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Opinion: What It Feels Like to be 50 and in Marketing

In an industry that is overwhelmingly dominated by 20 and 30 year olds, Rachel Costello, who is now in her 50s, writes that experience still counts for a lot.

Well, to start with, I don’t feel like I am fifty other than in the body. I still view the world through the eyes of a twenty-something and having children who are in their teens and being surrounded by a majority of co-workers who are young enough to be my offspring more than helps to keep my mind young.

Working in a fast-paced industry that’s always moving forward, looking towards the future, it is in fact hard to associate myself with later mid-life. So, the job itself is also keeping me young.

So, it is true when they say “50 is the new 40,” right?

But that’s a mindset. What about the reality?

Being female in a senior position, you search out your tribe. Over time, that tribe has dwindled for various reasons, but usually linked to the desire to have a family and the related pressure that puts on your career. However, the whys around this issue need to be tackled in a different conversation. I am indeed starting to find my tribe is getting smaller and smaller.

And what about the men? I was always of the opinion that if you haven’t reached “the top” by forty, then your career was over. Is this true, or was I so warped by our industry that I only ever saw older people in management positions? The figures tell us that perhaps I was influenced by our industry conventions. Prior to being in Ireland, I spent my early years in the UK. The latest figures from the UK state that over-50s represent just 6% of adland’s workforce, comparing horribly to other sectors (22% are over fifty in finance, 28% in medicine, 30% in science, and 35% in law).

How does that compare to Ireland? The IAPI 2023 census reveals that we beat the UK by 1%. Break that down by gender, and you will understand why I am feeling lonely: 12% male, 6% female are over 50.

David Bain published an article in The Drum titled “Survival of the Cheapest: The Real Reason There’s So Few 50-Somethings in Advertising.” He argues that it’s not caused by ageism or a perceived lack of TikTok ‘skills,’ but by cold, hard cost-cutting. Yikes—(perhaps I am showing my age!). Does that mean we don’t put value on experience? According to Bain, it’s the brutal logic of financiers, perhaps driven by clients’ desire to pay less and less for our service.

I look back and realise that I, too, was biased in my opinion about “making it” before you were 40. So, have we always been biased towards the older generation in our field, or was it my own desire to do well, to push myself and my career, that made me think if I didn’t make it by 40, I had failed? It never occurred to me that not everyone wants to run an agency, that perhaps a career in account management (insert agency role as you wish) is exactly what they wanted to do without the seniority. But I also remember the conversations about salary increases, which only seemed to come with each step up the career ladder.

Bain is correct in his thinking, then, as circumstances change and you need to earn more to buy a house, raise children, the marketing industry just priced you out of that desire, forcing people to find different, better-paid roles.

But the pressure on keeping costs low is at odds with the findings from our CMO (chief marketing officer) research carried out last year. It highlighted that one in two senior marketers believed there is a shortage of experienced staff in agencies and highlighted that problem solving and strategic thinking were lacking in our industry.

We have seen a return of established marketing knowledge come back to the fore, such as the current 80’s fashion revival. I remember it the first time around. Our elders should be perfectly placed to teach and guide our juniors in the real world with real clients, not learn the theory from a book or podcast, or a bitesize fifteen second version. But there are so few to hand the experience down.

What about my younger colleagues, what do they think? In fact, I am afraid to ask. I’m sure my callouts about how much better the original version of a song is, or my “remember when” stories about people or things they have never heard of, make the older-yet-younger mid-ground forty-year-olds feel that I am more than old enough for them.

But I am with Bain as he finishes off his thought piece: He is not ready to go yet. Neither am I. I survived the career/young family years, adapted as the analogue/digital landscape changed, navigated the perimenopausal years. I am not ready to hang up my spreadsheet just yet. My desire to continue my career has been rekindled recently, so I will not retire gracefully, just as I won’t age graceffully.

Rachel Costello is Business DirectorEssenceMediacom

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