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Media Buyer Claims Age Discrimination

A McCann Erickson media executive has sued his longtime employer and its parent company, Interpublic Group of Cos., for age discrimination, alleging he was wrongfully dismissed in the struggling agency’s attempt to modernize itself.


The lawsuit, filed by George Hayes, a 30-year veteran of McCann’s media buying and planning operations, puts into relief what could turn out to be a major issue for the industry as large agencies refit themselves for a digital world. That process often requires stripping out layers of longtime employees in the search for an often younger breed of strategists and creatives who understand an increasingly complicated media environment.


In papers filed in New York State Supreme Court this month, Hayes, 54, alleges that since arriving last fall, Universal McCann’s new worldwide CEO, Nick Brien, has “value[d] youth instead of experience and desired younger persons in place of older persons and acted upon his discriminatory preference by terminating older persons, because of their age.”


Led by Brien, Universal McCann has been in the throes of a high-profile turnaround initiative following a couple years of client losses, including General Motors Corp. and Coca-Cola Co. Brien has named top executives in the U.S. and Europe and is working to improve the agency’s communication planning offering in an effort to offer clients better strategic guidance on how they should spend their marketing dollars.


Hayes claims that that effort is at the root of his dismissal. The lawsuit states: “The ultimate goal of McCann Erickson was to replace its older workers with younger employees, based not on performance, but on McCann Erickson’s discriminatory desire to create a more youthful image, which McCann Erickson felt it could achieve by ridding itself of it older employees and replacing them with younger employees.”


The lawsuit outlines a few meetings that, Hayes contends, demonstrate that preference. In one address to staffers at Universal McCann’s New York office, it is alleged that “Mr. Brien stated that the young people in the group ‘got it’ when it came to ‘new media’ of the digital age, that ‘things will be different around here.’ “


It also describes a November 18, 2005, meeting involving senior executives from the agency to which Hayes and “certain key executives of age” were not invited. The lawsuit does not specify which other executives were left out.


Hayes, an executive VP, learned December 13, 2005, that he was being dismissed, with the reason being “that Hayes did not have ‘the skill set’ needed to remain employed by McCann-Erickson,” the lawsuit says.


Hayes joined McCann in 1975 following a short stint at J. Walter Thompson. In 1996, he helped McCann launch Local Communications to handle spot buying for its client General Motors. Interpublic and Universal McCann lost GM’s media-buying business to Publicis Groupe’s GM Planworks unit last year, following a review.


Spokespeople for McCann Worldgroup, which houses McCann Erickson and Universal McCann, and Interpublic couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.


Matthew Creamer


Creamer is a reporter for Advertising Age, a sister publication of Workforce Management.