Why we need Cannes Grey Lions

(or Cannes Very Senior Lions or even Cannes Platinum Lions)

Just over a year ago I had a piece published in Campaign mag about being made redundant in my 50’s. In true advertising fashion I decided to put a ‘call to action’ at the end of the article - a link to my newly formed ‘Society of Very Senior Creatives’. This is a platform supporting and celebrating those over 45 still working in advertising and media. My Campaign article obviously touched a nerve within the advertising community and beyond. It was one of Campaign’s top 5 most read opinion pieces last year and I had over 250 people apply to join my society within the first month.

I am now a fully-fledged inclusion and diversity campaigner. I talk on panels about ageism in the industry and I try to raise awareness of the problems associated with the lack of older creatives working in Adland. Recently I was asked to be a judge on the inaugural Cannes Grey Lions Award in Dublin: An award similar to the Cannes Young Lions but for creatives over 50.

Now, I’m not going to lie, I did feel very flattered to have been asked but that wasn’t my main reason for agreeing to participate. I also felt it was a very good idea. This opinion was not echoed by everyone in the senior creative community. Some of them felt that it would “draw attention to age as a limiting factor’ and that older more experienced creatives should be respected and valued already, like senior doctors, lawyers and architects seem to be.

The fact that only 6.2% of advertising employees are over 50 is evidence that older people are most definitely not valued in Adland. That’s 6.2% across all the departments. So, the percentage of creatives over 50 is tiny.

But this is not going to change by just moaning about it. Real tangible things need to happen. And this award is hopefully part of the change.

The Cannes Grey Lion is not a lifetime achievement award. It’s not a pat on the back award for people who’ve already got a tonne of awards under their belt, or a well done for being a Creative Director award. It’s an award for great creatives who may have been overlooked for a very long time. It’s an award for people who have had to take a career break and are making a comeback in their 50’s. It’s an award for people who may have only just got into advertising in their 50’s. Because, as is evidenced by recent research: many people don’t reach their creative peak until they’re over 50!

Here’s why I think the new Cannes Grey Lion initiative by IAPI is a great idea.

1. It will raise awareness

The fact that this award has been recognised by the Cannes Lions committee is testament to the fact that Adland is finally waking up to the lack of elder creatives in the industry. It may not be the solution but it is definitely a step in the right direction. And by raising awareness I hope it will make a difference.

Interestingly the people who are already aware of this problem are the millennials and Gen Z. For them diversity is the norm and they are more likely to notice the lack of it. So, it’s not really surprising that the idea for this award came from a Young Lion.

2. It will stamp on stereotypes

Adland is going through huge changes at the moment and the traditional model no longer exists. This has resulted in a lot of ‘traditional’ or ‘older’ creatives losing their jobs. That’s because the perception of anyone over 50 is that they don’t understand digital culture, they’re out of touch and they’re expensive. There is also the opinion that if you’re a creative in your 50s and you haven’t been made Creative Director or won a load of awards by now you’re probably a bit shite.

I am hoping this award will challenge these assumptions. It’s a chance for ‘Very Senior Creatives’ to show off their stripes. To silence the doubters and stick two fingers up at our ridiculously youth-oriented business. Because not everyone wants to be a creative director. Some people just love making ads.

3. It will encourage creative comebacks

The truth is if you’re over 50 and still working as a creative in Adland you may well have been coasting for the last 15 years. Keeping a low profile and just getting on with your job while life takes priority over work. Often these people are very good creatives. They produce the work that is needed but they don’t chase fame and glory, they don’t want to work on pitches and they don’t go to social occasions and networking events that could progress their careers.

There are many reasons people take their foot off the career pedal in their 30s and 40s. Maybe it’s to look after kids, or elderly parents or ailing partners or even themselves. Advertising can be a very stressful industry and I know several people who just had to take time out for their sanity.

Creative parents often find they can’t put in the ridiculous hours expected of them at work and help their kids with their homework, take them to a different afterschool activity every day and cook dinner for the family. But that doesn’t make them bad creatives.

Other creatives may have just not got the break they always wanted. Working for clients and brands that wouldn’t take risks, or working in a sector where awards are few and far between.

Which is why an award for them and other initiatives like the Creative Equals Creative Comeback programme are very important.

4. It will celebrate being over 50

One of the main problems with the lack of creatives over 50 in the industry is that there are no role models and no mentors. There’s no one to advise younger creatives on how to manage their career progression, how to juggle life and work, how to ask for a pay-rise, how to freelance etc. So instead of looking forward to being a ‘Very Senior Creative’ younger creatives are scared of getting to that stage.

The other really big problem is that young creatives are less likely to put older people in their ads. When they do they are often the stereotypes of doddery, lonely old people with no life and certainly no fashion sense – unless they are extreme like Baddie Winkle or Iris Apfel.

5. It will encourage change

The best way to change people’s opinions is to prove them wrong. To demonstrate that what they thought was the truth is a lie. To make them do a double take, to show them another way, to actually do it. In the same way as giving women’s football equal prominence in the media this year changed a lot of minds and celebrating Paralympic athletes as Superhumans transformed how we see disabled people, I hope that awarding older creatives will change the way bosses and recruiters see them.

6. It will ‘Draw attention to age as an Unlimiting factor’

Stop assuming everyone in their 50s has been in the industry for 30 years. I got my first job in an agency when I was 31. I know other people who started in their 40s and I know others who are thinking of switching careers in their 50s. In our ‘100-year life’ being 50 is only half way there. So, we don’t just need to keep the older creatives we’ve already got we need to recruit more.

This award will be controversial but I think it is important. Now we are all living longer and it’s unlikely that we will retire by 65 we need to recognise and celebrate the benefits that being over 50 brings.

If this encourages more people in their 50s to step up and reignite or revive their careers then it has to be a good thing.

If it makes people think about where all the older creatives have gone that’s a good thing.

And if it encourages more agencies and recruiters to rethink their attitudes to their current employees and the ones they’re thinking of hiring then that’s got to be a good thing too.

The only bad thing about this award really is the name. I think it immediately puts people off and as several senior creatives rightly pointed out many people in their 50’s aren’t grey. I’m currently purple.