December 21, 2014

2014 Year In Review: Young Professionals

Here's a question I received a few months ago from a person about thirty years old.

Question: Why, Kevin, are Executives so unwilling to listen to young people? I recently had an Executive Vice President suggest that I put in a multi-decade apprenticeship, and then, and only then, would I be qualified to earn some amount of accountability for the business. I look at what Executives are doing, and they are going to doom their businesses by not focusing on the future customer. They only care about the current customer, and they want to communicate with the current customer using techniques from the 1990s. I don't understand it. Can you explain it to me?


Variants of this question come up on Twitter every day - where maybe half of my audience is under the age of 35. There's a level of contempt that I recall having at that age, but the contempt is different, because technology enabled a generational skills rift.

I participated in a meeting. The EVP of Marketing was talking about catalogs ... would 124 pages be appropriate or 128? I looked across the room, and there was an employee, maybe 25 years old, bored out of his mind. I mean bored. After a lengthy discussion about the branding benefits of four additional pages ("the four pages make a bold statement about our belief in this new product line"), I jumped in, and asked the 25 year old employee what he'd do to market the products that would be featured in the four additional pages in the catalog?

The 25 year old employee sat up, at attention, and gave a detailed outline of how he would record videos of customers using the products, and would create a sub-section of the website that had videos and customer commentary about how customers (not copywriters) use the products in the real world.

The EVP looked across the table, and said "We're not gonna do that."

The 25 year old responded ... "Why? It wouldn't cost us anything to do it."

The EVP was getting upset. He leaned across the table ... "We'd have to hire an agency, and have professionals film the scenes. It would be very expensive. We're not a cable network."

The 25 year old sat back in his chair ... "I'd film it on my iPhone as a proof-of-concept. Give me a landing page and let me see if I can get customers to engage with my content."

The EVP, face wrinkled with stress, said ... "My customers won't appreciate a video taken with a smartphone. My customers expect more from us."

The 25 year old put his pen down, and said ... "Customers my age aren't going to thumb through a catalog. They want to know how somebody actually uses the product."

That was the end of the conversation.

I've been there - I once had an employee who wanted to send chocolates to customers to put on their pillow. I did not respond favorably, and in the process, I'm confident I subsequently shut down many good ideas, because younger employees didn't feel comfortable sharing them.

Make a New Year's Resolution ... give young employees a fraction of your business, and let them run with it. See what they would do, and see if their ideas work. Pretend you were the old Coldwater Creek, RIP. They could have given a line of dresses to a young marketer ... the buying team might forecast $30,000 in sales online ... see if the young marketer can grow sales for this product line ... and if the young marketer was successful in growing sales, pay close attention to what the individual did. Could anybody else learn from the individual?