U.K. shops scramble to comply with ageism law

Europe's agencies must battle with a long-held belief that youth is best

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[London] Age discrimination, the final employment taboo, became officially illegal in the U.K. and the rest of Europe on Oct. 1.

Advertising, often regarded as a young person's business, may face dramatic changes to comply with the law, put in place by the European Union. To help agencies adapt, the U.K.'s Institute of Practitioners in Advertising has issued the report "Age in Advertising," backed up by an awareness campaign.

"The law is way ahead of public opinion," said May Budd, the IPA's employment-affairs adviser.

In an effort to bring awareness to the age-discrimination issue, Bartle Bogle Hegarty has created a pro bono ad for the IPA: It shows a scruffy young ad guy with a supermarket expiration sticker reading "Use by May 2016" on his forehead.

"[People] think ageist comments are harmless, everyday fun," said 45-year-old Moray MacLennan, European chairman of M&C Saatchi and chairman of the IPA client-services committee. "People have a problem giving ageism the same credence as racism and sexism, but in 20 years' time we will all be shocked about what we used to think of as normal."

The new age discrimination guidelines could be an especially difficult path to navigate for the U.K. ad industry, which employs many younger workers. Only 5% of agency employees are over 50, while under-30s make up 48% of the agency workforce. But by 2020, more than half of all British adults will be over 50.

'Life has changed'

Some marketers as well as agencies believe that youth is best and is nearer their target market. Colin Wise, head of advertising operations at BT, said: "Life has changed. It's quicker, and you work longer hours. But I've always got a buzz from creativity and adrenaline. It tends to be younger people who work hard from 9 to 7 and then want to play."

The digital revolution has made youth an even more valuable commodity. One human-resources director said in the IPA report: "As digital is still such a young sector, it's difficult to find older people with the right experience."

Money is also a factor. Experience comes with a price tag. "I think this is about money," said Gerry Moira, 56, U.K. director of creativity at Euro RSCG London. "You can hire three junior teams for the price of one seasoned art director. And with creative directors under increasing pressure to deliver more choice, there's pressure to hire more monkeys, not wiser monkeys."

The IPA report recommends that agencies encourage more flexible ways of working to maintain a work/life balance. One strategic planner told the IPA: "Advertising is an industry where you need to be seen to put the hours in: late nights equal commitment. Older employees who see through this aren't prepared to play the game."

And then there's Tony Dell, head of art buying at Delaney Lund Knox Warren. At 86, he still occasionally works long hours, but technology has helped him get more done faster. "Happily, my age has coincided with technology's progress," he said. "Online purchasing and the microwave came at the right time for me."

The new law doesn't always work in favor of older employees, however. A job ad specifying three to five years experience, for instance, could be seen as discriminating against young workers.

"There is always a transition period," Mr. MacLennan said. "It'll take a while, but some of it will happen naturally as society is aging. It will have a good effect on the industry because we are missing out on older talent, but in the end you retain and win clients based on quality. You can have very old young people and very young old people."
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