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December 6, 2013
Are Advertising Agencies Cool Enough For Millennials?
One of the more enlightening sessions at September’s New York Advertising Week was the 4A’s panel discussion “Rising Stars: Engaging The Next Generation”, about the growing prominence of the millennial generation and how our agencies can work to grow and retain young professionals to build a brighter future for the advertising industry. I was impressed by the dedication of the 20-something panel and the fact that agencies have recognized that this generation has different motivations, and more importantly job options, than Peggy Olsen and Pete Campbell.
After the session I took the opportunity to talk with Michael Donahue, Executive Vice President of the 4A’s and a leader in working with the 4A’s member agencies to make the industry more attractive and meaningful for the millennial generation.
Levitan: I’d like to better understand the urgency of the core issue raised by the panel. Why is the 4A’s specifically concerned about how we need to stimulate and retain the millennial generation – especially what you call the Rising Stars?
Donahue: We are competing with very sexy data and technology companies for entry-level talent. We need to query our Rising Star millennial generation in our effort to find out what it will take to appeal to prospective entry-level folks and more importantly, what it would take to keep them working in an agency.
Does all of this energy mean that there more concern about retaining the under-30 age group today than there has been in the past?
I think so because of the competitive situation in my first answer, but also because people in their mid to late 20’s are much more focused on social responsibility on one end and entrepreneurship on the other end. They want to make the world a better place and in some cases to do it by starting a company. We have to make the agency world safe and more relevant for both those things.
It sounds like you think that the best and brightest are being pulled away from traditional advertising careers to specialized digital agencies and start-ups?
Absolutely, but the problem can be solved by engaging our best and brightest millennials and have them give us the answers to solve these problems.
Do you think today’s younger advertising generation has different motivations than their baby boomer forefathers?
As baby boomers, our goals were much less eleemosynary than today's millennials. We were much more materialistic and much less concerned about the things that motivate today's younger generation.
Has the “advertising”industry lost some of the glamour and “cool factor” it had in the '70s and '80s?
A recent study done for the 4A's by McCann called, "The Truth About Advertising", puts a lie to the prevailing assumption that the agency business isn't as glamorous as it was in the '70s and '80s. Our problem is to get the people working at our agencies to believe it is as cool as it is to people looking in from the outside.
It’s difficult, if not very uncool itself, to come out and tell people that what they are doing is cool. How do you manage this conundrum?
Well, we don’t think we have to say that advertising is cool. We think that it is ever more apparent that the new technologies, ranging from the increased use of mobile and video to the use of targeting and ad serving technologies and new social advertising platforms including Twitter, are by nature on the cooler edge of marketing communications.
Getting more specific, how can agencies address the needs and desires of this generation?
Public agencies need to offer equity early to Rising Stars who can and probably will become Game Changers in their 30s. This requires culture changes as well...reverse mentoring and basic acknowledgement by the 35+ generation that the millennials have a lot to show the world...and more importantly, can help them do their jobs better.
When we started in the business, the large agencies had extensive training programs. Have these gone away due to growing industry profit pressures?
The big agencies still have good training programs and in some cases, the holding companies have advanced training programs for potential Game Changing executives. I don't think our mid-sized agencies, who are our best practice members, have formal programs and I think that is a problem.  
What can the mid to smaller agencies do to excite and retain their younger staff? These agencies are a bit more strapped for time and their equity is generally closely held.
In smaller agencies it’s the CEO and ECD’s role to train and excite the agency’s workforce. They have to make the time for this important function.
Finally, has the TV show Mad Men made advertising look cooler to the under-30 group?

Yes, without question.

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Peter Levitan is a leading adviser to advertising and marketing agencies across the globe on how to develop intelligent, effective business development programs. He started his advertising career at Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising Worldwide in New York and London where he ran Fortune 500 accounts and business development; was founder and CEO of two Internet start-ups (Microsoft bought one); then grew his own Portland marketing agency with clients like Nike, Legalzoom and the U.N.
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