The oldest man in Adland

83-year-old Tony Dell has created eye-catching campaigns since the days of rationing. Alex Benady hears why he refuses to retire
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At 8.15am each day, Tony Dell leaves his large, spartan flat on the outskirts of Croydon and catches the X68 bus for the 40-minute commute to Waterloo Bridge. From there he strolls into the Covent Garden offices of Delaney Lund Knox Warren, the advertising agency where he is a senior art buyer.

It's not the journey itself that is remarkable, but the fact that Dell has being doing it - the odd illness and very occasional holiday excepted - every weekday for the 55 years since his working life began.

Dell was 84 in September. That he is still employed full-time is impressive or depressing enough, depending on your outlook. That he is still working in advertising, an industry long regarded as almost the exclusive preserve of the young, where many are burnt out by their mid-thirties and fewer than one in five are in their forties, makes Dell's career longevity seem little short of miraculous.

Slim and upright, dressed in a casual turquoise shirt and baggy grey corduroys, it is only a slight paunch that gives away the truth that he is in his ninth decade. In fact, it's not his age that first strikes you on meeting him, so much as a youthful, playful, and slightly camp vitality.

Dell comes from an era when advertising was known as "edvertising" and he sounds like David Niven with a touch of Noel Coward. "It may seem some sort of miracle to you. But to me it's just normal," he retorts. "The fact is that I work because I need to work, for health, money and love. I mean what else would I do?"

As the oldest man in British (if not world) advertising, his work record reads more like a seminar in modern history than a CV. His career has spanned the years of post-war rationing, the introduction of television advertising, the consumer boom of the Sixties, the recession of the Seventies, the yuppie explosion of the Eighties, and the dotcom bubble of the late Nineties. During this time he has worked closely with many of the most famous names in art, photography and design of the past 50 years. They include Lichfield, Donovan, Bailey and Snowdon, to name just a few.

And when he says work, he means proper work, not pottering around for a couple hours a day generally getting in the way, as is often the case with older people who can't bring themselves to retire. He puts in a full nine-hour day and is responsible for one of the biggest, busiest accounts in the industry; that of the country's largest bank, the Halifax. "As an art buyer I have a threefold role. I have to buy photography and illustrations and whatever else, at the standard required by an art director, at the budget available from a client, in the time for its best reproduction," he explains.

Despite spending his entire career in advertising, Dell drifted into it more by chance than ambition. He served in the Royal Lancers during the Second World War but then spent three years in hospital with TB and another two years recuperating. "Eventually a friend's father who was ad manager for Van Heusen [the shirt manufacturer] suggested I try his agency, Willings Press Service, where for reasons best known to themselves, the entire creative department had walked out.

"Naturally I was invited in. What else could they say? But within a month the studio manager had lost his job and I was in charge. It was terrible, terrible. But it wasn't my fault. Nothing ever is."

It's a role he has carried out in a variety of agencies pretty much ever since. Does it bother him that he has never made it to the top or that he is now taking orders from people young enough to be his great-grandchildren?

"Oh my God, no. I'm not interested in money. I don't need to own anything. I'm not acquisitive in the least. And at my age you realise status is nothing, nothing at all. I've never sought to be anything or anywhere other than what I am. It's just not my way.

"Of course young people are ignorant. But it's not their fault .They are not taught. So the only judgment I make about younger people is to think what gorgeous figures they have."

However this hasn't stopped him from keeping a sharp, if non-judgmental eye on how his industry has changed. "The biggest thing has been increasing sophistication and pace in every department. When I first joined, it was telephones and messenger boys, now it's computers and e-mail," he says.

"There's also greater sophistication in terms of provision of materials, and consumer insight. Advertising used to be almost exclusively aspirational. But now consumers are more sophisticated it's much less unreachable and much more to do with reality."

Agencies have become more sophisticated too, he says. "There were rules. Lady executives used to wear hats for heaven's sakes. But there was no organisation. It was just mayhem. People did whatever they fancied with no structure at all."

Perhaps surprisingly Dell says his favourite ad of all time is not some classic from the Sixties or Seventies, but the Guinness "surfer" commercial which he describes as "Unquestionably magnificent and beautiful. If you see it, you remember it for ever."

Perhaps even more surprising is his claim not to be particularly intrigued by advertising as a cultural form. "I don't care. I'm just not interested. I'm interested in the procedure of advertising and the process of making money through advertising. It's advertising - not adverts - that I like."

Ask him about retirement and he admits he did retire once, 20 years ago, "for the party and present". But he was back to work the next Monday. Now he has every intention of "dying in harness". That may sound horrific to those who aim is to expire wearing a beige nylon tracksuit on a Spanish golf course. But he dismisses the current debate over retirement age as "nonsense".

"Everything is individual. But most jobs these days aren't exhausting manual labour. People don't need to retire in the same way they used to. Which would you rather have, a few extra years of congenial work or spend the rest of your days in poverty?"

Dell claims repeatedly that he has never been ambitious in his career. However he does still have one personal ambition left. "The biggest of all is to see tomorrow," he says.

'The cult of youth in advertising is laughable in a society that's growing older'

An old lady is slowly traversing a zebra crossing on her Zimmer. Another follows with a shopping trolley. But this is not an advert for walking aids or baggage, and it's certainly not a road-safety message. "Let's Make Things More Interesting", is the slogan for the betting-shop ad, giving odds on the chances of the women eluding an approaching white van - "2:1 against leading lady, 4:1 against following lady".

This poster for Paddy Power is among Reg Starkey's all-time most ageist adverts. "Striking, but too cruel, too tasteless," is how the adman describes it.

Starkey has decided to fight back against what he sees as blatant discrimination in adland by heading a creative team that have volunteered their services for the latest campaign for Age Concern. From today, in cities across Britain, billboards will be unveiled featuring just the top of an older man's head. "Ignore this poster, it's got grey hair," will run the caption - a reference to the media's usual portrayal of older people. Age Concern's research shows that 59 per cent of the population believe that media coverage of the elderly is negative.

Starkey, 64, who has campaigns such as Don't Cheat on the Cheese and Put Milk First in his portfolio, is the creative director of a team whose average age is 55. "If you want evidence that ageism exists, look no further than the creative industries. Here, you'll see age discrimination in its rawest form," Starkey says. "Ad agency professionals who are over 50, including creatives and marketers, are first in line for redundancy and are treated as has-beens. In advertising, older people are under-represented or portrayed as stereotypes. The cult of youth in advertising is laughable in a society that is growing older."

Starkey has many examples of ad ageism. Talksport takes a swipe at Classic FM by using a hearse and graveyard and the "Attention All Undertakers" alert, making the point that 78 per cent of the music station's listeners are over 55. There's also the award-winning 118 118 campaign's old codger who portrays the demise of the old directory enquiries. "The implication was that BT is dying, just like old people are dying. Aren't we all, always, dying?"

He's philosophical about why such views exist. "I believe it must be because, historically, we were a young country. If you look at the post-war baby boom, youth was vitally important. That got into the DNA, and there's a feeling that youth is what it's all about."

But marketers are making a big mistake, he argues. "I think there's a fault in the marketing industry in that the way it is constructed does not in any way reflect the population profile," he says. "The world ends at 45 as far as marketing is concerned. But 45- to 69-year-olds have the highest disposable incomes in the country; 16- to 24-year-olds have the lowest, but they are the most represented group in advertising."

Ciar Byrne