Age. It’s a funny old thing

Quora ageLast week, on BBC Breakfast, Charlie Stayt asked the departing Blue Peter presenter, Helen Shelton, whether she was leaving because she was too old for the adrenalin driven lifestyle required of Blue Peter presenters. I can’t get strung up about him asking- there is, after all, a limit to how long you want to go on putting yourself in danger (although I rather suspect that Charlie is lucky to have got away with a question like that).

Shelton’s response was sensible. Having been there for five years, she didn’t want to be the one saying “this is how we usually do it” – she didn’t want to stand in the way of innovation or change and has a million other ambitions to achieve. The drive she shows leaves us in no doubt that she will succeed.

A few years ago, someone I knew from my PR agency days during the dot com boom asked me to come in for a chat about leading their social media division. We had never met in person, but knew of each other –  she could see the results of the work I was doing online and asked me to come and see her. As I walked through the door, her chin fell. She was, she declared before I’d sat down, looking for someone younger. Someone who really gets social media.

It’s only now I can laugh (I’m really not THAT old).

People may need a hand to set up Twitter accounts, physically create Facebook pages etc. , but that’s not something that’s age dependent. That’s skill dependent. She’d asked me in because she knew I could do the job, so why age was an issue for her I’ll never know. I wasn’t disappointed. If she allows old fashioned age and gender stereotypes decide her recruitment and marketing future, I doubt the agency will be the kind of place that does the best work.

So, wounds licked,  I was delighted to spot this conversation on Quora this week. What do people in Silicon Valley plan to do once they hit 35 and are officially over the hill? And look who waded in: the founders of some of the most successful ‘new media’ properties around, and references to ‘older’ founders from Wikipedia to LinkedIn. And Robin Chase knocked the questioner into a cocked hat:

I founded Zipcar when I was 42.
GoLoco when I was 47.
Buzzcar when I was 52.
Veniam when I was 54.

The questioner can’t be blamed for asking the question. With some great notable exceptions (the ones who really know which startups are on the block) the media covers youthful startups, the guys in the garage who are millionaires by the age of 25.  What we all tend to forget is that the media covers what is exceptional or new, not what is ordinary. And, of course, they are fed by the PR industry.

The message to all PR people has to be to break out of the traditional demographics jail if they haven’t already. Old fashioned demographics mean that we define people by their income, status, age etc, when in fact their propensity to do something is far more useful – for them and the communicator.

Companies that stay stuck in old fashioned age, income etc approaches will increasingly find themselves quickly consigned to the history books. Blackberry/RIM’s technology was world leading  - in the 2010 Haiti earthquake emergency, its technology kept on working where others failed, and it’s security functions were good enough to really irritate regimes that didn’t like not being able to listen in. Having seen their marketing team’s adherence to old fashioned segmentation and demographics, and their lack of ‘social’ understanding and customer care, is anyone surprised that they find themselves in their current position?

Engage with ‘me’ – whoever I may be, online or offline, marketing/selling or talking – on the basis of my interests, ability, knowledge, understanding and networks and there’s a chance I may respond.

However irritating their approaches may be at times, both Google and Facebook are doing really rather well off that approach.  Mary Quant shops in Zara. Granny can sky dive if she wants to. Grandad can look after the kids. Perhaps it’s time for any PR laggards to catch up with the law, which is, itself, always behind the curve, and kick ‘age’ back into the dark ages where it belongs.


  • By Alan Burkitt-Gray, October 7, 2013 @ 11:41 am

    A couple of years ago a PR person phoned me to talk about ‘a mobile phone that’s designed for old people’. I listened patiently. ‘I mean, take my mum,’ she said. ‘She’s 50 and this is really …’
    I interjected: ‘Younger than me, you mean.’
    She didn’t hear: ‘… designed for old people like her who …’
    Me again: ‘She’s younger than me. Your mum is younger than me so you’re talking about me, are you?’ A couple more goes and she finally heard me, though it was hard to divert her from her script.
    I’m 62. I was one of the first people in my company with a Twitter account (at a meeting of editors about five years ago everyone looked surprised when I asked how others were using Twitter). I edit a website. I can do HTML. And so on.

  • By claireatwaves, October 7, 2013 @ 12:41 pm

    Let’s hope she’s reading this now!

  • By Barry Adams, October 7, 2013 @ 3:42 pm

    In my late 30s now, I feel my best & most impactful years are still ahead of me. It took me this long to get to a position where I can help make great things happen, and I look forward to doing exactly that!

  • By claireatwaves, October 7, 2013 @ 8:57 pm

    The rest of us are looking forward to it too, Barry – with massive smiles on our faces at the same time as legs shaking with fear!

  • By Dominic Cook, October 8, 2013 @ 9:52 am

    ‘Old people’ get social media too – actually in my experience those of us with more grey than colour in their hair often ‘get’ social media more than younger people!
    But maybe I am wrong – I forget so much these days….

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