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The stupidity of ageism

The latest in public shame gotcha news trends is getting milked eight ways from Saturday. Ageism is everywhere in tech. Now it's everywhere in the news. There's a shame book, a non-apology interview, and mountains of editorial.

Hubspot earned itself a parody book and an opportunity to get more press with a follow-up story. Love it. Subsequent mainstream editorial followed suggesting more instances of blatant disregard for age discrimination laws, policies, and best practices exist across the board.

Most of the hullabaloo is talking tech. Well, I think it's worth a word or two in advertising tech, as well. I'm all too happy to be able to chime in with my own version.

My God. Whatever will we do? This isn't the first time this has happened in history, much less the history of tech or ad tech. The pendulum of stupid biases swings back and forth endlessly, and it's time we all got off this nut-house ride.


It's hard to fix stupid. Stupid is timeless, and it knows no boundaries. Stupid doesn't discriminate and comes in too many forms to count.

Of course, in thinking back to the origin of digital marketing, ageism went the other way.
You see kids -- the people you are now discriminating against are the very people who paved the way for you to act like petulant children. I'll come back to that one in a minute, but it's pretty obvious all this age angst is just another form of stupid. And stupid goes both ways.


In recent years, I've noticed another age based nonsense trend. I've enjoyed many an advisor role in tech marketing companies in my career, but lately I've become less and less interested in this type of work because of the rampant age exploitation.

I see two main forms of age exploitation of the young. The first is easy to spot -- "The Token CEO"-- and the model is both comical and sad. The second – "The Raging Entrepreneur" -- is more difficult to see, and the long-term ramifications of this trend will not be good for the business.

Here's the recipe for a "Token CEO" once you have your ad tech platform ready to come to market (or, let's face it, if you don't want to do any work at all, you can just crowd fund it with a pretty picture and narrative):

  1. Find an affable young nitwit willing to do anything to get ahead
  2. Install said youngling into a tech CEO role
  3. Get him/ her a couple of public speaking classes and curate the narrative
  4. Pay for a few speaking slots at industry events
  5. Pay the him/her a fraction of what you would have to pay someone who actually built something

Think I am (wait for it) kidding? I've seen this play out way too many times in recent years. A token young person being paid nothing to be the pseudo CEO of the tech company serving up nonsense (he doesn't even understand) is the trend du jour in digital marketing. It's cheap, it works, and the investors can run the company, chop it up, and sell it at will. And they don't really have to pay people. The worthless stock options (or grants) are disappeared through various different zeroing out techniques when the company "changes hands" so the cycle can continue.

As long as the pseudo CEO is willing to play ball with the investment houses, said person can go from company to company to company, build a great looking resume, and make some real mediocre money without actually doing anything.

It's real. Stop laughing.


Speaking of cycles of stupid, here's the other adorable little trend. It doesn't always occur alongside the "The Token CEO," but "The Raging Entrepreneur" is a beast. The long-term impact on the industry will be akin to the damage the Enron scandals had on the trust relationship we once had with the companies that employed us. We no longer trust big corporate, so "stupid" has found a way to exploit people who feel betrayed by finding a whole new way to shaft them.

Young people overwhelmingly want to feel good about the work they do. They also know enough to know they want stock options in the tech startups. Yet, they don't understand how easy it is to disappear their stock through crafty accounting (see above) and have confused "feeling good" with "making a difference." You don't even need a recipe to capture "The Raging Entrepreneur." All you need is a feel good narrative and some stock paper filled with thousands of words of legal word gravel no one understands.

Think I'm exaggerating? Have a look at the sheer volume of for-profit companies offering nonprofit "feel good stuff."

Go ahead. Do a search. I'll wait.

Every tech company is "making the world a better place," but few have any idea what that phrase means. There are even for profit companies engineered to help exploit non-profit participation. I have personally lived through (more than once) the process of watching a company in which I held "stock" get acquired. Social media and press filled with self-congratulatory glee were closely followed by the realization that my version of said company's "stock" was worthless. Let's just say nothing about that felt good.

Of course, it does go the other way too, but if and when these younglings figure out they've been shafted en masse, we'll have an entire disenfranchised labor force unable or unwilling to work and caring less about making the world a better place.


It's not the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning -- or the beginning of the end of the beginning of the end. Stupid will find a way to exist forever, which brings me back to the first point -- old people getting the shaft in tech today. In a tragic case of irony, anyone who could be categorized as a digital pioneer will recognize that this nonsense has come full circle.
You see kids, before all you comelatelies hopped on the hugely popular digital ad bandwagon, us old fogies in the business committed career suicide by going into to digital. True story. The (then) old people in the ad establishment laughed at us, poked fun at digital, and repeatedly told us we were backing a stupid trend that couldn't last.

When the whole thing crashed around the turn of the century, the old people thought they were right and those of us who survived felt really dumb for a while. And yet we persevered so we could eventually get hosed by the people we just fought to liberate.

High five. Jackass.


This lecture isn't over. I'm just gettin' warmed up. I don't care who created this place -- the government people, the military people, the social media kid who helps us celebrate daily the art of pissing away an ivy league education to meet girls -- whomever. Their spirit is dead, if they ever had one. It's gone. You're building a rat ship here, a vessel for digital self-indulgence. And if you think you're preparing these minnows for adulthood you better think again. Because I say you are killing the very spirit the digital industry proclaims it instills!

What a sham.

You hold this industy's future in your hands. It's a valuable future. Believe me. Don't destroy it! Protect it. Embrace it. It's gonna make ya proud.


Diversity, in all its forms, is good for business. People of differing ages view the world from unique vantage points that businesses can exploit for profit. People of differing genders can offer windows into a world unseen by the other side assisting in engagement and messaging. People of differing colors and faiths? Well, they offer all of the above, but also offer the tremendous business benefit of celebrating differing holidays all over the calendar. You know what that means? Someone is always working.

So there you have it. A diverse environment has a tangible cash value. Time to stop whining about it, and put it to work.

Kevin Ryan founded the strategic consulting firm Motivity Marketing in April 2007. Ryan is known throughout the world as an interactive marketing thought leader, particularly in the search marketing arena. Today's Motivity is a group of...

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Commenter: Tom Hespos

2016, April 28

Still remember my media director at Y&R telling me I was making a huge mistake when I told him I was leaving for a digital agency. Boy was he wrong. I also remember the dot com crash and "digital" becoming a dirty word for awhile. Had the Old Timers retreated instead of doubling down at that point, the millennials wouldn't have a digital marketing business to work in today. Which is why I laugh when I hear complaints from younger folks in the business that the more tenured people in the digital marketing biz aren't being gracious and getting out of their way with regard to advancement. You need some folks around who remember search when it was keyword-triggered banners or who ran display performance reports without the benefit of an adserver. We know how systems were built on top of systems on top of systems, and just like that ancient programmer that software companies keep around because they're the only one who knows how the underlying code works, you need a few grey hairs to illuminate things sometimes.