Digital Future Poses Threat of Ad-Industry Ageism

Discrimination Lawsuit Seen by Some as Harbinger

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NEW YORK ( -- The ad industry's march into the digital future could lead to some early retirements for Madison Avenue's baby-boomer executives.
Age discrimination lawsuits could become more of a problem for the industry as large ad agencies refit themselves for a digital world.
Age discrimination lawsuits could become more of a problem for the industry as large ad agencies refit themselves for a digital world.

A lawsuit filed earlier this month by a longtime McCann Erickson media executive who alleges he was wrongfully terminated because of his age is drawing attention to what one executive recruiter calls "the elephant in the room." While the issue of age discrimination has long been a wrinkle for a youth-obsessed profession, the intense pressure from marketers for guidance on how to survive in the fast-evolving media world, now forcing dramatic changes in so many agencies, is likely only to exacerbate it.

"With the digital age, there are so many things that are new that having 15, 20 or 25 years of experiences can actually be a disadvantage," said Amy Hoover, exec VP at recruiter Talent Zoo. "It's no secret that this is a young person's business, and I don't have the solution to that problem."

In the past few years, that's only become more apparent, as it's now standard operating procedure for ad agencies to make bold statements about the need to equip themselves for a consumer-controlled media landscape. Iconic agency names have been altered, creative departments have been turned over, top managers have been fired and org charts have been rewritten-all in the name of change.

'youth instead of experience'

Former Universal McCann exec VP George Hayes' lawsuit against his former employer and its parent, Interpublic Group of Cos., is interesting because it arises out of that very language. Universal McCann, which last year brought in new leadership to stem a couple of years of client losses, is now in the midst of attempting a turnaround, having made management shifts in recent months in important regions as well as in its global ranks.

In papers filed in New York State Supreme Court, Mr. Hayes, 54, argues that new Worldwide CEO Nick Brien "has value[d] youth instead of experience and desired younger persons in place of older persons and acted upon his discriminatory preference by terminating older persons because of their age." Mr. Hayes, who had worked at McCann Erickson since 1975 in various capacities, including launching McCann's spot-buying unit for former media-buying client General Motors, is seeking $30 million in damages.

Mr. Hayes points to a series of meetings in which Mr. Brien displayed the alleged bias, including one in New York in which the new chief executive "stated that the young people in the group 'got it' when it came to the 'new media' of the digital age, that 'things will be different around here."'

That's the kind of talk that can send shivers up the spine of a human-resources person or agency manager. "I worry about it, and I'm sensitized to it," said one agency CEO who requested anonymity. "But I've found this isn't about age. It's about finding people who display intellectual curiosity."

Talent Zoo's Ms. Hoover said many agencies aren't looking for that, especially since 9/11, when a lot of big salaries were dumped as part of broader layoffs. "I've interviewed hundreds of senior-level executives who have had to make dramatic changes in lifestyle and who aren't finding positions," she said. "I often encourage them to look outside this industry."

One employment-law expert said agencies need to be careful when attributing abilities, skills and talents to one age group over another.

"Agencies can't have decision-making based on stereotypes in culture," said John Dickman, a partner at the Chicago law firm Winston & Strawn. "They also have to give older employees the same opportunities to succeed or fail as everyone else."
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