Attack of the Ad Nerds

Rejecting earnestness for irony, marketing-savvy millennials are bringing new passion to agencies

Photo: Ben Shaul


At 17, Anne Chiu stood in the middle of her family’s tchotchke-filled Brooklyn, N.Y., living room to pitch her father. Since visiting the small ad agency where her uncle worked two years earlier, she’d been dreaming of ditching her destiny as a math and science geek at New York’s Stuyvesant High School for a future as a Mad woman.

Her traditional Chinese parents preferred she choose a business career. Instead, Chiu joined her school’s ad club and campaigned for her parents’ support—and cash to study advertising at the college level. Though skeptical of any field that required paying for art school, her father, Jung Ling Chiu, offered a compromise. Sell me, he said. So one night, while everyone else was out, the self-made Chinatown jewelry store owner plunked down on the red leather sofa in his pajamas, ready to hear her case.

Anne Chiu argued that whether the economy was up or down, businesses would always need advertising to boost sales. Very clever, thought her father. “There was only one road to take,” he now recalls of that evening nearly a decade ago.

The kid won the account, so to speak, entering the four-year BFA program in advertising at Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts, where tuition today goes for $15,500 a semester. Now 25, she’s an art director/copywriter at the Brooklyn Brothers agency with many honors, including a Silver Addy and bragging rights over a Brazilian agency that seemingly ripped off her school project, a mock Nike ad.

Chiu isn’t just good at advertising—she’s obsessed, boasting a roster of precisely 798 ad and design Tumblrs on her blog roll. Her regular reading includes everything from BuzzFeed’s Copyranter to a blog run by fellow twentysomething ad wonk Stepa Mitaki in Russia. Chiu gushes over industry legends like Eric Silver, Gerry Graf and Jay Chiat. “They are creatives whose brains I want to eat to absorb their powers,” she cracks on a recent day before heading to work sporting blunt-cut bangs, polka-dotted skinny jeans and black patent Nike high tops. In her spare time, she makes her own wrapping paper and tinkers with typography. (These days, her favorite font is ITC Caslon 224, especially black italic.)

Behold the ad nerd, a new breed of ad professional who grew up admiring the industry as much for its ability to entertain as to sell. Long before Mad Men unleashed a new era of Madison Avenue retro cool, these millennials were being influenced by campaigns such as Budweiser’s “Wassup?” spots, which became a cultural phenomenon. As kindergarteners, they watched TV for the commercials. In high school, they joined newly formed ad clubs, and many studied advertising in college and graduate programs. They eat, breathe and tweet advertising, possessing the natural 24/7 Web habits of their generation. Addicted? Definitely.

The trend reflects deep generational shifts influencing agencies. In the past, the ad business was seen as a way station for the likes of Andy Warhol and Kurt Vonnegut on their way to more “legitimate” forms of artistic expression. “Once upon a time, advertising was a catch-all place that artists went when they didn’t much care to be starving artists,” explains Patrick Scullin, 55, a managing partner at Ames Scullin O’Haire in Atlanta. “Now they’re in it for the advertising.”

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