Why Agencies Must Embrace A Millennial Mindset

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, September 1, 2015

It’s become sport for agency execs to diss Millennials and their expectation that “everyone gets a gold star.” An executive creative director went so far as to tell me, “I had to sleep under a bridge and work for nothing for two years to pay my dues,” as a way of dismissing young designers’ demands for compensation, extra monitors, and seating without window glare. This latest round of “I don’t know what these kids are thinking” is particularly striking because it is even more wrongheaded than ever. 

Just as the iPhone’s wealth of features crushed your trusty old Palm Pilot, the Millennials are going to force a new generation of management techniques on agencies. 

So I say this to all agency execs: If you feel like you’re being asked to re-create their over-pampered childhood classroom, then get over it.  They’re right; you’re wrong; and for more reasons than you might expect. 



For starters, they are your future.You are in the talent business, and they are the talent. As your Boomers and Gen-Xers age, burn out and move on, your agency will be filled with Millennials. And they are different. 

You can fight them, but you’ll lose. If they don’t find their dream workplace with you, then they’ll go find a better one.  They’re idealists, just like you, but their idealism is centered on community and values.  They believe in culture, something that you often only pay lip service to.  You know how expensive attrition and hiring are – piss them off and it will cost you a lot to keep your teams staffed. 

Worse, if they leave, they’ll probably become your nightmare competitors. The Millennial dream workplace is easier to build than ever. With co-loft workspaces, inexpensive computing, cloud services, virtualization more available and costing less, those Millennial creative and tech stars that launched your last big win (which your account director took full credit for) can form a new agency overnight. That’s an agency filled with hip, passionate, mobile-native thinkers willing to work long hours for rates that make your agency seem like, well, an old Palm Pilot. 

Millennial-driven agencies already exist, and their results are impressive. They’re not about “earning your stripes” for accolades. They’re about inclusion, opportunity, recognition and reward. Consider EliteSEM, a 120-person agency using a team empowerment model. Their internal mantra is, “Whatever an agency would do, we’re doing the opposite.” They have a 12 to 1 employee-manager ratio. Their attrition is scary low, like 3% and if you heard their margins you might cry. 

Make no mistake: This kind of Millennial-model agency will destroy conventional competitors. It works better. Because what makes a Millennial tick is what makes an agency really hum. 

Millennials respond to equality. Studies of innovation and creativity show that non-hierarchical groups outperform hierarchical ones. And taking turns leads to stronger skill development and camaraderie. So tell your creative directors to sit down and wait their turns. 

Millennials respond to autonomy – choosing how and when they do the work. Research has shown that for the types of highly variable tasks that characterize agency work, people are about 15% more productive when given high autonomy. And when people have high autonomy, feedback has a positive impact on morale. 

Millennials repel bullies and braggarts. Research long ago disproved the value of superior person behavior (what your “firefighters” do), noting that a characteristic called false authority (talking fast and loud) often resulted in poorer decisions and results. Every manager and star performer needs to check their, “do what I say or get out of the way,” attitudes at the door. 

When you flatten management and let teams lead, employees of all ages get more excited about the workplace. The whole agency energizes. 

Everyone really wants the same thing. What Millennials want are solid business practices, backed by decades of research, and proven in the real world with cold, hard results:  talent retained, clients engaged, and productivity, revenues and profits rising.  Those are the kinds of results everyone can get behind. 

4 comments about "Why Agencies Must Embrace A Millennial Mindset".
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  1. Tom Goodwin from Havas Media, September 3, 2015 at 9:24 a.m.

    Can we please stop all this total nonsense about Millennials.


    The big difference is new technology and new behaviors and the new business environment this creates. Yes agencies need to be agile, yes ideas can come from anywhere, yes the canvas of advertising has changed and we need to embrace it in all ways.


    But to ascribe this change to an imaginary group of people, who all just happen to be young, and share the same commonalities that all young people ever have since the dawn of time, is to misunderstand everything about the new realities of the world.  What happens to young people is they grow up.



    What has changed is technology and general consumer behavior and the new possibilities they create. It's this that we must build our business around, not the whims of the young folk.

  2. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, September 3, 2015 at 10:24 a.m.

    Amen! Absolutley right, Tom.

  3. Jack Skeels from AgencyAgile, Inc., September 4, 2015 at 11:12 a.m.

    Hi guys -- I think that you're missing the point: it is about both.  Execution matters more than ever...but it always has.  In fact, Millennials are different in a number of fundamental ways.  We recently heard from a senior agency exec (large, global holding company achor-type agency) that they surveyed their folks and a HUGE % of Millennials said they expected to stay less than one year.  THAT is different, eye-opening, and scary.  


    We consistently find that when we train agencies to operate from a Millennial mindset, everyone ends up embracing the change.  For example, a month or so ago, a 25+ year media veteran (boomer/Gen-X) told an entire agency he was more excited than ever before about his job and how he now gets to work WITH everyone. 


    Relying on a declining population of grey-haired senior firefighters to follow and adjust to encompassing changes in the consumer world is a dubious proposition.  More and more agency owners are realizing this now.  It is what we increasingly hear FROM agencies, not a message we’re creating.

  4. M Huang from Freelancer, September 7, 2015 at 9:15 p.m.

    "They’re idealists, just like you, but their idealism is centered on community and values."

    This article is bang on the money. You understand Millenials more than they may understand themselves. It's nice to hear something positive for a change rather than just about the same old "millenials can't keep a job" speech. 

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