The Challenge of the Millennials
By Mike Carlton
First, just who are Millennials? And second, why are they important?
Millennials (also called Generation Y) are the generation born between about 1980 and the late 1990s. In the US alone they total about 80 million young adults.
While earlier generations differed markedly from country to country, Millennials represent the first truly global generation. One in which individual characteristics are remarkably similar regardless of location or nationality.
And Millennials are important because they are a quickly emerging influence on the future of advertising agencies and related businesses throughout the world.
Quite simply, your agency will soon be populated, as well as driven, largely by Millennials. They will determine its fate. And your legacy.
A Look at the Generations
The most celebrated of all generations are the Boomers. This is the generation born between the end of the Second World War and the mid 1960s. There are slightly over 80 Million of them in the US. About the same size as the Millennial generation.
But unlike Millennials who have global similarities, Boomer contemporaries in countries around the world can be quite different. This is a reflection of their diversity of life experiences during the post Second World War era.
In between the Millennials and the Boomers is Generation X. These are folks born during the period between the mid 1960s and around 1980. There are only about 50 Million of them in the US. This is kind of a “valley” generation, much smaller than the generations ahead and behind them.
Viva la Difference
The characteristics of each of these generations are quite different. Each brings special gifts to the agency business. And each brings significant challenges, too.
Agency leaders who ignore these differences do so at their own peril.
The Generations Within an Agency
Today’s advertising agencies and related market communications, emarketing, PR, marketing consulting and promotional firms are populated by these three generations. How effectively they work together, and how effectively they are positioned for the future, has a significant impact on the success of their firm.
Let’s take a look at each.
Most agencies today are led by Boomers. They are the folks in charge. They typically range in age from their mid forties to early sixties. Prime years for most professionals.
These pros have worked their way up. Most are in their peak – or maybe even a bit past peak - contribution years. And these are their peak compensation years as well. And most are envisioning retirement or career change during the next few years. Or almost certainly within a decade.
Naturally their focus on the business and its future is largely shaped by their personal interests and aspirations. And stage in life. Using an old Army expression, they are “short-timers.” Whether they admit that or not.
Most – but not all – thoroughly enjoy what they do. Much of their zest for life comes from the professional challenges they find in creating, selling and delivering their agency’s solutions. And managing the business.
However, many are also conflicted. While they love their work, they may also want to slow down a bit. Some secretly wish that the world was not changing so fast.
But slowing down in this rapidly accelerating market can prove difficult to pull off.
And when they look at the agency professionals who might succeed them they can be disappointed. It is not unusual for senior leaders to not find the characteristics that they believe made them successful in the folks they hoped would succeed them. The “Who will fill my shoes?” conundrum is common.
Not an easy spot to be in.
2. Gen Xers
These are the workhorses of most agencies. They are typically from about 30 to mid-forties. They have been practicing their craft long enough to develop a high level of sophistication and expertise. They are recognized by peers in their marketplace. They are highly skilled. And well compensated.
They may have been quite mobile on the way up. Possibly having worked at a number of agencies. Or marketers. Thus, it is not uncommon for their loyalty to be stronger to their craft than to their current agency.
A significant portion of the income generation of most agencies is driven by Gen Xers. Particularly in firms in which billable time is the principal source of revenue. They are often the economic backbone of their agency. These folks are the ones that pay the bills.
Because of this, they recognize their economic importance to their agency. But they are often more conservative than their pivotal position would lead one to expect. They can be significantly less entrepreneurial than their Boomer boss.
Their stage in life can play a big part here. The typical Gen Xer may have fairly heavy personal responsibilities. A spouse. Young kids. A house. A mortgage. Tuition. And the current recession sure hasn’t helped. These personal issues can make them solid and reliable, but understandably risk averse, too.
One big problem. There aren’t a lot of Gen Xers. Their generation is about 40% smaller than the generations ahead and behind them.
This means that the good ones are seldom unemployed. Thus, as the business climate improves, it will be hard for an agency to scale up by hiring more Gen Xers. There is a strong and constant market for them. To compound this supply/demand situation it can be easy to get into a bidding contest with other agencies for your own Gen Xers. Raising costs and reducing profitability.
So relying heavily on Gen Xers to fuel agency growth can be a problematic business model.
These are the newbies. Most are in their 20s. They probably average 5 years or less agency experience. Some may be right out of school. And some may have had another marketing related or similar job prior to entering the agency field.
Good Millennials are smart. Most have high energy. But they don’t have experience. And they don’t yet know what they can do. Or what their capabilities might be. They may not yet be committed to an agency career. So sharp turns in their professional ambitions are not uncommon.
Most agencies use them as foot soldiers. They are usually open to do anything a Gen X or Boomer colleague may ask of them. But demand to learn and grow.
As a special note, the current unemployment rate for US Millennials is 17%. In Europe it is at least 20%. Estimates for Asia run to 30%. So Millennials are available, eager and inexpensive.
They are an important asset that is frequently misunderstood, undervalued and underutilized. And they can easily be unappreciated.
A Smooth Running Machine
Now it’s a no-brainer that effective and efficient agencies have folks that work harmoniously together. That doesn’t mean that there are not heated differences about ideas. That is desired and expected.
But it does mean that mutual respect between the individuals and generations must abide. Without that, disfunctionality can creep in.
A Perceptual Gulf
Unfortunately, it appears that there is a significant gap between the generations, at least in some agencies.
Recently, we asked a number of agency leaders (all Boomers) to tell us their perception of the Millennials that worked at their agency. Some of the comments were positive. But unfortunately, there were also way too many negative views.
The following words describing their agency’s Millennials kept popping up:
Not a good sign. Particularly when experts on generational anthropology typically use words like the following when describing Millennials:
Wow! Are we talking about the same people? It sure doesn’t sound like it.
If you, or your colleagues, quietly harbor less than positive thoughts about your agency’s Millennials perhaps it is time to take a closer look at just what makes them tick. What do they believe? Why do they behave as they do?
And most importantly, how to maximize their contributions to the long-term success of your agency? As well as to your own personal success.
Millennials Under the Microscope
Academics have extensively studied this generation. Writers like Neil Howe, William Strauss, Diane Thielfoldt, Devon Scheef and Claire Raines are some of the important thought leaders in this field. Each has authored informative, easy to read books and papers on this intriguing generation. With particular emphasis on how they relate in the workplace.
While each of them comes from a slightly different viewpoint they all express a common theme. That common theme is that leadership and management techniques that worked for earlier generations lack effectiveness with Millennials.
In Agency Context
Let me put this another way. Most leadership, management and mentoring techniques in use today in advertising agencies and similar firms were designed by Boomers and Gen Xers for Boomers and Gen Xers.
Those existing techniques are not likely to work with Millennials!
And that fact lies at the heart of the frustrating perceptual gulf that exists between many agency leaders and the generation most important to their agency’s future, the Millennials.
One thing is clear. Millennials will never be like your generation or mine. Nor will they ever be driven by the same motivators that worked for us. They are irrevocably different.
To deny that flies in the face of reality.
What We Need to Do
So, if we want to really benefit from what they can do for us and our agencies we have some work to do. We need to first understand what motivates them.
Second, we need to adapt our leadership, management and mentoring techniques to those that will be most effective with them.
It is as simple as that.
A Closer Look
Millennials are the most pampered generation the world has ever seen. Many of them have “helicopter parents” who from birth have hovered over them making sure that they always received the very best life has to offer.
Even now, as young adults, it is not uncommon for their parents to continue to play an important role in the decisions they make. Even about their job and their work.
They have been taught that they are special.
Millennials are exceedingly smart. They are better educated and have traveled more than any prior generation. They believe in inclusiveness. They value peer involvement and opinion. This makes them great team players. They also have a strong sense of community. And are connected with social issues of the day.
At the same time they are highly competitive. Learned on the parent supervised soccer field or basketball court. They want to prove themselves.
They also want change. But they want it from within, not through revolution. They desire - and need - strong, visionary, honest and ethical leadership. They can quickly see through disingenuousness. And don’t shrink from criticizing those they don’t respect. Nor do they accept values they don’t believe in.
They are impatient. They want to progress professionally. And to do so they expect to be continually trained and to always receive caring mentoring.
Make No Mistake
This is very high maintenance generation. They can’t be led or managed on autopilot. They demand personal involvement. Any leader not giving them the attention they require will be disappointed.
But also understand that they are a very high performance generation. This acceptance – no, make that expectation – of very high performance standards is the magic dust that makes them so attractive.
They expect to be challenged. They expect to be pushed. They expect to excel. They expect to make demands. And to have demands made of them. They expect to be part of a collegial team. They expect to accomplish.
And they expect to win. They also expect to reap the rewards of that winning.
This is not bad stuff. Good agencies are essentially in the business of winning. And a team of Millennials is kind of like having a stable full of temperamental race horses. Not always easy to live with, but capable of winning races.
That’s whole lot better that a stable full of plow horses. Ones that can be compliant and don’t cause much trouble. But don’t win races, either.
Quid Pro Quo
There is a very simple compact to consider in building a highly competitive and very cost-effective team of Millennials within your agency.
Expect More from Them
This is important. Expect more of them than you did of yourself when you were their age. Or when the Gen Xers were their age. Set performance standards high. And challenge them to excel. Never underestimate their ability to perform under pressure.
Failure of their agency to set clear high standards for them is probably the leading cause of Millennial dissatisfaction. And management frustration.
Let me say that again.
Failure to set clear high standards for them is probably the leading cause of Millennial dissatisfaction and management frustration.
Provide Training and Mentoring
Millennials - or anyone for that matter – cannot perform if they don’t know how to perform. And why. They are accustomed to receiving excellent education. They need no less from their agency. Consistent programmatic professional training is a must. It will pay big dividends.
And this training can’t be half-hearted or stop and go. If your own people can’t mount consistent high quality training, outsource it.
Millennials perform best when they are not only well trained but well mentored too. Remember, growing up they consistently received strong mentoring from their parents. A smart employer doesn’t break that chain.
Now mentoring will take time of your senior people. A time diversion from other more immediately rewarding work. But it needs to be done.
The additional revenue generated when you expect more of your young professionals should more than offset the cost of training and mentoring.
The fundamental fact is that an agency can’t just hire Millennials and then leave them alone to find their own way. That just won’t work.
Agencies that fail to link effective training and mentoring with higher expectations will be disappointed with the results.
Embracing Generational Transition
There is no question about it. Millennials are disrupting some of the tidy leadership and management practices agencies have long employed. They are bringing a fresh, and sometimes upsetting, perspective to an industry that is already beleaguered by a sea of change.
Yet whether we’re ready or not, the Millennials are upon us. They are the future of the advertising agency industry.
So the only question is; Can we – today’s leaders - provide this generation with the springboard needed for them to take our industry to new heights and successes?
Now that wouldn’t be a bad legacy for us to leave.