We are forever being told that the UK has an ‘ageing problem’. True, the statistics are sobering; by 2040, one in seven people in the UK is projected to be over 75. This is invariably portrayed as A Bad Thing: a drain on resources, a nuisance for the young and a strain on the middle aged.
Without wishing to gloss over the health problems that may accompany ageing, or be naïve about how they will be paid for, some of this reporting reflects a cultural bias against age that has existed for decades. Whereas once being old may have meant being wise or venerated, now it is invariably presented in negative terms.
Some of the blame for this obsession with youth can be laid at the door of advertising agencies and brands. Certainly, when it comes to selling us products, youth remains the default positioning in advertising: from beer to DIY, fashion to food, if an ad features a human, the chances are that that person will be under 40, if not 30. Or even 20. We are told constantly in the media that youth is desirable, that youth is beautiful, and that age should be hidden: advertising does nothing to buck that trend.
So how might agencies respond if they were asked to market ageing itself? To ‘sell’ it as something desirable and democratic? This was the brief that was given to two London-based advertising agencies, Mother and Karmarama, by Creative Review, with the results to be exhibited as part of the ‘NEW OLD’ exhibition at the Design Museum in London.
The problem of youth
Both agencies fell on the chance to take part in the project with an eagerness that was slightly surprising (especially considering the lack of budget we were able to offer). In part, they explained, this was due to being able to work on something aimed a different audience. It turns out that agencies themselves might be growing a little tired of youth.
“Ninety-five percent of the briefs that we get every year are targeted at millennials and it’s getting so boring,” says Hermeti Balarin, ECD at Mother. “Just having a different target audience, it was a breath of fresh air. I don’t know if it’s the same for every agency, but a lot of our brands seem to be focused on that – it’s a trend to hear ‘millennials’ in every other meeting. I think it’s reaching saturation point.”
The minute this older target audience becomes cool – which it will – you’llsee everybody jump on the “bandwagon” – Balarin
“[In this] industry, you spend a lot of your time and creative energy working on clients with big budgets that are in the youth game,” agrees Dickie Connell, creative director at Karmarama. “A huge number of people will target the youth market almost arbitrarily, it feels like.”
Both Balarin and Connell put this emphasis on youth down to a long-held theory in marketing that if you can recruit someone to your brand when they are young, they will stay with you for life. “But of course that’s not the case nowadays,” says Connell. “Everyone is more savvy, and more likely to change and not just stick with a brand out of loyalty.”
It’s also perhaps down to what is currently cool, which invariably will be youth-orientated. “I think it’s an easier sell internally, to go for younger,” says Balarin. “But I also think it’s a lot about what’s trendy, what’s trending, what’s the coolest, what’s the latest. I think that actually guides a lot of the decisions, and I think the minute this older target audience becomes cool – which I believe it will – you’ll see everybody jump on the bandwagon. Because they have spending power, they are consumers of lots of things.”
Ageing can be good
The resulting projects that Mother and Karmarama have created for the Design Museum exhibition place an emphasis on the journey of life, and on how ageing is a process rather than a set of numbers with specific meanings. Experience is portrayed as a virtue to be celebrated.
Both agencies have offered a response to the brief that is thoughtful and witty. In Mother’s work, ageing is presented as a series of ‘fine aged spirits’ that have been “a lifetime in the making”. The agency created bottles to be displayed in the Design Museum space, complete with a bespoke ‘New Old’ stamp as a mark of quality.
Karmarama’s piece, by contrast, is a bookcase, filled with titles that allude to specific events that may (or may not) happen in a life. Many of the situations featured, such as ‘Death’, ‘How to take criticism’ and ‘On Looking Stupid’ could happen at almost any stage of life, with the emphasis of the work on how age is not about a number but a series of experiences that may happen at any time.
Extending the message
While brands are regularly accused of being preoccupied with the young, the advertising industry itself has recently come under fire for being ageist (as well as showing a lack of diversity in other areas, such as gender and ethnicity).
Both Balarin and Connell agree that advertising is an industry dominated by the young, though say the situation is more complex than is often presented. “I think lots of industries suffer from this problem, and that ageism in the work place is a really big problem overall,” says Balarin. “Specifically to our industry though, again, going back to what’s trendy, what’s cool – I think this is actually being used as part of the decision-making process of who to keep, who to hire, because it also wants to be cool, it also wants to be the newest. Therefore that is a default into devaluing older generations.
“The older people in the [agency] are the ones who are able to oil the wheels and make it possible thatgood ideas will actuallyget out there” – Connell
“It is a real problem. But I also think there is a gap because still the vast majority of the people in real positions of power in our industry, they’re over 50. So let’s not kid ourselves – yes, maybe in numbers in the workforce, it is very, very young, but the people still holding the absolute power are definitely of the older generations.”
Connell admits to being worried about growing old in an industry that appears to favour youth in its creative departments – “I’m in my 30s and I’m terrified of where I will be in 10–15 years,” he says – but is keen to point out the vital role that experienced team members play at Karmarama.
“I think the good agencies and the strong creative departments have a depth of ages,” he says. “It’s like anything in creativity, why we want to have people from different countries, and different ethnicities and backgrounds and orientations. It’s just about a spectrum and I think people are coming round to that idea.
“Although you have a lot of young people in a creative department, above them you have a raft of creative directors and some very senior people,” he continues. “This work is not just being generated by 20-somethings and going out the door, it’s going through a whole process, and it’s getting the benefit of all that wisdom and experience. Ideas can come from anywhere – a 20 year-old kid can have an idea just in the same way that a 60 year-old person can. But where I think the age really benefits the agency is in the process. It’s really complicated getting work out, and getting work right and dealing with clients and all the myriad complications and obstacles that get thrown up. The people with the experience – the older people in the building – are the ones who are able to oil the wheels more efficiently and make it more possible that good ideas, wherever they’ve come from, will actually get out there.”
As to pragmatic solutions for how to actively make the industry more age diverse, Balarin thinks it is down to those in positions of power being more imaginative and flexible with how agencies are run. “I think a lot of decisions that are made are lazy,” he says. “I think management people – including myself – should look harder to create more bespoke solutions b
for different kinds of people, young or old. That way, you can retain a lot of experience but you can also refresh with new talent. It’s down to the people who are running the show to go and make it happen.”
And what about the brands?
Opening out this message to brands themselves, and encouraging them to be less concentrated on youth – or in fact on age altogether – is perhaps a more challenging issue, and one that is not only down to advertising agencies but also to pressure from the wider media and consumers themselves. Both Balarin and Connell believe that agencies have a part to play, however.
“I think [if we can] stop bracketing people by age … it would probably lead to better work, and more resonant work” – Balarin
To begin with, this would require an overhauling of the age brackets that invariably appear on briefs at the very start of a project. “For me, I think that is increasingly an artificial construct: 18–30 etc etc,” says Connell. “It’s not that useful. Technology has helped blur those lines well – my father-in-law is far more tech savvy and in the market for tech products than I am. It’s far blurrier. I think there has to be a different way of figuring out your communications in that way, rather than just by age.”
“I certainly think [if we can] stop bracketing people by age … it would probably lead to better work, and more resonant work, instead of relying on stereotypes or clichés,” agrees Balarin. “There are certain brands that by nature, because they have to talk to lots of people, end up being less patronising in terms of bracketing. But I think it will be really interesting when more pointed brands realise that actually they could be talking to a much wider age group, that would probably connect better with their brand.”
Advertising agencies are not going to change culture on their own but where the industry can particularly deliver is if – hopefully when – a brand is ready to take a different approach, and step outside the confines of age in its marketing.
“What is true of advertising is that when the debate gets going, it does bring a lot of new points of view to the table,” says Balarin. “I think when it gets going, we do have the opportunity to add more fuel to the fire. Maybe we’re not so much the instigator [of change] but
we’re definitely the ones that help keep it going and give it a bigger stage.”
The Creative Review Advertising Challenge is on show as part of NEW OLD at the Design Museum. This article is published in the Age issue, February 2017.