WPP CEO Mark Read has been forced to apologise after one of his tweets was taken as advocating ageism in the advertising industry.
After presenting WPP’s half-year results last Thursday (read B&T’s reporting here), Read was asked by a business analyst via Twitter if he thought the company had the right balance of staff with TV and digital skills.
Read responded to the question with a tweet that read: “We have a very broad range of skills, and if you look at our people – the average age of someone who works at WPP is less than 30 – they don’t hark back to the 1980s, luckily.”
However, Read’s response was – rightly or wrongly – quickly interpreted as ageism, suggesting that anyone over the age of 30 was bereft of digital skills.
Wanting to quickly douse any backlash, Read tweeted in response: “I was wrong to use age to try to make a point. People over 40 can do great digital marketing just as people under 30 can make great TV ads.”
The 52-year-old then followed-up with a second tweet that read: “We’re fortunate to have thousands of people at WPP who have decades of experience and expertise. They’re extremely valuable to our business and the work we do for clients, and I’m sorry my reply suggested otherwise.”
Of course, ageism is nothing new in adland. There’s often two schools of thought on it. One: advertising is a very forward-thinking business and that’s best done by young people. And, two, older employees simply cost too much.
Nor did Read’s apology garner too many fans.
In response, former wrote Ogilvy New York copywriter George Tannenbaum wrote: “I am not expecting clients to trust their billion-dollar brands to a holding company whose CEO discriminates by saying ‘the average age of someone who works at WPP is less than 30 – they don’t hark back to the 1980s.’ That is, they don’t know Bernbach, Ogilvy, Gossage, Abbott, Hegarty, Riney etc. Meanwhile they seek to ‘transform’ your business while suffering double-digit losses virtually every year.”
Another responded: “Quite a flippant statement, when the easily inferred meaning is, ‘We’re keeping our payroll in check while charging clients full ticket’.”
While another added: “What a discriminatory and prejudiced statement. I bet he doesn’t think that he is less valuable and harking back to the 80s because he isn’t 20, so why would it be the same for others at every level?”
However, Read did get find one backer in the form of Will Humphrey, a strategy director at WPP’s Wunderman Thompson, who tweeted: “May just have been pounced upon a little too readily; it reads to me like he’s decrying the excesses of the 50s-80s, not the talent. (Yes, I think the fee structure of most agencies encourages ageism.)”
Last year, Australian adland veteran Greg “Sparrow” Graham penned a column for B&T that asked: “Is Australia’s advertising industry ageist?”
Graham wrote: “It’s generally accepted that the marketing and media industry is a young person’s industry. I get that. But youthful enthusiasm is nothing without wisdom, experience and good ol’ real life skills to complement and guide it.
“We talk a lot about the importance of training and development, and in my view one of the best ways to train up-and-coming talent in our industry is through mentorship with senior people and exposing them to a good dose of grey-haired wisdom.
“Unless you’re willing to pay for the experience and quality, you’re part of the problem. And you’re going to get the young people on your business without the guiding hand of experience,” he said.