How Millennials Are Changing the Way Ad Agencies Work

They're versatile and valuable in real time, but can also overlook both past and future

Last September, Kammie McArthur was tasked with finding a novel way to engage Seattle Seahawks fans for insurance client Pemco. "We created the #yellfie booth, where fans could compete to see whose yell would reach the highest decibel count," recalls the creative director at ad shop DNA. "We wanted to capture each yell on video, so fans could share their experience on social media."

McArthur soon discovered that was easier said than done. "The people manning the booth at events didn't have the time or the technical savvy," she says. "It was looking like this could be a deal breaker on the project."

That's when interactive producer Ash Fell, one of the agency's millennial staffers, came up with a proposal that saved the day. "He created a workflow that included export templates, batch processing, automated syncing-to-cloud storage and indexing of the final videos," relates McArthur, herself a member of Generation X. "In layman's terms, he made it work, and the project was a great success. We wouldn't have been able to pull off something so ambitious without having someone like Ash, who knew this stuff like the back of his hand."

It's become a cliché, but is true nonetheless. Millennials are making agencies more tech-savvy, helping them meet complex client needs in a fast-changing digital economy. It is just one of the more obvious ways millennials are reshaping the advertising business—not that their contributions are always welcomed. "They are the reality of the industry—whether we like it or not," says PJ Pereira, CCO at Pereira & O'Dell.

Looking at the numbers, it is clear that millennials—people ages 18 to 34—are a huge cultural factor not just in the advertising business but the country overall. The U.S. has roughly 75 million of them, and this year they are projected to become the single largest segment of the American workforce.

In the advertising industry, millennials now make up 44 percent of the workforce, up 8 percent since 2010.

Adweek asked senior industry executives to explain how millennials are remaking the business—for better and for worse. Like DNA's McArthur, the execs are all boomers (ages 51-69) or Xers (35-50), so they know what agencies were like before the march of the millennials.

Despite paying lip service to fresh ideas and innovation, agencies, to hear millennials' forebears tell it, were largely stuck in a rut stretching back to the Mad Men days, driven by outmoded thinking and largely resistant to change. "This business used to be linear," explains Jennifer Zimmerman, global chief strategic officer at mcgarrybowen. "Everything happened in sequence—boring."

Research, planning and creative development moved in predictably straight lines. From the 1950s through the early 2000s, such processes shaped agencies into highly stratified entities, with rigid divisions of form and function. Silos made some sense in the pre-digital era. Such divisions mirrored client operations and suited a simpler world in which TV, print, radio, direct and outdoor were the primary media options.

That changed with the advent of a fragmented digital landscape that was anything but linear. Agencies that had trudged along for decades found themselves playing catch-up to satisfy clients and under pressure to develop more compelling ways to communicate with consumers. It's not that boomers and Xers weren't up to the challenge (though some clearly were not). But the fact is that they were saddled with an inflexible system that reinforced an old order.

Wholesale disruption was needed to shake shops out of their complacency and set them in step with the times. Fortunately, "millennials are the great disrupters," says Singleton Beato, evp, diversity and inclusion strategy and talent development at the American Association of Advertising Agencies. "They are energizing our industry and causing our leaders to lean forward and listen and learn in new ways."

Famously Frank

Largely thanks to millennials, agencies are growing less insular and more democratic, which is "good for the ad business because it gets us to a point of collaboration we haven't had before," says DNA's McArthur. Millennials tend to work across departments, tapping into broader expertise rather than struggling on their own in the hope of claiming the glory. That said, they are also famously frank and direct, fearlessly pitching ideas and insisting that their voices get heard on matters of client business and agency operations. Some older employees may find their attitude impertinent at times, but many managers have begun to take their counsel, particularly on matters of agency culture.

At Allen & Gerritsen, CEO Andrew Graff invited millennials to draft a code articulating the "attributes our agency embodies on its very best day." Graff views this code as a road map to tomorrow. "We focus on finding, developing and retaining people who embody it—and keeping clients who value it," he says. Such moves strengthen team spirit, promote transparency and defuse internal politics. Moreover, welcoming more stakeholders into the process ensures that fewer decisions are made by a handful of managers behind closed doors.

What's more, millennials don't want doors slammed in their faces when it comes to career paths and job diversity, agency people say. They grew up multitasking, assimilating massive amounts of information. Settling for one role long term—staying in creative or media or planning for their whole careers—simply won't do. This represents a seismic shift from just a decade ago, when staffers generally specialized and often stayed at the same outpost for decades.

The concept of "liquid talent" flows freely in the millennial era, as young 20- and 30-somethings expand their skill sets across various disciplines and geographies. Shops have begun allowing staffers to move among departments. They even send promising young executives to far-flung offices for immersive training that can lead to promotions and prepare high-potential employees to become future leaders. 

Millennials are voracious media consumers. | Photo: Elizabeth Renstorm; Grooming: Megan Lanoux/Exclusive Artists MGMT Using R+CO Hair Care

M&C Saatchi is one example, having established a "scholarship" program three years ago in which 30 staffers across the network's 23 offices have participated. This pleases global clients because "they want insights from around the world," says M&C worldwide CEO Moray MacLennan. Through such practices, agencies gain multifaceted, well-rounded employees who take a nuanced, global view of the business. That dynamic helps shops provide "more integrated, holistic offerings," says MediaCom senior partner and strategy director Kyong Coleman. "In that regard, it's fantastic."

Even before expanding their skills, however, the inclusion of millennials can pay big dividends because they are voracious media consumers who can open new vistas for managers and clients. "They really know where we should be putting our messaging," says John Moore, chief media officer at Mullen's Mediahub. "They're tapped into who the influencers are. A lot of times, these are people I've never even heard of."

For example, the agency is prepping video content for Shinola, a maker of watches and leather goods, on the Highsnobiety and Selectism websites to support a client project called #LoveMyCity. Highsnobiety and Selectism boast influencer networks of musicians, artists, editors and stylists. Some will appear in clips that break in May. The influencers will tout Shinola products and explain why they love their communities. Millennials' intimate knowledge of leading-edge media and personalities, Moore says, proved essential to fine-tuning the campaign.

Standing for something

Millennials also have a heightened social consciousness compared to previous generations. Guided by moral principles and less motivated by salaries and titles, they want their agencies to stand for something more than pushing products on consumers, agency insiders suggest. "This is a group that believes they can change the world—and they can," says Lenny Stern, co-founder of SS+K. "Part of their day job needs to be about making an impact, doing something meaningful."

Recently, SS+K partnered with Mark Morris Dance Group to create Moving Through Glass, a wearable technology app that gives those coping with Parkinson's disease greater freedom in their daily lives. Built on the Google Glass platform, the app allows users to access dance- and music-based exercises as needed throughout their day. Millennials at SS+K helped with the design, development and strategy, and drive similarly social-focused innovations via the agency's SS+K Labs. "We expect in the future to pursue more innovative ideas like Moving Through Glass that solve both marketing and business objectives for our clients, while also looking to have a positive impact in society," Stern says.

That's not to say millennials' impact on the business has been entirely positive. There are some vexing negatives that continue to confound their boomer and Xer bosses and co-workers, in fact.

"I don't think they understand the history of advertising like we do," says Mediahub's Moore, echoing a common concern voiced by managers. "They just don't have the curiosity." Not only are millennials generally unfamiliar with the legacies of industry icons like David Ogilvy, Bill Bernbach and Cheryl Heller—many would be hard-pressed to explain the importance of more contemporary figures like Alex Bogusky.

Older execs worry that millennials who are ignorant of history may be doomed to repeat its mistakes. And that lack of institutional knowledge plays into another shortcoming: Millennials tend to emphasize tactics over long-term strategy. That can be a plus when shops need to quickly address an issue dealing with technology—say, whether to use Instagram or Vine to target a particular demo. But overemphasizing tactics can be a negative when creating all-encompassing campaigns aimed at bolstering brands and boosting the bottom line.

A single tweet or snap does not a campaign make, and millennials too often mistake an insight or clever idea as a larger solution. "They don't take the long view in terms of the project," says mcgarrybowen's Zimmerman, and that can dilute the effectiveness of a campaign in the long run.

"Technical savvy is not a substitute" for proven problem solving in high-pressure situations, adds MediaCom's Coleman. "Just because you've done all of these things once, it doesn't mean you're ready for the next level necessarily. It's not just about breadth, but depth."

In such a climate, friction can fester. Asked to rethink their approaches or to do multiple revisions, millennials tend to become defensive and resentful more easily than seasoned employees. Weaned on digital technology that provides instant information and gratification, the concept of "paying dues" can be foreign to millennials, agency people say. So, they are more likely to sulk, complain or even jump ship than their elders.

Even so, most execs believe that such pressures ultimately generate fresh understanding and positive changes inside agencies. "Much of the entitlement conversation surrounding millennials comes from not understanding the differences in how they view the world and the dynamic created by old-world Mad Men leadership and new-school talent," explains Walton Isaacson co-founder Cory Isaacson. "Millennials can, want and should help define the future of our industry."

Adds SS+K's Stern: "We as humans should be challenged and pushed. When that kind of spirit comes into a creative industry, it reminds us why we're here." 

@DaveGian David Gianatasio is a longtime contributor to Adweek, where he has been a writer and editor for two decades. Previously serving as Adweek's New England bureau chief and web editor, he remains based in Boston.