The Millennials Are Primed for Success, If It's Not Too Much Trouble

Can They Handle the Ad-Industry Grind?

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Millie Olson Millie Olson
They're the children of my baby boomer peers, who proclaimed their arrival two decades ago with baby-on-board stickers on their SUVs. Not quite out of college, they already have resumes studded with internships, software mastered and experience abroad. They might not know what they want to do yet, but it definitely includes a nice salary, title and office space. And they know what they don't want to do, including anything that trashes the boundary between work and personal or family time. They tend to treat adult employers like their parents, who've showered them with praise just for competing (the "everyone wins" philosophy).

I just got my annual snapshot of the youngest 20-somethings, and they're different from a few years ago.

Each fall I teach an advertising seminar at my alma mater, Colorado College. Over the years we've hired several grads, knowing they'll have well-furnished minds and the self-propelling quality it takes to handle CC's immersion-style "block plan" and to thrive in a small advertising agency.

My students are economics and business majors with just a few weeks of marketing under their belts. They've been working in teams, creating marketing plans for local businesses, learning about consumer research and product development. I give them 48 hours of how it might all come together at an agency.

We discuss what makes good strategy and good ads. Then I brief them on a challenge faced by an Amazon Advertising client. I take them through one of our strategic jump-start sessions, with a series of provocative questions designed to shift thinking from left brain to right, where a lot of ideas happen. I ask each team to come up with a core idea and bring it to life in a pitch against the other "agencies" less than 24 hours later.

The first year the challenge was to sell wine-in-a-box to young adults who weren't moving on from beer at the same rate as their predecessors. Revelation: They thought wine marketing was so pompous and off-putting, they essentially tore up the brief. They literally ripped the box off the wine, slinging the foil pouch over one shoulder. Turning wine language and imagery inside out, they called it not wine but "wiquor."

But recent classes have tended to color within the lines, using their Powerpoint and In-Design skills to turn out classy presentations that follow the contours of the brief. They haven't seemed angry or frustrated about anything.

This fall's two best efforts were quite good. They focused on an overall idea and gave it some life, taking a few risks along the way.

The winning team had showmanship. They cobbled together a slide-show-with-music as a teaser to their idea, then glided through a PowerPoint that backed it up using the strategic discipline I'd taught. They presented the beginnings of a creative solution. Sure, they fell into common traps like borrowed interest. But their ideas were fresh and made skillful use of guerilla marketing.

The others were less successful. There were ideas that went nowhere, or went to a place where they got stuck. There were excuses about time conflicts and team issues. I had to point out that in advertising, nobody cares about that. All that matters is your idea, and how you bring it to life to meet a client's needs and deadlines.

I tried to convey my belief that advertising is anything but superficial. That you can't invent this stuff, it has to come from deep human insight. That advertising offers the best front seat at the human parade, a chance for them to use every morsel of their smorgasbord of a liberal-arts education.

But I do have questions about the youngest 20-somethings. Will they muster their considerable abilities and charge to the front lines of our business? In our small-agency world, where every project is critical and every slender new business lead is met by a feeding frenzy, will they want it enough to succeed? Or will the price just seem too high?
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