February 4, 2014Millennials: Why they matter

If you’re not reading The Ad Contrarian already, stop what you’re doing and start reading him now. He writes better than I do and his insight about this industry is second to none (except perhaps Sell! Sell! who you also need to be reading).

But when he described millennials as “narcissistic jerk offs”, I felt it was important to disagree. The Ad Contrarian thinks they’re not worth bothering with until they get older. I think it’s important to listen to them now. Here’s why:

1. Millennials are still consumers

It’s true. They don’t have much money. But they have some. And more importantly, they grow up and have more. Plus, with the economy being what it is, a lot of millennials have parental support. Even if they don’t have money, they’re still decision makers.

Put it another way, you don’t sell a man a Porsche at 40. You sell him on the dream at 21 and it takes him another 19 years to afford it.

You don’t sell a 55 year old a mini convertible. But you do sell her daughter it as a graduation present. It’s the parents’ money. But it’s the millennial’s decision.

2. Millennials are tastemakers

Most of us wish we were a little bit younger. Maybe we don’t all want to be teenagers again, but I bet most people over the age of 30 wouldn’t say no to being, say, 5 years younger. And that means we’re all looking towards those younger than us to tell us what’s cool.

Most trends are started by the young and work their way up. It’s pretty rare for it to happen the other way round. So to influence older consumers tomorrow, it’s worth making millennials interested today.

3. Millennials get digital

Once upon a time I described myself as “digitally native” because I grew up with a 9600 baud modem in the house. Let’s face it, technology has moved on since then.

The young aren’t just tastemakers when it comes to fashion, they’re also tastemakers when it comes to tech. Facebook celebrated its tenth birthday this week. Be honest: seven or eight years ago, did any of you ever see it being adopted by anyone over the age of 25?

Millennials aren’t just good indicators of consumer trends, they’re also good indicators of marketing trends.

So there are three good reasons to pay attention to millennials.

Now, here’s three things you may not know about them.

The Ad Contrarian (again, if you’re not reading him, go read him — I have nothing but respect for this guy) says he doesn’t want to sit through another briefing on what millennials “like” — because he’s sick of having to sell them shiny pink headphones.

But scratch beneath the surface and look at the psychology of millennials and you’ll find they’re a damn sight less interested in shiny pink goodies than you might think.

Here’s three interesting facts.

I didn’t take them from a planning deck. They’re based on my observations chatting on social with millennials, drinking with millennials, even dating one or two (I’m old, but I’m not that old yet).

1. Millennials are more political

My uni days were spent in a blizzard of booze and partying and playing at being creative. Politics never got a look in. In my day (and I’m talking a decade or so ago here) if you were into politics you were a weirdo. Now, politics matters.

Perhaps it’s a sign of the times but millennials are big on social justice, big on setting the world to rights. I don’t always agree with all their ideas but if you want to understand them, understand their politics. It’s radical and reactionary at the same time — there’s no moderate any more, most millennials I’ve met have been either staunchly socialist or staunchly libertarian.

Millennials are stereotyped as being lazy, entitled and self-righteous. But of course I’m sure that’s what squares like us said about hippies in the 60s.

2. Millennials have no roots

While teenagers have been going on “gap yahs” for decades, it’s always been part of a pattern. Do your travelling young, go to uni, get a steady job, settle down, get a mortgage, have kids. That’s out the window now.

The Ad Contrarian derides millennials for living 8 to a house, but that’s a problem created by us, not them. Take the average house price in London — 400k. Consider also that it’s rising by 10% a year. 40k. The average UK salary is 26.5k. Meaning you’d have to save 15% of your income for 12 years just to cover a single year’s price increase.

Today’s kids have given up on the dream of home ownership but more importantly, all that comes with it. They aren’t looking to settle down. They move from city to city, country to country, feeling fewer ties to those places than previous generations ever did. Older generations created a freelance culture, a world where jobs for life no longer existed.

Millennials are the logical end product of this system. To millennials, everything is temporary, changeable. If they find themselves with 5k in their pocket, they’re much more likely to blow it on a holiday or on relocating to another part of the world than they are to save it. This makes them important consumers, albeit very different ones to their parents’ generation. They’re buying iPads and plane tickets, not baby clothes and le creuset kitchenware. Millennials want instant gratification, they want to spend and have fun and live the time of their lives.

To borrow from Don Draper, they’re living for today, because there’s no tomorrow.

3. Millennials are all or nothing

It’s easy to despair about millennials and their lack of work ethic. The kids of today, eh? A millennial recently approached me for career advice. “How do I become a big, strong copywriter like you?” she asked. Well, possibly not in those words.

I told her that you went to uni, you worked hard, then you worked harder, you put in the hours, you ate a lot of shit when you had to, you did good work for many years until you got noticed.

“Oh, that sounds like too much hard work,” she replied.

I thought she was being lazy. Then I realised what she actually meant. That sounds like too much hard work for the (modest) rewards that being a fairly ordinary copywriter brings.

There’s a reason why start-up culture is a young culture. It’s because millennials are all or nothing. They’d rather put in 12 or even 16 hour days building their start ups in the hope of a big VC payout than get ordinary office jobs. They aren’t lazy, they just have different priorities. Because the odds seem so stacked against them these days, they choose higher risk, higher reward every time. “Putting in the hours and moving up” doesn’t cut it with millennials, nor does following the established order. They’re iconoclasts, not slackers.


Millennials aren’t lazy or narcissistic, they’re not slackers or obsessed with selfies or throwaway consumer culture. They’re just young, living in an era where to be young means living in an era that doesn’t think you’re an adult because you’ll never hold down a job for more than a year or have a mortgage or all that.

That doesn’t mean they’re not consumers. They are.
They’re also trendsetters.

For these reasons, we ignore them at our peril.

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