In late December, I got an email asking if I’d have any interest in teaching a course at my alma mater, Kent State University. The course was Ad Communications and Messaging; a smorgasbord of various content creation that is first taught and then put into practice. I was honored to head back to the college that gave me so much. The only question I had was, “What do I teach them first?”
I decided I’d start with Elevator Speeches and USP. I ended with effectively articulating creative deconstruction and crisis management messaging. So, yeah… the class and I ran the gamut of ad messaging and content.
While they said that I gave them a “pretty dope” insider’s look at agency life, I felt they showed a side of this rising demographic that is flying under the radar to many marketers.
Here are the 10 very distinct trends of these late teens, very early twenty-somethings that usually attended my class from 12:30 to 1:45 every Monday and Wednesday during Spring semester 2017.
- Don’t Call Them Millennials
“I hate that we’re bundled in with Millennials,” was one student’s reaction when demographics were brought up in class. “Millennials are always whining and feel so privileged all the time,” was his reason why he tried to distance himself from the nation’s largest living generation.
Like all students, my students were trying to carve their path—even this early in their careers. The fact is, as badly as they want to be Generation Z, they still fall into the Millennial bundle just based on their age range.
And based on their traits through our 15 weeks together, I’d have to agree that they still show those tendencies most attributed to this demographic. While they weren’t “whining” or came across as “privileged,” they did take their seats and stressed their frustrations and panic about the enormous pressure of college, student loans and “where their freaking money is going.”
They also told me they loved my laid-back approach to teaching—I threw out the assigned book on day one—and were more engaged when it was a more Q&A-oriented lecture with benefits-type lesson plan; a preference in a Millennial’s work environment.
So, while their age says, “Millennial,” their personalities say, “Millennial,” they don’t see themselves as part of this demographic. Instead, they prefer to be a sub-genre created from monetary donations to Amnesty International, cord-cutting, Snapchat and Jimmy John’s sandwich deliveries. (All of which my students were adamant about.)
- No One Writes Anymore
Back in the semesters of 2001-2005, coming to class prepared meant notebook, pen and assigned literature. Now, it’s a laptop and decent WiFi.
To be honest, I was fine with students taking notes on laptops. But I had a real issue with the students who came in with nothing.
Not even a napkin and a crayon.
Since all lessons were about communications and sharing content, this was a big swing and a miss for those who believe they are the future of the industry. Can’t communicate without communication tools—even if that form of communication is a tad bit rudimentary. I’d take rudimentary over rude any day of the week.
I even mentioned in my lessons that I go to every meeting with a pen and pad of paper, and, if I can, I leave my laptop in my workspace. A screen in your face leads to distraction. Always. It’s as absolute as death and taxes.
On to the bigger issue, a study published in Psychological Science found that note-taking by hand improves learning and retention of lessons. Essentially, this is a tortoise and the hare scenario. Slow and steady with your note taking (writing out by hand) makes you more selective in the information you share. Typing verbatim is just collecting spoken words—not forcing the brain to filter the content being said.
So, the pen is mightier than the MacBook. Tech-savvy students just don’t want to accept that.
- Fear of Humble Bragging Is Real
Elevator Speeches were a struggle. Even the cockiest student in the class struggled to sell himself. They each said, in their own words, that, “It’s really tough to talk about myself.” My only response to that was, “Then how do I know you are even worth interviewing?”
There’s nothing wrong with a humble brag (a Millennial term for having false modesty), especially in the field of marketing.
I told them to understand that egos—especially at their age—can block a career path. However, being able to enunciate strengths, accomplishments and experience is the only thing that can kick start a career.
The funny thing about the fear of communicating advantages and calling out what makes something great is that that communication is the central core of all marketing. The faster you can extract the awesome that turns heads and garners attention, the more comfortable you’ll be in the industry.
Another thing I told them, “It’s not bragging if it’s truthful, genuine and credible.”
Recently, a college student (from a college out-of-state) came in for a shadow day. I asked her if she had an Elevator Speech ready to go.
She said, “Yes. But it’s not very good. I have a real hard time talking about myself.”
I told her, “If there are two people with the same grades, same portfolio and same resume, which one do I choose? I can’t choose you if I don’t know if you’ll be the right fit for our culture.”
- Netflix Is the King of Free Time
Netflix. Netflix. Netflix.
I never once heard, “Is it on TV?” during my semester. I always heard, “Is it on Netflix?”
Netflix reigns supreme when it comes to downtime. Binge watching was all they wanted to do between assignments.
And the content they discussed was not the movies, but the original content—specifically the documentaries and comedy specials. The students loved, loved, loved the series Abstract and said that Amy Schumer’s new stand-up was her best yet.
While the DVR was a revolutionary game changer to the early 30-somethings, streaming is the revolutionary game-changer for the early 20-somethings. It’s their daily routine after class, between class and all weekend.
If I was looking to tap into this demo, streaming services would be my absolute way to go.
Side note: They are also adamant on Podcasts. I mentioned my affection toward The Way I Heard It (Mike Rowe’s weekly podcast) and every student in class reached for their phones to download it.
- Group Projects are NOT Preferred
Working in groups is good, but not great. I gave my students the option of a group project late in the semester. They almost unanimously said, “no.”
So why the hard pass on collaboration?
“Not everyone does their part. I’m not putting in the hours if others won’t,” is the response I heard more than once.
While they told me they appreciate working in groups, they are starting to see their peers as their competition as they creep closer to graduation. There are hundreds of students vying for internships, shadow days, etc., and only a few will be truthful about their work when interviewing.
These students don’t want to risk giving others any advantages. They want their portfolio pieces to be polished and all their own.
And I don’t blame them. The work I got from a handful was leaps and bounds better than others. But when they did do group projects, that cream rose to the top—elevating their grades exponentially.
I asked one of my top students about this preference to do solo work over collaborative efforts. She said, “All the teachers expect us to appreciate it, but we don’t. It’s harder to work with people who don’t care as much as you do. When I get to work inside an agency, I’ll be able to finally work with people who have as much passion as I do about this stuff.”
- Speaking Up Is a Big Deal
Does raising a hand even exist anymore? I honestly couldn’t tell you.
My students went silent during most of my lessons. Not because of confusion or disinterest (well, maybe for some) but out of fear of speaking up.
No one wanted to talk in class when I asked a question, but everyone was very open to email. I got amazing email correspondence during my semester.
It was only after the first five weeks that I began to really start seeing students come out of their shells, speak up and share their opinions on the examples I had up on screen.
Some of my brightest students were very quiet in class but showed tremendous personality during one-on-ones after class or in emails before a major assignment was due.
While it felt a bit frustrating, at times, to ask a question to silence those handful of weeks, seeing their progression from unsure-to-sure, sure-to-confident in their evaluation of marketing samples was one of my favorite parts of teaching.
- Appreciation of Hard Work Motivates
I walked into class one day—mid semester—and the entire class had bags under their eyes, disheveled clothes and a look of utter exhaustion. They were defeated. Courses caught up with them, weather wasn’t cooperating, schedules seemed too busy.
I asked them why they all looked like they just finished an all-nighter.
It was because they did.
They explained the project, what “hoops” they had to jump through for a specific professor and what they had to do to finish their assignments.
They had enough of the week. And it was only Wednesday.
So, without any notice, I gave them the day off.
I then gave them a quick reminder that part of agency life is culture. “All work and no play is a real thing,” I said. “So enjoy the day—sleep, eat, go catch a movie, unwind.”
That next class was different. The flood gates of inspiration, ideas and motivation to advance past just the lesson plan opened.
It was a different class. They respected me more because I saw their hard work, and I appreciated them more because I saw that they were willing to put in the long hours and still show up willing and able to learn.
- Straight Talk Gets Better Results
The most engaging content I shared was my personal experiences during my dozen or so years living an agency life. From interviews to content creation, headlines to client demands, students perked up and sat up as I shared these positive and negative experiences.
Everything is so textbook (I told my students not to bother getting the required text for our class) that when I shared real-life application to what I was teaching, it validated what I was saying much quicker.
And it was insider information only discovered when in this environment. I explained some of the headaches that come with any career in this field, I explained how clients approach work and how you can expect most of your work to never see the light of day.
I allowed myself to open up to the things that have affected me in this line of work so that they aren’t just cautious entering this industry, they are prepared.
The more honest I was, the more questions were asked. From my creative approach to what frustrates me most about deadlines, I not only shared my tips to staying even-keeled in the workplace, but advice that I wish I was told all those years ago.
It was a veteran passing on his knowledge to the young pups still looking to earn their stripes.
The more I shared, the more they were growing as marketers.
- Preparing Portfolios Is a Major Weakness
Not a single student had a single piece of content to share for his/her portfolio. In fact, not a single student even had a physical portfolio that they would share if they could share it.
The next class I brought in my own. I walked them through the organization around it, the samples I show, my resume, my letters of recommendation and the pen and paper I have stored inside in the event I am asked to write something on the spot.
I also had five various guest speakers throughout the semester. Ranging from CEO to creative director, president to agency partner, I gave them the opportunity to ask all the questions that they never had the chance to ask before to people who have found success in the business.
Educating is one thing, but showing them is another. The lack of portfolio work this deep in their college careers reminded me of my favorite Mark Twain quote: “I’ve never let schooling interfere with my education.”
I wanted to educate. So, I showed, instead of told.
- Plenty of Opinions, Lack of Solutions
As we hit creative deconstruction, I heard plenty of opinions surrounding today’s most popular brand ads and videos. However, there wasn’t much past that.
Finding solutions or alternatives doesn’t come off as a strong suit for that generation. They know there’s a problem, they want to fix it, but they always struggled with the how.
They knew why something was done the way it was, but they couldn’t give a solid answer as to what they would do differently—even if it was intentionally poor creative that was shown.
Deconstruction of creative is only as good as backing up your opinion with a solution that fixes the original problem.
It was a problem getting them to jump to that next level.
I chalked that up to being so green in the industry. Not enough opportunity to find solutions, suggest solutions or eliminate options until reaching the best solution.
This reminds me to be patient with the younger hires, especially those just out of college. They know what the issues are, they just may struggle to find the solution themselves. Be patient, honest and supportive, so they can continue to learn—even after walking the stage to get their diplomas.
The semester went by quickly, almost too quickly. I battled my nerves and my learning curve of lesson planning to create a memorable class that my students seemed to thoroughly enjoy. And I did too.
There’s still much to learn about these future consumers, students and co-workers. Let’s get studying.
Jason Gottshall is a Senior Copywriter at AKHIA.