At a time when advertising in the UK is apparently facing a much talked about ‘talent crunch’, there’s an enormous untapped demographic that’s got experience, guts, talent and skills to spare. Women over 45. They’re literally right there, for the hiring.
In fact, in an industry stuck in a bubble and crying out for a different perspective, any agency bringing on older women is going to find themselves with an immediate competitive advantage.
It’s a realisation that agencies have yet to catch up to – and that’s something Jane Evans is all too aware of. In 2019, Jane Evans had been trying for three years to get a job in the ad industry, despite already having worked in it for over 30 years, working with brands like Revlon and Maserati. 180 job applications resulted in just five interviews, Jane was met with comments like: “I’d give you a job but you’d end up the old woman at the back of the creative department doing the shit no one else wants.”
But if potential employers couldn’t recognise what she had to offer, Jane figured she would channel her skills into a real life brief: promoting real life women. Since then, she’s written a hit book Invisible to Invaluable: Unleashing the Power of Midlife Women (co-authored with Carol Russell), kickstarted the Uninvisibility Project and has drawn a network of creative men and women together. She’s also just launched VisibleStart, a training bootcamp run in collaboration with the Brixton Finishing School and WPP to retrain women over 45, in search of a career reboot, with digital skills.
LBB’s Laura Swinton spoke to Jane about her own experience with ageism and sexism, why bringing in older women will benefit the whole industry (and why the answer to ageism is not more ageism against the young).
LBB> Morality aside, there’s the commercial reality that women over 45 account for around 50.3% of all consumer spending, according to your book. Why are agencies leaving so much money on the table?
Jane> There is a belief that advertising is supposed to be young and sexy. It’s not. Advertising is supposed to be on the edge of popular culture. If it was, it would recognise the most valuable audience has been on that edge for a very long time. But the ‘young and sexy’ advertising industry has lost the majority of its highly experienced workforce who understand the power and opportunities of midlife women and know how to sell to them.
LBB> And why aren’t clients pulling them up on it?
Jane> Marketing 101 states that you advertise to the youth to gain brand loyalty. That was true in our mother’s time but totally wrong today. We’ll swap brands in a heartbeat!
LBB> Do you think this combination of ageism and sexism is present equally across the ad industry or is it particularly bad in the creative departments… if so, why do you think that is?
Jane> Let’s be honest, a female creative over the age of fifty is as rare as hen’s teeth. I started in advertising in 1982, I was the first woman in the creative department three times in the first ten years of my career and only once had a woman above me in all that time. The men who inhabited creative departments in the ‘80s, ‘90s and ‘00s created an environment that was only welcoming to white men and barely noticed when the few white women they worked alongside disappeared.
Now they are facing the first ‘-ism’ they’ve ever faced in their life and their first reaction is to be ageist against the young and use legislation designed to protect minorities to maintain their privilege. Their inability to understand that privilege, to work cross-generationally, take on new ideas and accept that for the first time in their lives they have to be ten times better than their female or racially diverse counterparts to get ahead is the reason for their downfall. They make it very difficult for those of us who have kept up with the times, recognise the talents of digital natives and have something new to say to break through!
LBB> Sexism, ageism… this may be a massive over-generalisation but personally I suspect that one reason people are reluctant to hire older women is that they generally have more confidence.
Jane> Yep, zero fucks left to give! No time for bullshit. Not afraid to speak our minds. We damned well know what we’re doing - and when we don’t, we’re not afraid to admit it and learn.
LBB> Will hiring more older women to make ads help pop adland’s (incredibly pop-resistant) bubble?
Jane> The few creative women who disappeared are not coming back to creative departments as they were. The pandemic has opened an incredible opportunity for highly experienced creative women; there is a perception that we don’t exist, we do. But as the first generation of women in the creative department we fought for things like paid maternity leave, affordable childcare and sexual harassment legislation but didn’t have them ourselves. Award-winning, brilliant women left glittering careers for the most important creative project of their lives - raising kids. Now those kids are heading off to university (and we’ve received the incredible boost of energy that comes after menopause) everyone’s working from their kitchen tables, so now, instead of working on small clients through our little cottage industries, we’re ready to play in the big leagues, with the big clients, working on big ideas again. If agencies don’t employ our services, clients will!
LBB> Do you think more older women in the creative department will help younger women?
Jane> Now we’re seeing the first generation of women who have experienced the complete career path, we’re campaigning hard for the world to start designing careers built on a woman’s biology not a man’s. It is sheer cruelty that the sweet spot of a career is around the 35 mark, when a man is at his peak and a woman is facing a biological clock about to go off. If women could see women picking up their careers in midlife and killing it, it would give them so much more time and space. When we start looking at careers that last til we’re seventy and beyond, women will be able to have it all, which is totally possible - just generally not all at once!
LBB> One of the systemic issues seems to be that if you can climb the management tree, there are (a few) roles for older people but of course not everyone wants to go into leadership and, also, even if they did it’s numerically impossible. It’s almost designed to winnow people out by age. How can agencies change this?
Jane> The future of work is lifelong learning and multiple careers. Let those who pioneered women’s careers pioneer this new way of working. Agencies take young people from the best schools and train them. There is no better school than the school of life. Train women with 30 years of soft skill expertise and teach them the hard ones.
Jane at the launch of her book 'Invisible to Invaluable' with co-author Carol Russell
LBB> Experiencing the struggle to find a job firsthand sounds so demoralising. How did you keep going and what would you say to someone facing a similar slog?
Jane> No matter what has happened in my life I have always been able to rely on my talent. To discover that my talent was no longer required or relevant was devastating. But I refused to believe it - I knew it wasn’t true. So I took all of that talent and wrote myself a brief to promote midlife women. I learned how to build a website, create animation, edit films and build an audience on social media. I became a one-woman ad agency. Now I run a creative network working with clients like Staysure Travel Insurance making fun content with a group of highly-awarded creatives (both male and female) and we’re having a lot of fun!
LBB> You’ve taken your fate into your own hands, writing a book, starting the Uninvisibility Project and the VisibleStart program – how did that experience develop your views on the situation?
Jane> In 2019 I received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Australia’s Women in Media. Two years earlier I was at the food bank. The client who commissioned the copywriting work I had scrambled around to get that month went into receivership and I ended up in a church on Wednesday afternoon with a very nice Christian woman praying for me, I was clutching a plastic bag filled with cans, pasta, teabags and tampons feeling totally humiliated and determined to do everything in my power to make sure I never came back and to help as many women as possible from having to either. In 2020 I was awarded an AdAge Women to Watch Europe award. Ally Owen from Brixton Finishing School was also on the list...
LBB> Speaking of Ally and the Brixton Finishing School, what sparked the collaboration with BFS and VisibleStart?
Jane> In September 2020 Mark Read of WPP was quoted (slightly out of context) as saying that “WPP employees don’t hark back to the eighties, luckily.” As you can imagine, the Uninvisibility Project wanted words. On the Friday of that week, I was giving a speech at Zee Melt in India following Sir Martin Sorrell (who had boasted two weeks prior to Mark that his workforce had an average age of 25). I figured people would hang around after the star speaker and used this opportunity to make my whole speech a call to Mark that I wanted to speak to him. To his credit he rang me the next day and instead of giving him the bollocking he expected, I pitched the idea of Visible Start. It was a no brainer; it provided a solution to WPP’s lack of age diversity and an opportunity for a generation of women who have 50% of the pension savings of men to build a career and avoid retiring in poverty. Ally and I had met by being women to watch - this was the perfect opportunity to show why!
LBB> What kind of women are you hoping to attract – women who have been edged out of a creative career or those who have spent their lives doing something totally different?
Jane> Creative Equals already runs an amazing programme for creative returners. Digital media is one of the fastest jobs growth areas in the country; our aim is to prepare women for roles in WPP media agencies. Nobody is trained in things like digital analytics and programmatic, so we’re looking for women who are looking to learn new skills and build a new career. The only experience needed is life experience and the only skills required are a reasonable knowledge of maths and English. This is just a pilot programme in London to begin with, we are planning to launch nationally next year, and our future plans are to create the same opportunities for all industries with skills shortages.
LBB> Ageism and sexism are pronounced in the ad industry but equally this invisibility and dismissal is society-wide, with awful consequences. Do you have any hope that this wider social attitude can and will change?
Jane> I gave a speech a couple of years ago called “You ungrateful motherfuckers!” where I called the audience out on their treatment of this remarkable generation of women. Afterwards, four young women approached me. Two said my speech had them in tears. One said good on me for calling them out, young women feel they can do no wrong at the moment. The fourth said I had her in bits - her mother had ended up living in her car. She thought it was only her. No, it’s a fucking epidemic and we not only have to stop making midlife women the first to go in redundancies, we have to go back and help the women who are facing a bleak future. And let’s not forget, only 6% of the ad industry are over the age of fifty and nobody has the guts to break that down by gender or racial diversity. It’s safe to say that women over 50 in the industry are as rare as unicorn tears and Black women are almost completely non-existent. That needs to change! Now!
If you are a woman aged 45 or over looking for your next challenge register for the course here.