Other veterans become established enough that in later years they can command sufficient work on a freelance basis, do consulting or join the marketing departments of companies—“the mythical land of the client,” one person called it. Sometimes, older people are pushed out.
In the halls at TBWA Toronto, a poster is tacked up. At the bottom is the agency’s logo. Above that, in big black letters, are the words, “Innovate or die.” That directive is felt throughout the industry. Bensimon Byrne’s Angie Bird talks about people nipping at her heels. “The young ones come up, they’re all eager,” she says. “We’ll be replaced.”
She is 29.
THE ECHO BOOM
The walls of Iva Prkacin’s cubicle at Bensimon Byrne are plastered with hard copies of Internet in-jokes. A stoic coonhound balances atop photographer’s props. A picture of a cat making a face is captioned “ERMAHGERD” in block letters. The memes only make sense to those steeped in Tumblr and other social media. Prkacin’s fluency in them is why she’s here.
The sweet-faced 23-year-old art director is one half of the team charged with creating the social media voice of Svedka vodka across the United States. With their young target market, not a word can sound inauthentic. She and her partner, 25-year-old copywriter Gessica Marcus, have to know, for example, that a “pre-drink” (the ritual of getting a buzz on before stepping out for the night) is now more commonly known as a “pre.” They have to strike the right tone with the fun images they make up for Facebook or Twitter, accompanied by saucy lines such as “ ‘Like’ if you like it dirty.”
As the brand’s social-media brain trust, they encouraged Svedka fans to submit their Instagram photos, which were then posted on Svedka’s social media accounts. They also helped to create Svedka’s Pinterest page. Asked if her generation is digitally obsessed, Prkacin replies, “Totally—we’re the ones coming up with the concepts and selling them to clients to do more digital stuff.”
This trend has raised criticism that ad agencies’ preoccupation with youth represents a huge missed opportunity. Baby boomers are not just a hulking segment of the population; they are also affluent, and inclined to indulge themselves as they age. Those social media-obsessed 20-somethings in advertising are arguably ignoring, and alienating, a crucial demographic.
But there is an equally influential group that has the ear of those consumers: their kids. Advertisers’ historic preoccupation with youth has intensified because millennials are not just purveyors of cool; they are also technological gatekeepers. Boomers who buy iPods and iPads use their kids as a walking, talking tech manual—digital experts available by phone 24-7. Facebook Inc. has said that in Canada, a full third of its users are over 45. Who dragged those dads, aunties and nanas into the social media realm, where they post embarrassing messages and “like” too many photos? It was their favourite millennials—their kids—of course.
This is a generation straddling a massive digital divide: Their parents had to learn what the Internet was, while their nieces and nephews will never know a world without iPads. Giggling, Marcus affectionately tells the story of how her mother sent her a message saying “I love you” on the professional networking site LinkedIn. Time for another little seminar, Mom.
It’s 4:15 at John St. beneath a fixture of dangling light bulbs, copywriter Kurt Mills is presenting his brightest ideas.
His creative partner, art director Kyle Lamb, as well as executive creative directors Stephen Jurisic and Angus Tucker, look on as Mills puts on a show, hopping around and acting out scenarios for the commercial they will soon pitch to a client. One approach is based on a joke about oxymorons, with a talking mime as a spokesperson. As Mills deadpans, Tucker’s eyes crimp shut from laughter.
The younger generation at agencies are the first to say that they would be lost without this process: The junior teams bring their ideas forward to be refined, criticized and approved.
The results have a bigger impact on consumers than they might suspect. Like it or not, advertising shapes our culture—in the sales it closes, the pop-culture phenomena it seeds, in the media industry it’s making over.
Soon enough, the generation at the forefront of all these shifts will take the reins. Though they seek the guidance of their superiors, the takeover is already beginning. At John St., they dub the sort of pre-pitch session that Mills danced his way through a “half life.”
It’s a good term for this revolutionary cohort too: They’re only halfway there.