moment. The crazy thing is I didn’t see it coming. Inside, I felt completely the same: Sharp, fit, alert, invincible. But the outside world was all “Ma’am this” and “Ma’am that…” colonoscopy, mammogram, readers. How did I go from Prenatal to 40+ in a nanosecond?

So when I read the AgencySpy August 4th post about ageism in NYC agencies, I couldn’t stay silent. I grew up in this industry, beginning as a college intern at Earle Palmer Brown. My recruiting business is dependent on its success, and yet I’m seeing some icky things taking place. Suddenly my peers aren’t getting jobs as readily as they used to. I’m nervous when my former boss, who was brilliant and lively, is having trouble getting back in after a layoff.

This is happening now. And it’s way sooner that any of us thought.

But, BUT, as sinister as these things sound, I can’t say they’re categorically always the case either. My recruiting colleagues, both in-house and independent, agree. We’ve observed a bias, but for every example, there are five exceptions too. Says one recruiter pal: “I have clients who are willing to work with people of all ages, provided they are moving with the times and affordable.”

We’re proud to work with many open-minded agencies that have hired men and women over 40. I want this post to be about a commitment to our clients, consumers and the hard-working mid-career people that built agencies and ensure their profitability. Here are three things we can do as recruiters, HR professionals and hiring managers to protect against age discrimination.

Cast the right person for the job.

Not the right age, or the right gender. We’ve had clients that we’d walk over hot coals for tell us, in the most eloquent and empathetic terms, that it wouldn’t be credible to hire a digital strategist say, older than they were. Or, that because the clients are frat boys, it might be easier to hire a man. When this happens, we listen intently because we’re getting valuable cultural clues, but then we toss these mandates out the window and find the person that can talk cars with the CEO or has a zillion followers on Twitter.

Before we propagate stereotypes, let’s consider where they’re coming from and if they still serve us. Will an older digital strategist not be credible to clients? Do these clients value the agency as a strategic partner or a flash-in-the-pan idea factory that can deliver creative campaigns while the meatier discussions around consumer insights and brand opportunities get handed off to an Accenture or PwC?

Younger and cheaper isn’t better. I’m worried too about getting aged out of this industry, replaced by an industrious and eager twenty-something who snows resumes. But there are 101 reasons you want my 20 years of experience on the call when the President is briefing on the New Business Director hire. Starting with knowing the right questions to ask, where to look, who to avoid, how to sell the role, likely objections and salary/title considerations.

Often we try to make due with cheaper alternatives, only to burn more time and energy and finally call in a seasoned pro to clean up the mess.

Empathize with consumers & co-workers of all ages.

When I was in my late twenties, I was hired by Age Wave Impact, an agency that specialized in marketing to Boomers. For all the reasons I mentioned in my first paragraph, no amount of sensitivity training or research could permit me to imagine both the little and big changes that happen as we age. How we feel about our careers, health, life choices at 30, 40, 50 and beyond. Having an agency where the median age is 26 doesn’t make you smarter about digital marketing, especially when consumers are parents and grandparents. Likewise, the best idea doesn’t have to come from the top. Diversity in the workplace offers real life windows into the minds of old/young, male/female, etc. Who doesn’t love the scene in The Intern when Anne Hathaway helps Robert De Niro open a Facebook account and he tells her about the history of their office building?

Acknowledge when the fire has gone out.

The profile for our industry hasn’t changed. It’s passionate, charismatic, persuasive, captivating, energetic… invincible. It’s a shame if these things are confused with youth.

But if the fire has gone out, meaning we’re no longer up for the travel, intense pace and other hallmarks of a client service-driven industry, then it’s unfair to point to ageism. I’ve met people in their 30s and in their 50s that just don’t have the heart any longer for advertising. They just don’t know what to do next. They stop climbing in their careers, ignore industry trends and innovations, deny the need to reinvent themselves or learn new skills. They don’t present their best self on interviews.

My Age Wave boss concurs: “The people I know who couldn’t find employment again seem to be unaware that the business has changed.” And another recruiter from a leading NYC digital agency adds: “When you get older, you have to be a great people manager, be flexible and be hands-on to fight harder for a seat at the table. As with technology, our industry is always about innovation and the newest software or design program. You have to be Madonna, e.g. constantly reinventing yourself and your skill set.” This isn’t about age, it’s about vigor and adaptability.

Competition is fiercer still because fewer opportunities exist at the executive-level. One creative recruiter observes: “I have noticed that once a person reaches an executive title [ECD], they better save their money. The odds of keeping that role or bouncing to another equal/higher role aren’t good for most people. The trip down the ladder can be a harsh one because many agencies want fresh talent who have never held certain titles.”

Final take on the AgencySpy article: I’m worried and I’m watching. I’m wondering how the second half of our careers will unfold. I’m hopeful wisdom and humanity will prevail in hiring decisions; that younger generations will still find us relevant and relatable; that clients and bosses will believe that we can still bring it. I hope that things keep going up, because I’m still having fun and I still love what we do.

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