CFO World

How the millennials legacy is transforming everything from modern marketing to the economy

Millennials expert Matt Britton catches up with CMO to reveal the lasting legacy of the first generation to be digitally native, and how it changes both brand strategy as well as the way marketing teams operate
Matt Britton

Matt Britton

Millennials have already had a significant impact on culture, society, economics and ways of working. And once they hit the c-suite and gain positions of true executive influence, the whole marketing and advertising model will get a shake up once more.

That’s just one of the many interesting insights millennials expert, Matt Britton, has on the transformational impact the first generation to grow up with the Internet is having on the world.

During this year’s ADMA Global Forum, Britton share what he considers to be the top 10 lasting legacies millennials have given us as consumers and influencers. His list is significant. Millennials, for instance, are staying in cities, changing the very nature of real estate, where corporations base their operations, and what retail spaces look like.

Thanks to rapid adoption of digital services such as Uber and Airbnb, today’s consumers are also buying less stuff. And with the ability to share their thoughts and actions at scale through social media, millennials are placing more emphasis on experiences and status updates than physical symbols of their tastes and preferences such as cars and branded T-shirts, changing the nature of brand relationships.  

Britton’s list has been built off the back of a successful marketing career understanding and interacting with the millennial generation. He was co-founder and CEO of Publicis agency, MRY (Mr Youth) in 2002, and has written several books, including YouthNation, on the subject. During his time with MRY, Britton helped global corporations including Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, Ford Motors, Visa and Google, helping develop strategies and successfully launch products aimed at millennials.

Here, Britton talks to CMO about the lasting legacy millennials have created, and how current marketing leaders can use these insights to improve both their brand strategy and their ability to operate a modern marketing function.

What’s so important about the millennial generation?

The millennials are really the first generation to grow up with the Internet. Their way of looking at the world has caused them to adapt, which is now reverberating to the rest of the population. I talk legacy now as they’re being phased out as the ‘new’ generation of consumers in favour of Gen Z.

A number of labels have been stuck on millennials – they’re more self-obsessed, their digitally more aware, they are driven by a different sense of purpose. What’s your view?

I don’t see them as self-obsessed; I think it plays out more transparently because everyone now sees what people are doing because of access to the Internet. People in the past bought cars, houses, sneakers and watches to portray who they are. Now they take pictures of themselves at concerts or with celebrities – it’s really no different, it’s just manifesting in a different way. But I don’t buy in to them being more narcissistic or lazy. Every generation has go-getters.

The thing that makes millennials different are as a result of technology. Because of that, they look at the word intuitively differently, from careers to pursuing relationships, success and finances.

It used to be the brands that you wore or the car you drove was an expression of yourself; how you gained social currency was through brands. Today, consumers are incorporating themselves into experiences because they know they have the ability to share those experiences. Millennials are pursuing experience over ‘stuff’, so the new status symbol is the status update. Experience is how you build status, become known, and it impacts the jobs they get, relationships they have, and so on.

How does that alter the way brands engage with these consumers?

I don’t think enough brands have changed. You have newer brands that don’t have legacy systems and thinking approaching things in a different way. Look at Away, the new luggage brand. It doesn’t talk about the locks on their suitcases, the brand’s whole positioning is about showcasing experiences and the travel connectivity that its products give consumers. Two women set that up and have already hit US$50 million in sales as a result.

Whereas Samsonite and Tumi never really embraced that, they’re just focused on product design. While that is important, it’s secondary to the experiences products can unlock for consumers. And that’s unlocked by brands by unveiling who they are and the story behind the brand. It needs to be something deeper than product features.

Is it fair then to say millennials want to be engaged more in brand development, rather than having a brand positioned at them?

Consumers care about themselves and how those brands help them to where they want to go. They don’t want to help Coca-Cola figure out the next advertising campaign - I think it’s a misnomer. But if Coca-Cola can help a consumer who is an artist to reach more people, then sure, they’ll be engaged.

One of the millennial legacies you outline that consumers seek gigs rather than permanent jobs. How does this change the way marketing teams need to operate?

First of all, one thing we’re seeing is companies move back into cities instead of the huge suburban enclaves where they had tax benefits. They’re moving back and shrinking workforces. This lets them to fluctuate with the nuances of business, which goes up and down based on seasonality and they can tap into specialists based upon the evolving needs of the organisation.

So jobs then become different. Instead of having your team and trying to work out what best motivates them, you have a smaller team. But you need to then understand how to use those diverse, niche skillsets out there to get your business to where it needs to go. It’s more a plug-and-play approach versus a team mentality. Everyone wins, if you as a young consumer can figure out a niche for yourself.

If you are a great creative for example, you were able to write a great TV spot in the Mad Men era and you’d be able to come up with a social video today. It just means you’re a great creative but are changing your form factor over time. If you’re a coder, you would have been able to code on Web 1.0 and a Javascript website, and now you can build an app or voice-based app today. People who move towards the centre tends to be white noise and nobody hears it.

What impact has the first millennial generation, Gen Y, now having on the upcoming Gen Zs?

That generation will be a much faster version than Gen Y. But it’s not necessarily going to be as huge a divide as we’ve seen in the past.

Right now, the paradox is you have CMOs that don’t represent the millennials still in power. Millennials haven’t filled the c-suite yet. You have gen Xers who did watch TV growing up, so they’re spending 80 per cent of their budget on TV, whereas it’s invisible to younger consumers. Once millennials start filling up the c-suite, I think you’re going to see acceleration of change top-down. Right now, most of the change has been from the sidewalks, not the boardrooms.

And once you have millennials in the c-suite, you’re going to have people intuitively choosing not to spend millions of dollars on a TV ad unless it’s during a live sports event because no one is watching it.

This younger generation has also grown up with the phone as an appendage to their body will just accelerate change of technology faster.

Up next: What current CMOs and marketing directors can learn from the way millennials operate

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While this longer-trend executive trend plays out, is there something CMOs right now can do to learn from millennials?

I write a lot about how companies should get shadow boards. In most big companies today, boards mostly consist of 50-60 year old white men. These people are often so disconnected from the world; they’re not diverse and don’t speak to the audience that’s the future of any brand.

Many marketers talk about Mark Zuckerberg as this God yet the 20-something year olds in their organisations are seven floor down with no power. But they’re the current generation, so why not empower them?

Britton speaking at this year's ADMA Global Forum
Britton speaking at this year's ADMA Global Forum


These companies should have a shadow board of younger people who the real board has to answer to. Why aren’t they changing fast enough? Why aren’t the products speaking to younger people? Let them answer to the younger people in the organisation.

Also, brands talk about customer centricity, but that’s really about just understanding you need a direct connection with that end user. In the past they never had to. A lot of big businesses were built on the fact that as long as you got your products sold through big department stores like Walmart or Target, you’d be successful. In this world where traditional retailers start to go away, manufacturers are going to need to better understand their end consumer. If they haven’t started yet, they’re in for a big surprise.

If there’s one massive gap you see right now in the way brands try to winover the millennial generation, what would it be?

Ultimately, every brand is in a battle for attention. And attention is a fleeting thing with this generation because they’re looking at different channels and things at all times. You need to understand these consumers are staring at their phone. When they go to their phone, they’re more often than not trying to escape and be entertained. Every brand moving forward needs to understand in some way that they’re a media and entertainment company and they need to connect to things consumers really care about.

Ask: What does your consumer care about? When they wake up at 6am, where does my brand fit in? That’s the big shift between advertising and pushing my unique selling proposition down the consumer’s throat, to the inverse, which is what does my consumer love, and where they overindex. What are their needs and how can my brand facilitate what they really want to seek out? Without that, brands will become invisible.

Do you think the problem is agencies telling brand owners to do things the old way?

The problem with a lot of agency holding companies is they made a lot of their money by doing two things: Black box media pricing and rebates, and that’s been well documented by the industry bodies; and they sold overprices TV spots. Once those things are removed, which is what’s starting to happen, you all of a sudden seeing profits dropping off dramatically. The agencies were find pitching old-world models to brands because they were hitting their numbers.

At the same time, you have media upstarts like Buzzfeed, Vice, and the martech and adtech companies like Adobe, Salesforce, IBM, Oracle coming in with complex stacks of technology. You also have the big consulting companies coming in to this space too. The ad agencies are realising they don’t have any of these. To be a brand partner, you need to either have audiences or technologies. Agencies have had neither. So they’re losing their influence and that’s going to be a game-changer.

It’s going to take longer for some brands, faster for others. But it will be a massive shift. You think about the consulting companies – they’re trying to drive the stock price up and drive P&L, whereas the agencies have just tried to drive vanity metrics – impressions and things that don’t connect to business metrics whatsoever.

So yes, the agencies have facilitated it, because they haven’t been able to attract the right talent or disrupted their model. And that’s because they promised Wall Street 7 per cent earnings every year. To disrupt, you need to take a step back.

There’s a saying no one ever got fired for buying IBM. Well, no one ever got fired for buying TV – yet. But things are changing.  

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