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Millennial Boot Camp

By Terrence Lai, Associate Director, Strategic Analytics, Draftfcb New York

Millennials are arguably one of the most elusive audiences for marketers to understand and connect with today. From a general vantage point, their communication habits are ever-changing, and their impulse to instantaneously broadcast their pointed opinions across multiple channels can make or break a brand. Our agency is continually challenged with rethinking and evolving our clients’ strategies for communicating with millennials, but what if we were to speak to millennials about ourselves? How would we share our agency’s brand and what we do in a style that’s both meaningful and memorable?
Karen Gumbs, Manager of Diversity & Inclusion, Pat Berry, Director of Strategic Planning, and I encountered these questions recently when Draftfcb New York partnered with the American Advertising Foundation (AAF) to organize AdCamp, an intensive week-long introduction to advertising for multicultural high school students ages 15-17. On the program’s first day, Pat provided the students with a creative brief for Papermate Inkjoy and explained that they would ultimately be tasked with devising a campaign for the product. Industry professionals from various partner agencies then taught the high schoolers the marketing fundamentals necessary to respond to the brief. The week culminated with the students dividing into two groups to collaboratively develop and present their campaigns.

Karen Gumbs, Manager of Diversity & Inclusion, Terrence Lai, Associate Director, Strategic Analytics, Pat Berry, Director of Strategic Planning, and Melissa Wong, Director of Development and Training at AAF
Pat and I were also invited to conduct a session about Consumer Insights and Marketing Analytics. I was admittedly apprehensive about whether it would be feasible, in the allotted time, to successfully teach teenagers about concepts like market sizing and segmentation, especially without the industry jargon we otherwise use with seasoned clients. These students are the youngest of the millennial generation and, in most respects, are the next rising group of consumers. Prior to AdCamp, their understanding of advertising was probably limited to the industry’s final outputs: creative and media placements. Would the laborious sciences behind planning a campaign be too abstract for them? How should I demonstrate analytical and strategic concepts without overwhelming them, but still ensure they’ve learned something substantive?
We ultimately chose to present the content around a faux case study involving Forever 21, a clothing brand popular among millennials. We included more visual examples and structured the presentation to be highly interactive, which was also intended to gauge whether they were absorbing the material. Still, the team and I acknowledged general concerns that the content might be too complex for the students to grasp. However, we remained confident in our approach and refused to pare down the fundamentals beyond minor tweaks.
My conviction wavered on the morning of our presentation when I observed the 15 students sitting sheepishly in their chairs, entranced by their iPhones, as if to avoid interacting with each other. In that momentary vignette, they fit the stereotypical image of millennials and I had my doubts about remaining steadfast in my planned approach. But the dynamics shifted suddenly when Patricia and I began engaging with the students. They eagerly responded to our questions, nodded emphatically in agreement—or disagreement—and even laughed on several occasions. I was impressed when one of the students asked whether the client in the case study had specific sales goals for the next year. Even some industry “professionals” don’t have the instinct to pose this critical question.
The students continued to impress during their final presentations. For example, the brief had already identified Papermate’s competitive brands, such as Bic and Pentel, but one group argued that the actual competitive set extended beyond just the traditional pen category to include mobile technology and art supplies. Although the students’ marketing plans included some wide-sweeping generalizations, it was evident that they not only absorbed the week’s lessons but also thought outside the box. More importantly, they presented their work, together, with immense passion and pride.
My experience with the AdCamp students revealed the truth behind a common misperception that millennials are easily distracted and unfocused: indeed, they might be more prone to multitask and spread their attention thin, but they aren’t any less capable of retaining and processing information. In fact, their unparalleled access and exposure to new content may have enabled the AdCamp teens to understand and expound upon the curriculum’s lessons better than otherwise. Finally, the experience was an important reminder to never doubt your audience’s wits. The solution to communicating new information to an unfamiliar and/or inexperienced audience should never be to “dumb down” the content but to deliver the message in the distinct style that they prefer and are accustomed to.