Oh no! Four-oh!

They say that life begins at 40. Not so in the media industry – where less than a quarter of employees have passed that threshold. So where do all the 40-somethings go? Steve Hemsley investigates

It is a harsh reminder that we are all getting older when you realise Elle MacPherson has just celebrated her 40th birthday.

The Aussie supermodel known as The Body and whose pictures have adorned the pages of glossy magazines for years, is refreshingly philosophical about her age: “The alternative is not turning 40 – and then what would that mean?”, she told reporters when asked how she felt about reaching the big four-oh.

In media, where the recruitment emphasis is on youth, the future can appear particularly bleak for anyone who has not reached a senior agency position or set up their own consultancy by the time they reach 40. The alternative is often to leave the business altogether to start a second, and totally unrelated, career.

Keeping an experienced head can also be a burden on the wage bill.

Media Week’s industry study, published last year, confirms how much this industry is dominated by young people. Some 60% of respondents were aged between 25 and 34, a figure even higher than the 51% recorded by the IPA agency census conducted in 2002.

Only 19% are aged between 35 and 44 and just 6% were older than that.

Age is certainly a sensitive subject among media’s older professionals. Many of them were reluctant to talk about how they felt media treats the 40-somethings for fear of talking themselves out of a job.

Aiming for something different

One nervous female director on the northern side of 40, who works at a leading media agency, initially went on the record to say she expects to leave before she is 50. By that time, she hopes to be channelling her drive and ambition into something completely different. She subsequently called back to beg Media Week not to use her quotes in case her boss read them.

Another media veteran remarked: “You tend to have the life of a mayfly in this industry.

By the time you’re 40 you’ve been squeezed like a lemon and are ready to be chucked away. It’s why you can get paid a lot of money, but the youngsters in the business need to understand it doesn’t keep flowing forever.”

For the record, the man to blame for making 40 such a landmark age is probably author Walter Pitkin who coined the phrase “life begins at 40” for the title of his book in 1932. A comedy movie based on the plot, which centres on the publisher of a local paper in smalltown America, was made three years later. The expression subsequently entered the top-10 list of off-the-peg sayings designed to reassure people that their impending middle age was nothing to worry about.

One man happy to discuss the topic of what happens when you reach 40 in media is David Price, head of non-broadcast at Brand Connection.

He will be 38 in November and the thought of reaching 40 in this business does worry him slightly. “Media is more suited to the under-40s because, as you get older, you can feel you’re running out of steam and want a new challenge. It’s easy to think your career has stalled if you haven’t reached a management post or branched out on your own by then. But the personality of people working in media means they won’t be content to just drift toward retirement, which is why so many of them leave to try something new,” he says.

Price is still enjoying his job and has no plans to change career, although he does have a recurring dream about becoming chairman of one of football’s perennial strugglers, Bristol Rovers. Now that would be pressure.

Family commitments have meant he has gradually moved further out of central London, first from Clapham to Wimbledon and then to Epsom. Although he admits a move to Bristol would be one relocation too far while he is in his present job.

Changing priorities

Of course, as people get older their priorities change and they want a more effective work/life balance, especially once they get married and have children. Those long days preparing for pitches and those evenings spent entertaining often-demanding clients no longer seem so appealing when the alternative is a cosy evening at home in the country after a short commute and a chance to read the kids a bedtime story or two.

According to the Office for National Statistics, around 46% of the workforce in London is now under the age of 35 compared with 39% nationally. This is mainly because the service sector dominates London’s economy. As well as the creative and cultural industries linked to media, the capital is also the beating heart of the tourism, finance and hospitality trades. Another reason for London’s youthful workforce is that many older employees have opted to leave in search of better schools and quality of life in the commuter belt.

Yet, while their family may welcome a buyer or planner’s decision to relocate, his or her boss may frown on the idea. The modern-day demands to accommodate a person’s desire for a more flexible lifestyle can mean an employee is perceived as high-maintenance, regardless of their years of experience.

Although agencies will not admit it publicly – and they would be entering a legal minefield were they to do so – such relocations out of London can provide a company with the perfect excuse to spend more of their time and money grooming graduates who are hungry to learn and progress. Youngsters can also be more flexible and less cynical than their older counterparts who have been there, seen it and done it.

“If you started in this business in your early 20s and your salary has increased every year until you’re 40, you’ll be earning very well and you have to keep demonstrating how your experience adds real value to the business in a way a 25 or 30-year-old cannot,” says 41-yearold Clive Howse, deputy managing director of Direct MediaCom.

Any 40-year-old fighting his or her corner against an account team’s younger members might want to hide some findings presented to the British Psychological Society. These demonstrated how ageing affects a person’s ability to do a particular job. Apparently, from the age of 40, everyday mental skills such as remembering a phone number or a person’s name begin to decline.

According to research published in April by Virgin Money Loans, men in their 40s are more aware than ever of the pressures they face in the office environment. They are turning to cosmetic surgery, personal trainers and counselling to cope with any mid-life crisis brought about by a large question mark hanging over their long-term career prospects.

Striking a happy balance

Of course, if you are the boss it can be easier to strike a happier balance between work and home.

Earlier this year, Vizeum UK managing director Trista Grant announced she would be working a three-day week to spend more time with her young son. This was a big step for someone who was the founding managing director of Universal McCann and who has a reputation in media as a woman who works hard and plays hard.

Her exact age remains a secret but she says modern employers must be more flexible to accommodate experienced workers whose priorities change as they get older and who require different rewards from their job.

“Media is a high-pressured industry and when you’re young, the social and fun elements of the job balance the unsociable hours and the flexibility you must demonstrate. As you get older, you find the fun element isn’t as important but the work remains hard so you need different incentives to balance your work and personal life,” she says. She adds: “I have a good team around me and although I’m now part-time I’m maximising my skills by concentrating on certain areas of the business where my experience can be used most effectively, such as bringing value to client relationships.”

With so much pressure on media’s 40somethings it is perhaps not surprising that so many people decide to opt out of agencies before they reach this milestone or shortly afterwards.

Grant says leaving to become a consultant is the perfect solution for many senior people who want to take control of their life. In this role, a person’s age and experience is actually seen as an asset that agencies and clients will pay handsomely for. She also congratulates anyone brave enough to take up a different job altogether.

Working should be about fulfilment

“Everyone should consider a second career, especially as we’ll all be working longer. It’s all about fulfilment. If you no longer get an adrenaline rush in media and you find the whole thing a drain, or you realise someone else could be doing your job with more enthusiasm, then it’s probably time you did something else,” says Grant.

Recruitment consultant Morag Fox, of human resources specialist HBS, says media is perhaps unique as an industry in seeing 40 as such a defining age. “A lot of media people in their 20s and early-30s have set out in their mind at what age they expect to be an account manager and director and they aggressively pursue that. If they fail, then an advisory role as a consultant is a good alternative, especially if they have a niche set of skills and years of experience,” she says.

So where do the over-40s disappear to? Brand Connection’s David Price knows of two former colleagues who have chosen new career paths. One moved out of London to become a smallholder in Devon, while another is now a teacher.

Among the more high-profile downshifters is Nick Gutfreund who quit his post as group managing director of media independent ILevel at the end of last year to start a furniture and cabinetmaking business. Others to take the plunge include Helena Hudson (see below) who now runs a restaurant in Brighton after ending a 16-year media career. She had worked in senior positions at agencies such as Arc Advertising, O&M, MindShare, Optimedia and MBS Media, where she was a board director when she left.

While Gutfreund and Hudson followed a dream, it can be much harder for others to make such a drastic lifestyle change. It can be difficult for someone who has spent 20 years or more in one industry to admit their best years are behind them once they reach 40. It is, therefore, no surprise that an increasing number of people are seeking counselling to help them decide on their next move.

Polly McDonald became a life coach in 1999 after quitting her job as managing director of comedian Lenny Henry’s former film company Crucial Films, ending a two-decade career in television.

One of her current clients is a former female media planner who has recently reached 40 and has opted for a period of unemployment to concentrate on mapping out the next stage of her life. “It may be that she returns to media in a more niche area of advertising which suits her needs now, or she might try something completely different,” says McDonald.

She adds that media people can feel under pressure when they reach 40 because this is the age when most of the population take a step back and assess their lives. “A person who’s spent all of their working life climbing the greasy career pole can suddenly wake up one morning and ask themselves the question: was it all worth it? If their career has had a negative impact on their family life they may well consider it’s time to take action.”

Consider your motives

Yet she warns anyone considering quitting to think seriously about their motives before making a decision they might live to regret.

She recalls the experience of a female literary agent who asked her for help to find a new career. After talking things through, it was clear it was not the job which was making her unhappy but the business partnership in which she was a director. She ended the partnership, set up on her own and is now enjoying her agency work again.

“The moral here is: if you’re unhappy in your media job at 40 you must ensure you find the right way out. There are different elements to any job, such as where you work, who you work with and how you do it. The key is to discover which part of the jigsaw is making you miserable. If you really want to leave media then fine, but is the dream job you always wanted to do really practical?” says McDonald.

Of course, not all 40-somethings working in media are unhappy with their lot and contemplating a life change.

BJK&E Media’s joint managing director, Tim Irwin, is 42 and says age is only a problem if you make it one. “When I reached 40 I had no inclination to buy a Porsche or to date a 21-year-old blonde. I’m happy with my life,” he says.

Total Media’s joint managing director Guy Sellers, now 47, is also unconvinced by the arguments that media is ageist or that individuals prefer not to work in this business once they reach 40. He has spent more than 20 years at Total and is now a shareholding director.

He also still lives in London.

“In some agencies, the average age is actually rising as companies realise there’s value from having executives who have built up long-term relationships with key clients,” he says.

The attractions of photography

Nevertheless, he can understand why some people might want to break away from media at 40. He even admits that, during moments of madness at work, even he considers what it would be like to be a professional photographer instead.

“One reason people may leave the industry is the narrow management structures in place at many agencies which mean promotional opportunities can be limited. If people have made reaching a management position by this age a career goal they may feel they need to leave media to achieve it,” he says.

There are also age issues to overcome for people working on the creative side of advertising.

Patrick Collister, a former creative director at Ogilvy and Mather (O&M), waited until he was over 50 before setting up his own media company, Creative Matters. He believes the advertising industry is wrong to think people can no longer have great ideas because they have got older and choose to work differently.

“My wife told me that, in my last year at O&M, I was working at the agency for 32 weekends out of 52. I may drive a tatty Ford now, but at least I see my children more,” he says. “That’s what it’s all about, really. Once you hit 40 you’re likely to have a family putting pressure on you to act like a responsible adult.

Maybe that’s why so many people in media leave it so late to get hitched. I actually got married the day after my 40th birthday.”

If media is a young person’s game, then the older players in the industry must continue to show they are worth a place in the side. If they cannot – or they feel they no longer have the enthusiasm to try – it might well be time they turned their skills to something completely different.

Now, what does a supermodel do when she retires?.

Leaving media behind

Helena Hudson was in her mid 30s when she decided it was time to opt out of media and begin a new challenge by the sea in trendy Brighton.

Her 16-year career included senior posts at Arc Advertising, MindShare and Optimedia before she left her final job at MBS where she was a board director.

With two children, she no longer had the enthusiasm for the media industry which she felt was always crucial to succeed. With 40 approaching, she felt it was time to change her life radically.

Today she runs the Real Eating Company restaurant in the south-coast town, specialising in serving meals cooked using local and seasonal produce. In the six months since it opened, regular diners have included celebrities such as DJ Fatboy Slim, singer Nick Cave and actress Cate Blanchett, and turnover is set to hit £1m in the first year.

“After my second child I did the professional mum bit and went back to work, but I was not seeing my children as much as I wanted to, even though we lived in Islington.

My husband, a financial PR man in the City, also wanted to move out of London,” she says.

Hudson took a year off to settle the family in Brighton before deciding that opening a restaurant was what she wanted to do.

“My experience in media and advertising has served me well because many restaurants don’t understand marketing, how to best reach their target audience or the strength of their brand.

“There are times when I do miss media and the people I used to work with. I still subscribe to Media Week’s online service and it is interesting to check from time to time what my former colleagues are up to, but I’ll never go back,” she says.

40 and still going strong

Direct MediaCom’s deputy managing director, Clive Howse, is 41 and admits he does feel in a minority group in this industry.

“There are milestones in your career. At 30 you have set your sights on certain ambitions to achieve, but, by 40, you’re more reflective,” he says.

He adds there have been times when he considered doing something different. In his early 20s he was close to quitting to become a teacher, but realised his financial commitments made this almost impossible.

“In a way, I’m jealous of the 20-somethings entering media now. I’m from an over-cautious generation which took out mortgages early and settled down and never took up the option to travel or make a career change. This is probably why so many people in this business who are 40 now can get itchy feet.”

He adds: “Letting people go off travelling in their late 20s or early 30s is all very well, but I’m always reminded of something a boss told me years ago. He said: ‘If you can afford to live without someone for six months, maybe you can live without them altogether?’” Howse has now worked in media for 20 years and, despite the odd regret, he still enjoys his work and remains enthusiastic.

“When you train as a buyer or a planner it can seem a rather narrow skill set, but, since I started, the industry has changed considerably. In the early days, media was seen as an add-on at a full-service agency, but now clients appreciate it as a talent in its own right and are willing to pay for a good service which my experience can provide.”

Media age trends

The average person in UK media is a woman, aged 25 to 34, based in Greater London, earning around £33,000 a year.

Only 6% of workers are aged over 44 New media has the highest bias toward young employees, with 88% in outdoor aged 34 and under People in their early 20s form a significant percentage of planner/buyers and media executives

Source: Media Week survey


Have your say...

Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus
Media Week Jobs
Search for more media jobs


Gravity Road: new Bombay Sapphire Imagination Series 'exceeds' our 2013 Bafta win

Gravity Road: new Bombay Sapphire Imagination Series 'exceeds' our 2013 Bafta win

Bombay Sapphire has launched the second year of its 'Imagination Series' of five sponsored short films, after one from last year's series won a Bafta for Gravity Road in January.

Outdoor Campaign of the Month: Just Eat
[Sponsored feature]
Bauer launches daily football stats email The Equaliser

Bauer launches daily football stats email The Equaliser

Bauer Media has launched The Equaliser, a football-based daily email combining sports statistics and analysis, targeting desktop and mobile users.


Get news by email