Am I ageist… or a realist?

In this guest post, Ben Lilley responds to ‘ageist’ comments made about him after he pronounced that the traditional ad agency model was dead.

I’ve recently been accused of being ageist. Again. This last happened several years ago, when I was running a younger agency with a handful of youth brands requiring, not surprisingly, young people to work on them.

I was a bit younger then myself – not too much though. I’ve still yet to hit the ripe old age of 40. But now that I’m back in the multinational agency realm, it’s been suggested I only want to populate my new agency with ‘young people’ all over again.

Of course, this is not entirely true. But it’s not completely false either. This is not a question of age versus experience though, because of course every agency needs the right mix of both. The real question is: what is the right mix? The answer, I believe, is that most creative agencies are still too ‘old’.

We do, after all, work in an industry distinguished by its youthful strategic and creative professionals. And rightly so. These younger minds have not “tried that”, “seen that”, “done that” before. Their thinking is uncluttered by the “won’t work”, “too hard”, “that’s dumb” voices that can hinder more seasoned souls. And in an industry built on new ideas, the unconstrained thinking of those who don’t know any better is our true competitive advantage.

Younger agency workers are also immersed in the media landscape in a way their senior counterparts are not. Their personal lives are filled with the digital channels and platforms that are part of virtually every media plan today, but didn’t even exist when most senior industry figures were learning their trades. Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, LinkedIn and Google are not just buzzwords to  magically sprinkle into client presentations. They’re part of their DNA. Their thinking is digital at the core.

Above all, they were not trained in the traditional structures, layers and protocols of our industry’s past that have no place in its future. They don’t think the media agency is only responsible for media ideas, the digital agency for digital and that creative should only come from teams. They are not schooled in the siloed thinking, outdated systems and dog-eat-dog politics of the agency old guard. So they don’t need to be retrained or upsold on cross-disciplinary collaboration. It’s already how they think and work. (And they are rightly baffled by the Friday lunch stories – if they have time for lunch – about the “glory days” of the 80’s and 90’s. They know their – and our – glory days are here and now.)

If there was any doubt this next generation of industry thinkers is also its future, we need only look to our clients. Not only are they demanding fresh, youthful, digitally articulate teams on their accounts. Their own marketing departments are already staffed this way: with a robust, but lean, head of senior marketing experience, supported by a broad, energetic and youthful base of multi-disciplinary marketing specialists.

McCann’s global CEO, Nick Brien, calls this the “clear head, narrow waist, strong legs” agency model. Others might call it less chiefs and more Indians. Either way, for our clients and agencies alike, it’s strategically and creatively smarter, faster and more digitally savvy. It’s also how the majority of our clients prefer to work with us – engaging directly with the people responsible for the thinking and doing on their brands, not just their more polished but less active agency managers.

The advertising and marketing industry, as much as any other, has felt the full brunt of our changing business world. It’s not just technology that has transformed the way we work, live, create, communicate though – everything has changed. And the traditional agency model needs to change with it.

So if it’s ageist to want only the best people for our changing client needs, then that’s a label I’m willing to wear.

Ben Lilley is the newly appointed CEO of McCann Worldgroup – he was
previously CEO of independent agency Smart


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