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.
In a sense, they had taken a move right out of the soap opera playbook. But this time, instead of romantic radio or TV dramas for the apron-clad homemaker set, the agency was producing music programming for young people, who often ignore ads. The giveaway was technologically a long way from the type of promotions popular in the ’50s, such as the free-towel-in-every-box gimmick for Silver Dust laundry soap. But it worked on the same principle: reciprocity. The basis of most good digital marketing campaigns is not new. What the young creatives bring to the table is an ability to take those old ideas to where people are gathering now.
Ironically, Persico—like many young people in the advertising industry—does not prefer to work on Facebook, and says it is rarely his first choice for a campaign. “We don’t decide where media’s going,” he says. “Every brief we get, it’s what the client wants. But we’d rather go and figure out what’s right for the brand.”
HOW TO GET HIRED IN ADVERTISING (BEFORE YOU WOULD BE ALLOWED TO STAR IN YOUR OWN ADS)
In a darkened ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Toronto, waiters glide around, refilling wine glasses as the advertising industry toasts itself. It’s the Cassies Awards, with Arthur Fleischmann, president and a founding partner at the agency John St., presiding as emcee. He reflects on the year gone by and acknowledges the arrival of a new agency. U.S.-based Anomaly, part of Miles Nadal’s MDC Partners network, opened a Toronto office in the spring of 2012.
Before Anomaly had officially opened its doors, it released a beer commercial that went viral, placing it on the radar of advertisers. By the summer, Anomaly was lapping up business such as the Canadian accounts for Budweiser and Mini.
“Welcome to Canada, Anomaly,” Fleischmann says. “Now get the hell out.”
For Anomaly Toronto’s president, Franke Rodriguez, it was a welcome jab; an acknowledgement of Anomaly’s stature as a hot agency. It is also young—the baby-faced Rodriguez himself is just 34, something that is often noted in client meetings. “First impressions, definitely it’s there. ‘You’re the president? How old are you?’ ” he says later, standing in the agency’s open-concept office, where a communal iPod dock plays a mix of ’90s hip hop.
Compared to some of his employees, Rodriguez is a veteran. In a nearby room, the creative team of Jesse Hornstein-Goldberg and Eric Neal are slumped on Fatboy beanbags, conducting a conference call to explain a new assignment for Budweiser to an animatics agency that will produce mock-ups of ads. The call is held via an iPhone sitting on the distressed hardwood floor, on speaker mode.
“ ’Sup?” Hornstein-Goldberg says, before the team begins running through the scenarios.
They make a note about casting. By industry convention, actors in liquor advertisements must be older than 25. At 21 and 22, Neal and Hornstein-Goldberg would not pass muster to appear in the ads themselves.
The pair was hired while they were still at Humber College. They were drawn to working for Anomaly after seeing Rodriguez speak at Ad Lounge, an industry event where, as volunteers, they were pulling curtains and working microphones. From the stage, Rodriguez said being in advertising made him feel that “I haven’t worked a day in my life.”
Sold. Neal and Hornstein-Goldberg turned to Google to get his attention. In his speech, Rodriguez had mentioned that he had been a rapper. So the pair hunted down his album. From that, they lifted a verse: “I’m not stressing you/but blessing you/with the opportunity/for you and me to get together/and live beautifully.”
On a poster, they copied the cover art and printed out the lyric, changing the last line to “work beautifully.” They snuck around the back of Anomaly’s building and taped the poster to a window, facing in.
It took a while for Rodriguez to notice the poster. When he did, he saw a URL at the bottom. It led him to a web page built just for him, headlined “Will the real Franke Rodriguez please stand up?”—a gloss on an Eminem line. The page included Neal’s and Hornstein-Goldberg’s portfolios, and a request for an interview.
Rodriguez hired them. They have been joined by more young hires, as the agency has rapidly expanded in recent months. “Everyone, here particularly, is very young,” Neal says.
And they have been getting noticed. Lately, Neal and Hornstein-Goldberg have won a few “shootouts,” where creative teams compete internally on a pitch (the client picks their favourite). They also won a free ride to Cannes for the yearly advertising festival this summer, their bounty for snagging a gold at the National Advertising Awards in May.
Rodriguez believes his young employees are exceptional compared to their peers. “The problem with hiring the millennial generation is that sometimes the work ethic isn’t there, and the entitlement is there,” he says. The good ones buck the trend.
THE ENTITLED GENERATION?
“You come in most weekends, they’re here. Most nights [too],” Leo Burnett Toronto chief executive officer Judy John says approvingly of Steve Persico and Anthony Chelvanathan, who are considered one of the best young creative duos in Canadian advertising.
Like many young agency employees, they are known for slaving through the night to perfect a pitch. Their equivalent of a midmorning coffee break is a Ping-Pong game or a scooter ride through the hallways at 3 a.m. Recently, they’ve done that less—not out of a new-found sense of propriety, or because they’ve passed the ripe age of 30. “We got girlfriends,” Chelvanathan explains.
Given the gruelling hours—a commercial shoot is easily a 14-hour day—many young people in advertising are miffed to see millennials painted as a lazy, entitled generation. Having entered the working world during a massive global economic downturn, they take their careers seriously. They’ve seen friends laid off, or forced to move back in with their parents.
“It took me forever to find a job after the recession,” says Jordan Cappadocia, an accounts supervisor at TBWA Toronto. “I’m not going to dick around.”
“I think that psychologically affected us in a way that hasn’t been written about or discussed,” says Nick Doerr, a 29-year-old copywriter at the same firm. “If another recession hits, you know you gotta be at the top of your game. That’s why we work as hard as possible.”
And they do it at cut-rate salaries. Cappadocia, 25, watched most of his friends from business school glide into jobs on Bay Street; he knew he too could make $70,000 straight out of school, or closer to $30,000. He chose the latter. “But for a reason. It’s more fun,” he says. “And you can always work your way up.”
Many others make the same trade-off: It is a chance to do something creative, to have fun.
And to never wear a tie. Everything your mother told you about how to dress to get a job does not apply in advertising. One day I sit down at a boardroom table at John St. to meet with some of the talent. Copywriter Jacob Greer, 33, wears slim burgundy pants and a plaid shirt with the arms rolled up, revealing tattoos that culminate in florid illustrations of skulls on the backs of his hands. Hannah Smit sits next to him, her long blond hair tucked back into a ponytail. She wears wayfarer-style chunky black glasses and a T-shirt with a skull on it. At TBWA, a young account executive earned the nickname “Tuck” because he has the habit of tucking in his shirt.
But the ethos goes deeper than a style of self-adornment that favours skulls. The assemblage of creative people—young and old—fosters a certain social bond. “The island of misfit toys,” John St. copywriter Keri Zierler calls it.
THE DIGITAL LAUNCH PAD
Bacon marmalade toasts are prepped on a reclaimed wood table. Umami mac-and-cheese is filmed in close focus. Blood orange gin fizz is served up on an antique silver tray, a precious Boardwalk Empire-style glass decanter of gin next to the pink concoctions.
When Bensimon Byrne’s Angie Bird and Jessie Sorell started working on the videos for Loblaws’ line of Black Label products, they took inspiration from the lushly photographed recipe blogs, such as Smitten Kitchen, that their generation dotes on.
The videos’ meticulous production is prettier and more movie-like than typical TV commercials; yet they are created at a fraction of a TV budget. Originally, the ads were intended to be distributed online only. When Loblaw executive chairman Galen Weston saw the spots, however, he decided they should be on television as well. This isn’t unusual: Digital platforms not only command huge audiences, they have also become de facto testing grounds for other media. If content proves popular, marketers will feel more confident investing in expanding a campaign.
But even with the Weston thumb’s-up, Bird and Sorell are still expected to pull off the campaign for a song. The Black Label videos are generally shot two in a day; they will make about 20 videos this year.
It’s a world away from what Bird experienced at another agency, where she took part in a $500,000 shoot on location in South Africa—for a commercial that never made it to air. Those days are gone. Marketing budgets are being spread thinner, and procurement departments are more involved than ever in agency selection. Slimmer, more nimble operations win. “Clients keep wanting it for less, and people keep pulling off miracles for less,” Bird says.
Every time something goes viral—such as Old Spice’s “man your man could smell like” campaign—other marketers grow envious, seeing millions of “free impressions.” But the work that goes into digital campaigns is far from free. It’s downright laborious, in fact. Unlike a finished ad that is simply submitted for airing on TV, the Internet is a flexible publishing platform. Clients expect to be able to tweak campaigns on the fly to respond to engagement data and viewer responses.
For all the digital work they do, the young creatives are not necessarily behind the push to online. Before a brief ever lands at an agency, media buyers often figure out the spending breakdown on a campaign, with a certain number of dollars allotted to a Facebook campaign, for example. Many of the young talents at agencies bemoan the fact that they don’t have the opportunity to work with clients from scratch, to figure out the best media mix. Agencies have come to dread marketing executives who ask them to “make us a viral video,” thinking that randomized mass popularity is simple to concoct. The industry spent years convincing clients that digital was worth paying attention to. Now clients barely ask for anything else.
“Hashtags on everything,” says Matt Michels of TBWA Toronto disdainfully. “Has anyone ever clicked on a Facebook ad? Not that I know of. And yet they’re going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on Facebook ads. No one here is telling them to do that.”
“There is that pressure to do what’s new—even when it isn’t the best way,” adds John St.’s Hannah Smit. “This agency is good at saying, ‘Don’t use a hashtag if it doesn’t make sense. Don’t use a QR code just because you can.’ ”
Still, agencies have a powerful incentive to focus on all things digital and social. In 2007, global spending on digital advertising was $48.2 billion (U.S.), or about 10% of overall ad spending. By last year, the share was one-fifth, by media buyer GroupM’s reckoning. And it’s continuing to grow. In Canada, advertisers are expected to spend just over $3 billion on digital this year, up 7% from last year, which itself was a 10% jump from 2011.
Meanwhile, print-media ad revenues are dropping. While television still commands the lion’s share of spending, its growth has stagnated and digital is catching up. The balance of power is shifting.
THE MARCH OF TIME
Dave Thornhill started out in advertising late, in his early 30s. And he had a liability: greying hair. He thought the “Just for Men” commercials were mock-worthy. But as he set out to land internships, he dyed his hair to help his chances.
After all, he was warned that he was demographically wrong for the ad business. “I was being told, ‘You’re crazy, as soon as you turn 30, you’re kicked to the curb.” Now 37, he scoffs at the ominous warnings he received at Humber College about how age can make you irrelevant. Still, there is no doubt that the career path in this industry is truncated—Steve Persico at Leo Burnett sees a parallel to the life cycle of an athlete.
When youth is a commodity, hipness can get competitive. When he worked at Rethink in Vancouver, Thornhill tells me, there was a secret folder on the computer server that only a few select people knew about. This little cabal would all drop tracks into the folder—a friendly competition to find the next Feist.
Chuck Porter, chairman of the legendary agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky, says young hires have always kept agencies fresh. “They don’t come with any preconceived notions,” he says. “The leadership of the agency are mostly people in their 40s. They consume and think about media in a different way than people in their early 20s. It’s not like someone can’t project themselves [into a younger point of view]. But it’s great to have kids around. They’re kind of a pain in the ass, but they’re smart and good.”
In the late ’90s, David Droga famously made creative director at the age of 22 in Australia, was hired away by Saatchi & Saatchi, and was key to the agency’s transformation; he was executive creative director at the head office in London by 29.
The youth premium is reflected in the diminishing numbers of people who remain in the industry into their late 40s and 50s. Some—like the founders of John St., Taxi, Rethink and Zulu Alpha Kilo—ascend through the ranks and then start their own shops. Some go on to sell those agencies to multinational companies. Paul Lavoie did that, building up Taxi into Canada’s hottest agency and then selling to U.K.-based WPP. Earlier this year, John St. was also absorbed into the WPP fold.
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.