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."