Overcoming ageism: time to be old and bold
I listened to a mature marketing consultant on Radio 4 the other day, a man keen to insist he was as fit as anyone half his age, so there. I was in the car at the time, having driven 300 miles in one day and partied (in complete sobriety) until 2 am the night before. I was, however, embarrassed by further late-fifties callers insisting that a man or woman of, say, 57 – which happens to be my age – has the same energy levels and enthusiasm as their working counterparts under 30.
For the vast majority, this is clearly untrue. During my twenties, I would think nothing of eating three meals a day with clients and working 36 hours straight to pitch for business. If I did that today I'd weigh 20 stone within a year and fall asleep long before the client presentation. Once again, our contemporary society makes the mistake of thinking the only way older people can compete with Bright Young Things is by direct comparison of what passes for physical 'performance'.
This is a big mistake: young marketing employers (quite rightly) don't believe it. They're sitting looking at the grey hair and straining waistband. What all practitioners need to grasp is that the very nature of older people will add both value and contrast to the efforts of those under 30. The reasons are many and various; ironically, they're usually quoted as arguments against employing middle-aged marketing staff.
1. OLDER PEOPLE DO THINGS MORE SLOWLY.
We prefer measured to dashed. Very few worthwhile analyses or strategic reappraisals emerge from 'quick thinking' people. The latter produce what I call 'Day One' ideas: Day Five ideas are better.
2. OLDER PEOPLE GET TIRED MORE EASILY.
For the last five years I was in marketing and advertising planning, I took a nap each lunchtime; I was usually still at it when 'the lads' were in the pub at 6.45. Also I went home to a wife and fireside rather than four clubs. This tended to make me fresher in the morning – especially as I hadn't had to get up with the baby twice during the night.
3. OLDER PEOPLE DISTRUST NEW IDEAS.
They do, and often with good reason. But 'distrust' doesn't mean 'reject' – so-called 'Silvers' were among the first to use e-commerce regularly. Equally, more mature observers tend to rise above the hype and ask simple questions like 'So what exactly will it do for me then?' As a source of marketing information and doubt, they are vital to the maintenance of reality. An older person was the first one to get excited about the Dyson's marketing opportunity. Another was an early doubter about the size of marketing budgets being applied to 3G in mobile phones.
4. OLDER PEOPLE SPEND A LOT OF TIME DOING NOTHING.
Well, we certainly stare and think a lot.
We certainly read and consider a lot. For the young, this is filed under 'doing nothing', but as any creative person – from Einstein to Dali – would tell you, we all have our best ideas when we are not thinking. Older people have more time to read around the subject: they don't confuse action with progress. A man of 54 invented the Safeway kids campaign. A woman of 51 provided the initial insight about how email would cause the PC market to explode. Bill Gates is 51 this year: does anybody have so well based a vision of where PC/leisure communication is going?
5. OLDER PEOPLE LACK THE ENERGY FOR RESOLUTION.
Let's look at resolution. Scott of the Antarctic, Stalingrad, the Alamo, the Charge of the Light Brigade and Arthur Scargill. Almost all resolution is the prelude to hopeless, albeit heroic, failure. New Year's resolutions nearly always fail by mid-January. Now we're older, my friends and I are resolved merely to know when it's the right time to get out. Resolution in the stock market is a very bad idea. Resolution in marketing is an agent for status quo when change is needed. The woman who changed all the rules to Kenco's advantage in the instant coffee market was 55.
6 .OLDER PEOPLE HAVE NO AMBITION.
Actually they do, just a different kind. Younger marketing executives are often desperate to establish a track record, and so thus spend their days talking to head-hunters. Older people have another definition of ambition, called 'being fulfilled'. Usually, they're so glad somebody has at last recognised their talent and experience, the last thing they want to do is look elsewhere. The late Rod Meadows (no spring chicken at all) was still churning out a stream of strategic ideas when he could easily have packed it in: largely, I think, because Bates showed faith in him as he entered his twilight years.
7. OLDER PEOPLE ARE OFTEN FINANCIALLY SECURE.
As in, 'They don't need the money so why should they have a job some hungry kid needs?' and 'I won't be able to control and discipline them if they don't need the salary.' I'm not sure I have an adequate answer to this beyond the obvious: if you employ people on the bases of obedience, sentimentality and money-motivation, you're a lousy employer. Alan Sugar, Richard Branson and almost every instinctive marketer I've ever met remain as creative as ever. Most people who are good don't do it 'for the money'.
There's no doubt that old people stuck in a Luddite rut will find it hard to survive in the contemporary office, but youthful energy tempered by older reflection is a powerful weapon. Senior marketers looking for an edge should put the two together wherever possible. Senior job-seekers looking for a chance should stop apologising and start selling.
This article featured in Market Leader, Spring 2006.