RPA’s Study on Gen Z and Creativity Yields Key Takeaways for Marketers

The agency invested a year learning about the elusive generation

A still from "Thank You for Listening," a short film about a young girl who connects to her peers through her music.
RPA Advertising

Contrary to popular belief, shooting 35mm photos and creating a paper magazine aren’t relics of the past, according to a young artist named Finley.

“I like being able to touch things,” the 18-year-old says in a new short film. “I think it’s important. I think it says something about the craft. I think it makes all the difference.”

This peek into a Gen Z creative mind comes courtesy of RPA, which spent a year on a study to learn more about where creativity is headed with youngsters born after 1995.

The researchers at the Los Angeles-based agency flipped the usual script of conference-room focus groups and adult-led discussions. Instead, RPA commissioned two digital films from Gen Zers, giving them free rein to show their generation from their viewpoint.

In each case, the creator turns their lens on other makers, providing an intimate and intentionally rough-around-the-edges look at their artistic process.

“We gave them the ability to curate and tell us what they think is important, which isn’t something you often see in research,” said Jess Watts, RPA’s associate strategic planning director and the study’s co-author. “It’s a show-don’t-tell approach.”

Creating their own product comes naturally to this generation, says Ellen Eastaugh, RPA’s strategic planner and Gen Z researcher.

“They’ve grown up with iPhones, they’re equipped to make films and they’re more comfortable communicating in a visual rather than verbal way,” she said. “If we had asked them questions, they’d be more likely to say what they thought we wanted to hear.”

One of RPA’s commissioned mini movies, by 19-year-old Yale filmmaker Joji Baratelli, features three docu-style sides-by-side stories about teenagers producing analog art in an Instagram-obsessed world. They share opinions that might seem counterintuitive for digital natives, including an observation from Keiji, a 19-year-old Japanese-American artist, who says, “Humans love being physical, and I don’t think the internet is very physical.”

The second film, “Thank you for listening,” is from 19-year-old UCLA student Rohun Vora. It’s about a girl who has trouble connecting with her peers face to face and chooses to speak through her music. The video brings to the forefront a few significant qualities that RPA’s researchers uncovered about Gen Z, namely that these young adults are vulnerable and risk averse.

“They really keep their guard up,” Watts said. “They’re putting up safety walls wherever they can.”

Execs didn’t want to muddy the findings by following the subjects through their daily lives, as often happens in long-term studies. So they asked participants to create diary entries and gave them mobile assignments to narrate tours of their living spaces, ask a friend to describe them or guide a walk through their social media feeds. Similarly, focus groups were led by teenagers.

The results provide several standout lessons for marketers, Watts said, including:

Speak your mind: Gen Zers are afraid to offend, and they’re generally approval seekers. There’s so much polarization in society that they’re loath to express their opinions.

In short, they don’t want to go out on a limb themselves, but they’ll get behind a brand that does it for them. They may be passionate about causes, but they don’t want to the be the one to chime in first. They put a premium on acceptance, after all.

“They’re the repost generation,” Watts said. “They appreciate when someone else is taking the reins, so that puts a little distance between them and anything controversial.”

Show the flaws: This generation loves process and imperfection, and want to see behind-the-scenes footage and hear from a brand’s less-polished voice. Cases in point: Wendy’s massively popular Twitter feed and Everlane’s community discussions. Having fun and, essentially, letting your hair down goes a long way with this crowd.

Contextualize your ID: Gen Zers don’t have just one identity; they’re showing different parts of themselves depending on the audience, the situation and the platform. That flies in the face of traditional brand building and its consistency-is-everything mantra, but it could be marketers’ cue to vary their public-facing messages.

“Our understanding of ‘brand’ is so monolithic—it’s the same thing to everybody,” Watts said. “It’s risky and it might not be right for every brand, but this could be a time for them to break out of that one identity.”

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