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Why Millennials will save Madison Avenue.

(As published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.)

Listen in on most brand planning meetings and one word comes up over and over – Millennials.  Sometimes called GenY or EchoBoomers, this is the generation born between 1982 and 2000.  Millennials are no longer solely on the playground; they're running companies (Mark Zuckerberg), entertaining (Rihanna) and winning Olympic Gold (Shaun White).  To marketers, Millennials represent a 76 million strong brand-conscious demographic.

Recently, however, I’ve started viewing this generation through a different lens.  Beyond being a coveted advertising target, the characteristics that define this generation make them extremely well-equipped to re-architect the modern advertising agency.  

I believe this to be true because Millennials are widely viewed as a generation of collaborative, tech-savvy, multicultural, problem-solvers – the very skills necessary to address the questions marketers increasingly voice about their advertising agencies.

Let’s break it down by examining some of the defining traits of Millennials, as outlined by Lynn Lancaster and David Stillman in their recent book, The M-Factor, and examine how a career in advertising meshes with these values.

Millennials are inherently collaborative:  This is a generation that believes we > me.  They’ve been working in teams since kindergarten as classrooms increasingly emphasized group participation.  Soccer became the suburb’s biggest after-school sport because it prizes team flow over star-power.  Advertising is a great profession for people who thrive on collaboration (or “no walls”, as we call it at BD’M).  The agencies that are succeeding are those that have banished silos, where media, creative and strategy form one big mosh pit of ideas.

Millennials are the first multicultural generation:  This generation has grown up in a time in which the U.S. experienced dramatic growth in immigration and racial integration.  Multiculturalism is simply a fact of life for this group, reinforced early on by Sesame Street, and later in the classroom, as well as in film and music.  Let’s face a hard truth:  the advertising industry must do a better job when it comes to diversity. This is not simply a politically correct goal – it is an economic imperative. We're in the business of helping clients connect with main street America.  Agencies succeeded at this over the decades largely because we mirrored the face of America.  This is no longer true, and unless this changes we put at risk our ability to give our clients relevant and intimate customer insights.  Millennials can play a huge role in reshaping the face of agencies and our ability to understand and connect with multicultural America.

Millennials want to be innovators and problem-solvers: Marketers hire us because the lines on the graph are heading the wrong way.  At its core, advertising professionals solve problems by inspiring clients to embrace new solutions.  More and more these solutions involve online, mobile and social media.  Millennials have been training for this job since birth.

Millennials want to feel they are contributing: Boomers and Xers sometimes label Millennials a needy group requiring constant feedback.  To be sure, this is a generation that received trophies for simply participating, not to mention an endless flow of reinforcement from their “helicopter parents.”  Advertising is an excellent career for people who thrive on instant feedback.  In this business you’re either a hero or a goat; there’s nowhere to hide.  Whether you’re writing the TV spot, mapping the online user experience, or crunching the CPMs for the media plan, your work is out there in the white hot spotlight for all to critique. 

Millennials want a job in which they can be heard:  On the night before a pitch, a great idea knows no title.  If you are a so-called “junior” and feel you have the answer, irrespective of the fact that your title has half the syllables as that of your boss, shout out and be prepared to defend your point of view. Anybody who has worked with me knows that I refer to meetings as a full-contact sport.  Come play.

Millennials want to make a difference in the world:  Like it or not, we live in a consumer culture bombarded by media in all its forms.  Smart, talented and creative people can get intimately involved in creating marketing ideas that make a difference.  Witness Starbucks’ support of Red; Pepsi’s strategy to crowd-source world-changing ideas; Target’s support of the arts; GE’s ecomagination; or Ford’s support for the Susan G. Komen Foundation.

Millennials want to express who they are through work:  Good luck expressing yourself in a huge corporation.  Conversely, an agency is like high school for grown ups.  You can earn social currency through your individual sense of style, taste in music, tattoos, social causes or antics at the last party.   We really don’t care if you are gay, straight, indie, emo, conservative or downright crazy, just as long as you have smart ideas and come through when it counts.

To capitalize on the opportunity that Millennials present, the advertising industry has to begin making a clear case why this profession should attract this generation's best and brightest.  (Anybody who hasn’t viewed Rory Sutherland’s 2009 speech at TED –“Life lessons from an ad man.” should take a few moments to watch it and reflect on the economic value and cultural impact we create when we do our jobs well.)

The 4As must ramp up campus recruiting and attract talented graduates by connecting the values of this generation with the unique career opportunities advertising agencies present – a career that stands at the nexus of business, media, entertainment, technology, pop culture and any and all new trends.
Most importantly, senior leaders of advertising agencies need to stop dwelling on what they had to do back in the day to get ahead and instead unleash the creativity and energy of the twenty-somethings buried in their agencies.  Any agency that is having a hard time grappling with social and digital media is simply an agency that hasn’t tapped its in-house experts – its Millennials.