Does Digital Have An Ageism Problem?

Posted by Tom Hespos on April 17th, 2012 at 9:10 am

I’m ashamed to admit that I hadn’t given ageism in our business much serious thought until recently.

There are the occasional articles about it in the trade press.  From time to time, I hear rumblings about it in industry forums and in the occasional personal anecdote relayed by an older friend.  Like I said, I didn’t pay it much attention.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been at the same job for 10 years and haven’t had to test the job market during that time.  Many of my friends, particularly on the digital ad sales side of the business, have had trouble finding the right opportunity lately.  Like many of you, I try to help them network.  Sometimes I hear feedback about the job interview process and hear things like “I think they were looking for someone who can keep up with the 25-year-old media buyers.”

Meaning, of course, that there’s some doubt about the abilities of some of our industry’s more tenured and experienced sales folks to wine and dine their typically younger counterparts on the other side of the negotiating table.  Let’s just say that hearing something like this should set off at least two warning blips on your business ethics radar.  And we’ll leave it at that for the time being.

When it comes to digital marketing, nothing I’ve heard first hand from a reputable businessperson has struck me as particularly ageist.  Until recently, that is.

A couple months back, I went to one of those industry lunches where agency execs get together to talk shop.  And I was seated across the table from a young VP at a holding company agency many times the size of mine.  He was a decent enough guy, but at one point when asked about challenges facing the digital ad industry, he talked about “certain people who got into the business early” who were “holding the industry back.”

At the time, I thought this was hilarious.  You see, over a decade ago, I started something called the Old Timers List.  Today, it is known as the Internet Old Timers Foundation, a private group for some of the most experienced people in our business.  When I started it, the term “Old Timer” was a joke.  That is, the notion that there were Old Timers in a business that was hardly six years old was comical.  Now that more than a decade and a half has elapsed since the first Internet ad was served, the humor is no longer evident.

So I thought this young VP’s comment was funny because he clearly didn’t know who he was sitting across the table from.  And if he had known, perhaps he might have held his comment back.  (Or who knows?  Maybe he was taking a jab at me and I’m the clueless one…)  Point is, I thought it was funny until I thought about it a bit more this morning.

And it made me think that if a young person in our business can paint with such a broad brush and not be called on it, maybe we should reflect a bit further on the notion of age bias in our industry.

So I’ll put it to you, readers.  Do you think we have an ageism problem in our business?

8 Responses to “Does Digital Have An Ageism Problem?”

  1. Ken Dardis says:

    Having taken my first software course in 1968, I can speak only for this "old timer." There is definitely an ageism problem in tech, on sales, creative, and the software sides.

    Trying not be a whiner, I'll just say that there is plenty of business sense that gets left out of the room through the process of judging by one's ability to ride a scooter or skateboard.

    I've worked with the Google team, created software for online surveys, have been involved with internet radio since its inception, and still run a site for indie artists to find airplay - but I've given up on having anyone in tech consider my resume.

    As a friend (who's started writing code with me) and I discuss, because of the limited power of computers when we started, our abilities to write tight code is honed (when compared to the coding we see today).

    When IBM introduced the first "green screen" personal computer, we had the monstrous power of 64 kb of storage in a computer (which disappeared if you hit the "off" switch). There were no hard drives. Instead, there were two 360 kb floppy discs where files were saved. To put this in perspective, consider that 720 kb of memory (2 floppies) is less than a meg, which is 1/1000 of gig.

    Perhaps there's something to be learned from the old-timers... even if it's only in creating tight software programs, without the use of Dreamweaver.

  2. Tom -

    Well said. I too have seen ageism definitely at work in the ad sales business where media and technology-related companies are looking for younger sales people to a) pay them less than more experienced professionals and b) someone that projects an air of 'start-up', fresh and modern.

    That said...a VC suggested to me that we consider adding a 'couple of young turks' to our business to average-down the age of senior management, and here again, to give that air of start-up about us, even though that's precisely what we are.

    I found this comment both insulting and yet, representative of a prevailing attitude that exists in the digital media business across all facets. A distinct air of privilege, exceptional ism and 'smarter than you' attitude does seem to permeate the younger crowd...and maybe that that's the way I appeared to my elders in the traditional ad business once upon the day.

    As an employer for many years, my goal has always been to find talent that I could nurture, train and stand on my shoulders to attain greatness, as well as hiring grown-ups who know the drill, can execute (and create) strategies which achieve objectives.

    So, come 2016, should we be seeking a 30-something presidential candidate who emits 'fresh' and youthful? Uncontaminated by D.C.? A young turk that can ameliorate the typical issues the world faces with regard to Iran, Pakistan, No. Korea, Africa?

    OK...off to the gym, followed by tanning parlor followed by a new head shot...

  3. Tom,

    As one of the early members of The Oldtimers list, I understand what you are saying but isn't it exactly how we felt about the traditional media mavens: they were too out of touch, that the industry wouldn't move forward until these dinosaurs retired or were forced out?

    Now it is our turn. The new always wants change. The old always clings to their past glory. It is the way of the world. This is why I'm a huge advocate of entrepreneurism and sole proprietorship. I learned a long time ago not to cast your lot with anyone who could dump you as soon as you turned 50.


  4. Kendall Allen says:

    I love this piece -- because it stirs such a mix of emotions, reflexes and second thoughts. When I think it through, I tend to agree with Bill McCloskey. It's a dynamic of an industry growing up, upon roots that are now quite deep.

    We are at a point, where the age spread across our industry is significant -- 20s on through late-50s and 60s. And, while maybe even 5 years ago, the lower end of that age range had a lighter level of experience, something has changed. We Old Timers, may have deeper, longer-standing experience, more stories to tell, more brutal exposures or even circles of influence -- and this has its value within the collective. But, those entering our midst are doing so with vigor and are contributing in different ways, quick on their feet. Of course I am not necessarily talking about the ranks of media planners -- but a whole array of roles.

    Circle by circle, I've been feeling lately, as though the industry is at a really high level of engagement and rigor, with folks at all phases of their careers, right in the thick of it, in one way or another. They will have their own journey. And, of course, growing up when we did, as our elders would have said to us, if we spoke without regard to our forefathers and mothers, there is nothing wrong, with a good old fashion, "Watch your mouth, son."

    Seriously -- as we evolve the industry -- I think sense of cycles and sense of humor are important.

    Great piece and dialogue. Thank you. I miss you, TH!


  5. Robert Formentin says:

    I’m going to take a slightly different perspective, but agree with the comments that ageism is human nature.

    Anyone who was once a kid, or has teenagers of their own, knows that kids always look at their parents as if they are stupid. But as you get older and experience the things your parents said you would, you say to yourself “I guess what mom and dad said was true”. When you get married and have kids, all your single friends distance themselves and you gravitate towards other parents that have similar interests.

    There is no escaping this. It’s a fact of life.

    Hollywood is a perfect example of ageism at work. The industry values youth, energy, beauty because it connects to an audience that tends to be young, beautiful, trendy and energetic. There are of course the Hollywood old timers that have earned their place, are respected for the wisdom and talents. They are looked up to as mentors and teachers. Not all old timers reach this stage. Some fade away. Many young stars show their inexperience and foolishness and burn out quickly too.

    It’s up to the old timers to stay relevant and offer value to an industry that still needs it.

  6. William Volk says:

    The video game industry is worse, and sadly they really NEED the experience given the turmoil that they are about to encounter.

  7. Excellent call-out, Tom.

    The truth is, the industry's ageism problem is endemic of a much larger cultural phenomena within the culture at large. In education, it used to be we wanted to teach "new math," that a focus on self-esteem was better than a focus on a practiced approach with subject matter. We wanted to do away with the "old, dead, white men" in favor of outsider cultural scions. In politics we want the "outsider," someone with no real history from within the old and tired halls of compromise politics. Non-elites, who won't let the old ways of doing things stand in the way of their uncompromising vision. Hell, in snow sports, the culture favored the no-rules-neo-hippiedom of snowboarding over the old fuddy-duddy two-plankers.

    In business -- particularly THIS business and its ancillaries -- we want the next new thing right now. There is an almost Maoist belief that because some of what has come before may have been bad, ANYTHING that has come before must be done away with. Let's put aside the idea that what this leads to is a forgetting of history that, in turn, leads us to repeating it.

    I'm not saying that "newness" from "youth" does not bear sweet, delectable fruit. But youthful newness for its own sake is not proof in itself of its superiority. I’m also not convinced that anything that comes from a source that is unmoored from any kind of history or experience is of particular value.

    Call me crazy, but I’ll take my business people, politicians, doctors, lawyers and dentists all from the experienced “elite.” Let someone else have a go at those all-new, outsider, non-elite practitioners.

    “I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau's famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”

  8. Eric Picard says:

    I dunno...

    I'm still trying to reinvent online advertising, I guess I never really stopped. I started trying this in 1997 when my startup rolled out expanding banner ads that could transact and do all sorts of cool rich media stuff.

    So I started thinking about the crazy inventions, the innovation, the new stuff I've helped launch upon the ad industry, and put together a quick timeline. I know I missed a few things, but I just wanted to see what kind of innovations I've worked on since those early days around my kitchen table. I guess I'm tooting my own horn, but hell - I'm old and I deserve it! :)


    1997/1998 Expanding ads. E-Commerce Ads. Games in ads. Component based ads. All in under 4k.

    1999/2000 Dynamic Creative. Video Ads. Automatic creative optimization.

    2001/2002 Flash Ad Tracking. Over-the-page ads. Ad Analytics (reach/frequency/deduplication, etc...)

    2003 Cross Media Conversion Attribution Mapping.


    2004/2005 Ads in Software (ads in apps anyone?). Video Hyperlink Ads. Advertising 'controls' - widgets in ads. Ad Privacy Management for consumers.

    2006/2007 Helped buy a bunch of companies, wrote a bunch of influential papers, predicted a bunch of what has happened (ad exchanges, DSPs, SSPs, DMPs, Data Marketplaces, Video Game Ads, Mobile Ads, etc...) Created a bunch of new ad format prototypes including 5 second video ads and lots of DVR/Online Video formats that we never did anything with.

    2008 Worked on Semantic and Knowledge Computing projects, a revolutionary ad platform architecture project, created an architecture and models for a DSP.

    2009 Privacy Protection. Cross Device Ad Creative. Self service audience buying marketplace prototype (never productized unfortunately)

    2010 Local Business Mobile Coupons. Local Business Listings and Marketing Services Marketplace


    2011 Self Service Media Planning and Buying tools. Flew across the country dozens of times.

    Rare Crowds:

    2012 Yield Maximized Private Marketplaces. Dynamic Budget Allocation.

    I still work ridiculous hours. I still push the envelope. I still try to "re-invent" how things are done, challenge the status quo. I'm still trying to get media buyers to change their habits.

    I don't think I've ever had anyone not take me seriously because of my age. But maybe I'm just lucky. Maybe I'm on the brink of being seen as irrelevant. But I don't really think so. Of course I have been very fortunate.

    I'm really tired, I think I'll go to sleep now...


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