When ad agency Bensimon Byrne plans staff holidays, the process is not like that of your typical office. The time of year highest in demand is not Christmas. It’s not March break. It’s not any of the times when employees with children need to vacate en masse. In the world of advertising, the biggest vacation-scheduling headaches come in the middle of April.
That’s when the young and hip flock to the Coachella festival, the pop culture mecca in California. And since advertising, like few other industries, is saturated with the young and hip, everyone wants time off in April.
Advertising is an industry built on youthful energy—in its messaging, and in its staffing. It’s always been that way. But now the skew is even starker. While North America’s population is getting older, the youngsters behind the ad messages are more powerful than ever thanks to the way digital technology is changing our lives.
And who exactly are these young guns whose jobs are to see into our hearts and pocketbooks? They walk or bike to work from downtown Toronto digs, yet they tell car companies who their drivers are. They wear skinny jeans and sneakers, yet they create the public voice of the suits who run your bank. They squirmed when their moms joined Facebook, but they play Cyrano to the moms who are Facebook friends with Mr. Clean. From cool downtown offices, they dictate to a polymorphous nation that sprawls over six time zones. Many of these 20- and 30somethings don’t have televisions; they check Twitter for their headlines, not the papers; they’re too happy listening to music for free on Songza to bother with the radio.
The new breed are shaping our culture and overseeing a transformation in media. Meet your influencers.
DRAGGING SOAP INTO THE SOCIAL-MEDIA ERA
Ever since the days when ad agencies produced radio dramas to help companies like Procter & Gamble speak to housewives, soap has been synonymous with advertising. Its marketing has not changed much since As the World Turns was in its early rotations. In ad after ad, moms blast out grass stains and make their dishes sparkling clean. This is not a young person’s product.
In 2011, Leo Burnett Toronto was charged with changing that. Cheer detergent had become a dying brand in the United States. P&G knew it had to connect with millennials.
This group—also sometimes known as Gen Y, aged roughly 18 to 32—has become the hottest target for many marketers, and not only because they are trendsetters. They also represent a break in the old rules of marketing. Naturally, advertisers are desperate to figure out the new rules.
“I feel like our parents’ generation understood the trade-off: You picked up a magazine or you watched TV, and you agreed to look at the ads because that’s how you got the content,” says Hannah Smit, a 26-year-old art director at Toronto ad agency John St. “But now, we don’t accept the pact.”
The creative team of Anthony Chelvanathan, a 33-year-old art director, and his copywriter partner Steve Persico, 31, took on the Cheer challenge in a way that seems utterly counterintuitive. They approached Australian indie band Strange Talk with an idea for their new single, Climbing Walls. Instead of filming a conventional commercial, they made a colourful music video and launched it online, promoting it with digital ads.
The trick was this: Digital “tags” were coded into the video, allowing viewers to click on whatever items they liked. The first batch of people to click on each item—a shirt, a pair of shades or flip-flops, say—won one of the same. Different items were tagged each day, with hints in the online ads suggesting what to hunt for: “pink and clean” or “things below the waist.”
The video’s popularity quickly grew: On the first day, the available rewards were all claimed after about 40 minutes; by the final day of the campaign, it took just two minutes for everything to disappear. In order to claim their prizes, participants had to go to the Cheer page on Facebook, their digital footprints giving the brand key insights into just who they were, what they like, and who their friends are. They were also invited to post appropriately colourful pictures for a chance to win tickets to the South By Southwest music festival—promoting the contest to their friends on social media in the process. Finally, once they handed over some information, the red hoodie or iPod Nano they had clicked on was sent to them—along with a sample of soap.
The promotion sent the video soaring up the charts, and sent the campaign to the winners’ circles at no less than four awards shows.