Imagine a dining table large enough to comfortably accommodate 50 guests. The wine has been flowing and the coffee served. The crosstalk is so lively that it’s almost impossible to decide which conversation to eavesdrop.
What about listening in on Sir Martin Sorrell, the boss of WPP, one of the world’s largest marketing communications groups, whose economic soothsaying is taken seriously far beyond advertising’s confines.
Or you might like to join the debate centred round Sorrell’s fellow knight, John Hegarty. Not only is he one of advertising’s most articulate advocates and winner of every advertising award of note but he has also been the catalyst of a raft of iconic campaigns from Levi 501s to Audi’s “vorsprung durch technik”.
Or you could just sip your brandy and sit back in silent wonder as Jeremy Bullmore, whose wicked wit belies his 82 years and shows why he is the ad industry’s national treasure. And why somebody who was creating ads even before commercial TV’s arrival should find his observations still commanding total respect in the digital age.
What unites this trio – and the other 47 ‘virtual’ guests – is that they are all over 50 years old and all pass the ‘dinner table’ test that I adopted in drawing up my list of adland’s ‘top 50 over 50’, which is published today in Campaign, the industry’s bible and weekly trade paper.
Each of them has not only helped to shape the ad industry as we know it but has never been content to rest on their laurels. Indeed, they remain as eager as ever to stretch themselves as much as they stretch communication boundaries. What’s more, they can talk compellingly, entertainingly and with passion.
If only there were more like them in a business that retains a Dorian Gray-type youthfulness and systematically fails to connect with the UK’s 50-plus market – more than 21 million people – that it too often either patronises or ignores. The result is that Britain’s ad industry and its growing numbers of mature consumers are like passengers on ships passing in the night.
They gaze from the rails in mutual incomprehension before going their separate ways, their attempts at communication lost in a sea of missed opportunities. And the reasons for this disconnect become clear in new data published by the IPA, the ad agency trade body.
These show that, while the average age of the UK population is rising, the reverse is true of the marketing communications business. Forty-five per cent of agency staff are under 30, while fewer than six per cent are over 50. It’s a similar depressing picture among advertisers. An estimated four out of ten marketing directors are under 35 and only one in ten is over 50.
Yet the fact is, marketing communications need more wise old heads than ever before. If only because an increasingly ageing demographic is going to present a whole new set of challenges in communicating with a generation that controls around 40 per cent of UK consumer spending and 80 per cent of its wealth.
Increasingly, ad agencies and their clients will have to move ahead on two fronts. They will need to develop marketing strategies that better reach young consumers. Not least because economic growth will falter if tomorrow’s generations don’t embrace new ideas and technologies.
But they will also have to break through to a maturing population with a very different outlook. The over-50s are full of contradictions. They are more ad-literate than any previous generation and they don’t mind being sold to – just so long as the marketing messages aren’t full of self-indulgent bullshit.
They don’t like peculiar new experiences like ‘achingly trendy’ bars and while they may switch brands – be they foods, cleaning products or shampoos – they are likely to be the same brands that they have always hopped between.
The implications of all this are profound for marketers. Those with innovative products to promote may find it tougher as the ranks of the over-50s swell. The upside is that long-established brands will enjoy unprecedented levels of loyalty.
The grey-hairs dining at my mythical table will know this only too well. Now all they have to do is convince an industry far too obsessed with its own youthfulness.
Read the full list: Bolder but wiser: admen riding high50