The Kids Are Alright

Sought-after grads demand more from shops
One March afternoon over Asian salads and sandwiches at a trendy Richmond, Va., lunch haunt, six students about to graduate from Virginia Commonwealth University’s Adcenter take a break to relax and discuss their futures. Despite diverse backgrounds, they reach a surprisingly quick consensus about what they want from agency life. They are hungry for good mentors. They long to collaborate with people they look forward to seeing every day. They don’t want to wait years to gain stimulating assignments. They don’t care about old, mass-market brands, layered multinational networks, slick decor or stability.
“We’re cynical, and we’re idealists about advertising,” says one student. “We want shops where we feel comfortable.”
Of course, they also expect good pay and perks. They’re happy to work hard–but not every weekend. And make no mistake: If their expectations are not promptly met, they’re willing to walk.
Meet the new kids; they’re not the same as the old kids.
This crop of students, who come from one of the top graduate advertising programs in the country, is indicative of the ad novices studying at portfolio centers and other ad schools throughout the country. These newcomers are driven, determined and impatient. They’re in such demand, they can afford to be. The ad world is facing a shrinking pool of creative talent just when it needs young talent most.
“The business is changing rapidly and requires a different set of skills, a new kind of creativity,” says Bob Scarpelli, U.S. creative chief at DDB Worldwide, Chicago. “The kids are growing up in this new environment, and we are only learning it. We can learn from them. The young are our agents of change.”
Yet there are hardly enough of them to go around.
Twentysomethings with exceptional creative and strategic potential are increasingly seeking careers in television, film, screenwriting, product design and at Web startups and video game companies. And let’s not forget interactive agencies, marketing shops and in-house creative departments. Of course, there is also the growing path of becoming a permanent freelancer. Sharp ad makers can use the Internet to freelance globally, often earning substantially more than agency wages.
“There is a tremendous opportunity for young people withcreative ability,” says Jim Ferguson, chief creative officer and president of Young & Rubicam, New York. Those who show star power are recruited intensely, he says.
In order to keep its list of vacancies from growing, Y&R has upped its budget for recruitment, especially college recruitment, by almost one-third, say agency officials. The American Advertising Federation has seen the number of recruiters at its student creative competitions more than double in the last year, says Marjorie Valin, senior vice president of communications. Winners often receive job offers immediately.
Well-established agencies, such as Y&R, are now willing to fly candidates across the country for interviews and put them up in posh hotels. After they are hired, agency staff may even help them find a place to live. Ad schools report nearly 100 percent job placement. These days, starting pay for art directors and copywriters at most big network shops hovers around $45,000-55,000 a year. Smaller agencies average about $10,000-15,000 less, say ad school officials. Fledgling account planners make even more.
Nonetheless, turnover is rampant. Stressed-out agency recruiters talk about the “talent war.” Hot boutiques don’t seem to have it much better than major networks. For them, finding raw ability is not as hard as finding people with the right temperament to fit into their culture. As essential as they are, hiring and retaining juniors is still risky, expensive and time-consuming.
The twentysomething set seems innocent of the war being waged around it; it is oblivious to the power it yields.
Jacob Baas, 28, seems like the classic Norman Rockwell type. Like most of his Adcenter classmates, he took a roundabout path to advertising. While growing up in an upper-middle-class suburb in Kalamazoo, Mich., he started keeping journals and writing detective tales and other short stories. Later, he majored in history at Dennison University, a small private college in a quaint Ohio town. An affection for fly-fishing and skiing led him to
Montana, where he sought work as a fishing guide. To make ends meet, he secured copywriting projects from a small agency, Impact Advertising, working on restaurant and ski resort accounts. There he caught the ad bug.
After 18 months, he decided to make advertising his career and enrolled at Adcenter, where he won a gold for student work at The One Show. He counts Cliff Freeman’s offbeat and Fox Sports ads among his favorites. Now, just a few months from graduation, he hardly sees his beloved outdoors as he zips home from school late every evening.
“I hope for some normalcy when I get out of school,” Baas says. “This feels like the last leg of a marathon, and we can’t rest until it is over.”
His fervent hope is to be working at an award-winning small to midsize agency, a place where “the work comes first, and I can be happy.” Location is secondary. The plan is to study the culture and people at prospective employers during a cross-country road trip with a friend this summer.
Baas, like his peers, has that rarest of gifts: the luxury of choice.
“People talk about paying our dues when we get hired, but I think we are paying our dues here in school,” says fellow copywriter Marcel Jennings, 23, who also expects agency life to be easier than school. “We don’t get enough sleep, we get our work ripped apart and we sacrifice any social life,” he says.
Like his classmates, he is dismissive about the endless hours and mundane tasks that traditionally plague an agency beginner. He reels off the list of shops that he and other grads see as most desirable: Wieden + Kennedy in Portland, Ore.; Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco; Fallon McElligott in Minneapolis; TBWA\Chiat\Day in Playa del Rey, Calif.; and Cliff Freeman & Partners in New York. To that nearly universal list, he adds his personal favorites: The Martin Agency, a few blocks from school, Carmichael Lynch in Minneapolis, Leagas Delaney in San Francisco and Bartle Bogle Hegarty in London and New York.
“You don’t want a shop of three people, but you don’t want 600 people either,” says Jennings.
With his dad in the military, Jennings was born in Germany and spent the later half of his childhood in a Richmond-area neighborhood. There were few immigrants like his German mother and fewer African Americans, like his father. It was a big adjustment to learn what it’s like to be black in America, he says, “but I’ve gotten used to it.” As a teen, Jennings drew his own comic books. In junior college, he was drawn to the excitement of the theater. Compared to some of his more intense classmates, Jennings is easygoing and comical.
“The biggest thing is that [the creative process] has to be fun. Fun isn’t a side effect of the job, it is a crucial part. It’s where the magic comes from that leads to great work,” Jennings says.
When speaking of his Martin Agency internship last summer, he raves about “the laid-back atmosphere,” abundant feedback, supportive staff and the access to top creatives–all qualities he’s seeking in a full-time job. “I’m not interested in being the starving artist. I want work that is interesting, yet has structure.” Not to mention a steady and substantial paycheck.
To this new generation of future leaders, their desires are just common sense. But to agencies saddled with mounting vacancies, these expectations can be a major headache.
Executives who joined the industry during leaner times and fought their way to the corner office have a hard time–understandably–grasping this less-than-corporate crop of budding ad leaders.
Ironically, instead of enjoying the fruits of their hard-earned seniority, these executives are caught between tough clients and demanding young talent.
“The juniors seem to want instant gratification,” laments David Page, executive creative director of TBWA\Chiat\Day, New York. “They want to work on TV right away, instead of doing lesser assignments for two to three years and paying their dues. Their levels of expectation are out of reality.”
Some of the Adcenter’s account planning students, who focus on human psychology, offer additional examples of what makes advertising’s new generation tick.
Take Prudence Roberts, whose journey to advertising started after a hellacious experience working at a credit-card company. “It was so so awful. It got so that every day my eye started to twitch when I turned on the interstate to go to my job. The twitching didn’t stop until the evening when I was driving home, and I turned off that same interstate. It was a sign,” says the now cheery 27-year-old. “I absolutely had to find work that is more flexible in an environment that is less structured.”
Joe Nio, a 29-year-old Chinese American son of a doctor, also considers advertising a kind of salvation. Describing himself as a “bored, obnoxious teen,” he barely passed his classes in college, played in a rock band and taught school part-time before he became attracted to history, literature and learning. Then he read Jon Steel’s book about account planning, Truth, Lies and Advertising, and was hooked. “I thought, ‘Here is a thinker who has humility. And here is a field for people like me who need to be stimulated, who want to collaborate with others,’ ” he says.
What does this ad generation fear most? Boring cities, faceless organizations, cold colleagues, impersonal offices. They are also skeptical of big-agency promises. Shops such as Ogilvy & Mather and Leo Burnett may boast of ambitious apprenticeship
programs, but the uncensored grapevine is the true test. Supercharged by e-mail, the information network connecting ad school alumni, friends and students makes sure word travels extensively if the graduates who join programs are not satisfied.
That same network puts the names of small, unknown but junior-friendly shops, such as San Francisco’s Grant, Scott & Hurley, on students’ radar.
Ad school faculty warn agency honchos that free-flowing e-mails allow these young people to be highly mobile. In order to see their craftsmanship rewarded, these ambitious newcomers aren’t afraid to hop from city to city, based on little more than the electronic recommendations of an ad pal. Ron Seichrist, co-founder of Miami Ad School, says his students are far more willing to travel and relocate than they were just five years ago.
An informal survey of recent grads confirms these habits and shows that the values formed in school have amazing tenacity–even after exposure to the hurly-burly of the outside world. About half of the junior art directors, copywriters and planners switched jobs within 18 months of graduation to find a better one. The hot economy and talent shortage only encouraged their migration.
Stacy Milrany was one such insider. After about a year, she left her art director post at The Richards Group in Dallas for San Francisco startup Swirl, mostly to get out of Texas. “A shop like this offers someone like me the chance to impact the agency culture,” she says. Agencies need to understand that “we [juniors] want to work. We just spent all this money on school to do ads, and we want to do them. If not, then we start questioning what we are doing here.”
Eric Kunisawa has been happy with his Taco Bell television assignments at TBWA\Chiat\Day in Playa del Rey, Calif., but says several friends at other shops left their first postgrad job “because they were getting screwed all the time. Something they worked on would almost get produced, and then the client quits or something.”
He says newcomers at the “mega-agencies” tell him it is like the movie The Firm. “They are just one of the masses,” and the company wants to run their lives.
Joel Adamich joined Y&R New York for the chance to shine without having to scramble for a place at a West Coast shop. But he sounds like he might be having second thoughts. After completing a pro-bono spot, he was assigned to the Xerox account, working on new campaign ideas with a team of people who have all been on the business for at least a decade, he says. He sees other young creatives in the hallways, but hasn’t gotten a chance to know them. In fact, he doesn’t know the staffers working across the hall. “A lot of people have been here for a long time. It seems to help to have an in,” he notes.
While up-and-comers are picking and choosing their place, Ferguson says the new talent applying and working at Y&R tends to be strong on the computer and weak on ideas and problem-solving. “They can kern the shit out of type, but they can’t write a headline,” he complains. And they don’t always have the stomach for competition, he adds. “Nobody gives you anything in this business,” he says. “The stakes are too high.”
Agency bosses believe that all young talent really wants is the fame and excitement of working on campaigns for big brands that the world “and their Aunt Martha” will see. But perhaps they are seeing too much of themselves in the young faces filling their offices.
Ad school teachers, grads and students all agree that the new generation is not terribly interested in well-established brands such as Coke and McDonald’s. They are more interested in marketing to niche audiences than mainstream America. What agencies don’t understand is that “what keeps us in advertising are the smart, cool brands and smart cool ads,” says Kunisawa. Think ESPN, Adidas and Jaguar.
Therein lies the conundrum.
In this evolving economy, will advertising figure out a way to woo and then retain its young, bending them to the rigors and compromises of the business? Will veterans succeed in teaching young guns to wait their turn? Probably not. The growing economy and Internet-fueled changes rocking the industry will continue to give strength to the demands of this generation. By allowing the young to dictate terms, a radical change in the way the industry operates is on the horizon. K