WPP chief executive Mark Read has said sorry after he was accused of ageism for saying that the average age of staff is under 30 and "they don't hark back to the 1980s, luckily".
Read made his unscripted comment at the end of the company's 90-minute Q2 investor presentation last week and Campaign reported what he said in an introduction to our own interview with him.
Then, several ad industry figures, including Cindy Gallop and Dave Trott, latched on to the quote and the ageism accusations began to fly on Twitter and LinkedIn.
In these already difficult times, when we have been working remotely for six months and many people of all ages have been losing their jobs – WPP has cut 5,000 posts this year – the merest hint of bias, perceived or real, touches a nerve.
Given the scale of the online reaction, it is worth looking at the context in which Read spoke, as well as his words.
The WPP chief executive, who marks two years in the job this week and is trying to revive the group's fortunes, was explaining to analysts how WPP is diversifying beyond traditional communications and TV ads.
"If you were to sit through a client presentation or if you were to sit through meetings we have, it's not Mad Men, we're not sitting there thinking about 30-second TV ads," Read said.
He was then asked by Patrick Wellington, a longstanding analyst from Morgan Stanley, whether WPP has the right balance of people with skills in TV versus digital and Read responded that the company did.
"We have a very broad range of skills and if you look at our people – the average age of someone who works at WPP is under 30 – they don't hark back to the 1980s, luckily," he said.
That was the line that caused anger. Gallop, founder of Make Love Not Porn and a former executive at BBH, with a big online following, posted a tweet, with a link to Campaign's article, saying: "Why have I been fighting ageism in advertising for decades? Because: 'If you look at our people, the average age of someone who works at WPP is under 30 – they don't hark back to the 1980s, luckily.'"
Trott, a Campaign columnist, tweeted: "If you were a client over 30 years old, how would you feel about the CEO of WPP saying anyone over 30 is crap?"
That's not what Read had said, but the damage was done. To suggest that "luckily" these people aged under 30 "don't hark back to the 1980s" had negative implications for older people.
Read didn't use an entirely accurate number. It is understood the average age at WPP is in the early thirties.
He may have felt he was merely stating the facts. WPP is roughly in line with the IPA Census, which showed 44.8% of staff at UK agencies were aged 30 or under last year, down from 45.6% in 2018, and 6.3% were aged over 50, up from 6.2% a year earlier.
Another agency group CEO says: "There has always been a pretty sharp pyramid. If people haven't made it by 30 or 35, they move on. You've got young people coming in all the time."
That doesn't make it right, as Read recognised in apologies that he posted on social media.
"I was wrong to use age to try to make a point," he said. "People over 40 can do great digital marketing just as people under 30 can make great TV ads.
"We're fortunate to have thousands of people at WPP who have decades of experience and expertise. They're extremely valuable to our business and the work we do for clients, and I'm sorry my reply suggested otherwise."
Read, who is 53 and first joined WPP in 1989, will be disappointed to have slipped up.
Turning around WPP was already difficult before Covid-19 struck. It is likely that he wanted to send out a message that the 35-year-old company is looking forwards, not harking back, as newer players, from tech giants to consulting firms to agile start-ups, move onto its turf.
Others think Read's comments should not be blown out of proportion. Cheryl Calverley, chief executive of Eve Sleep, tweeted that adland should "be more forgiving" about a "badly worded response to an analyst's question".
She added: "The commercial structure in adland is fundamentally broken. It needs a reset top to bottom, and that includes clients/procurement."
Ageism is part of that structure. Shilpen Savani, a partner and specialist in employment law at Gunner Cooke, says some of the advances on gender and sex discrimination in recent years contrast with lack of progress on age.
"Things have just not improved on age," Savani says. "Adland has an obsession with the cult of youth. It is something it needs to step back from but it is difficult for an industry that needs to reinvent. There is value in new people and fresh ideas. It's all about doing it in a lawful way."
This is not a simple debate. Some older employees will have passed the peak of their careers and their earning power by their early forties because there just aren't many big jobs at the top of the pyramid. Reskilling and retraining are important.
Many younger employees don't have it easy on low pay. Some have had a tough time during the coronavirus crisis, working from home in cramped conditions.
And industry organisations need to be wary of encouraging the cult of youth by running talent searches such as 30 Under 30 that celebrate only the young.
If the future of advertising and marketing depend on offering more premium services, then maturity and experience should matter. The reaction to Read's comment shows that tackling ageism needs to move up adland's agenda.
(This article first appeared on CampaignLive.co.uk)