Where will the new generation of digital talent choose to work?

An original art post card available at postcardsfromawesome.com, a new company created by BDW students

I just came back from a board of directors meeting at Boulder Digital Works. Established a couple of years ago, in part with some seed money from MDC and partners, BDW has a lot of support from the advertising and digital community in hopes that over time the school will train the kind of talent we all need to prosper in the age of digital everything.

While there are folks on the board from companies that include Apple, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, the board also includes people from a number of advertising agencies, among them: AKQA, CP&B; Goodby Silverstein & Partners; Mullen; Modernista; and until recently BBH and TBWA, whose two representatives on the board went to work at Google and Apple respectively. (That’s another post for another time.)

In the next few months, BDW will graduate its first of three current classes enrolled in a 60-week certificate program (currently under review to become a masters degree-granting program).  As part of the board meeting, we had the pleasure of sitting through presentations from class number two, which shared with us five startup ideas for companies they had conceived and begun to build. I’m not supposed to share too much here so as to protect the “startups” that haven’t completed copyright registration or finalized URLs. However, I will say that a roomful of some pretty senior digital and ad agency folks were blown away.

As Chuck Porter said in summing up the board’s reaction, “Holy shit!” And holy shit it was. The teams presented clear, succinct ideas in no more than five minutes each  (let that be a lesson to your new business presentation team). They defined the market, the idea, how it worked and answered questions with the confidence of entrepreneurs on their second or third start-up. More impressively, the work they showed us had been conceived, developed and made ready for show time in three weeks.  In fact much of it had already been presented to Tech Stars a week earlier. Three weeks? Are you kidding me? I remember when it was three weeks to copy and layout for a print campaign.

Robert Reich, serial entrepreneur who teaches the startup class at BDW

But here’s the rub. When they were done, we asked the group of 20 how many wanted to go into advertising or work in an agency when they finished their stint at BDW. Answer? Not many. Virtually every one of them wanted to start their own company so that they could build something and reap the rewards. Repeat. They want to build something and reap the financial rewards.

This is what’s coming. A new generation of talent, ambition and digital chops. They’re the kind of people we all need in our agencies and marketing departments.

We have two choices. We can offer them opportunity to build things –products, platforms, services – with us, or watch them take their newly learned skills and passion somewhere else.

What is your company going to do?

76 comments
LoftBarcelona
LoftBarcelona

You raise a lot of questions in my head; you wrote an excellent post, but this post is also mind provoking, and I will have to think about it a bit more; I will return soon.

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ecargnfx
ecargnfx

Wow. This is really true for me since I quit my job at a great ad agency to do my own startup. I would be considered the new generation of talent since that was my first job out of college and they wooed me with a high salary. But what turned me off from it in the end was how restrictive my role was. I didn't want to be just responsible for visual design. I also enjoy coding and am deeply passionate about UX and strategy. I wanted to be able to put the rest of my skills and passion to use.

Now, at my startup, I get to do everything I'm passionate about and am in control of its creative direction instead of having it shut down by higher ups and the client. It's more personal, exciting, and hands-on and I've been learning so much through it.

I wasn't aware this shifting mentality was taking place elsewhere though, since all my other creative peers are still vying for jobs at ad agencies. Thanks for the great insight.

MalikaSharma
MalikaSharma

Brilliant article and I will soon be putting the info to good use. Thanxs. Digital Marketing

Explorerbob
Explorerbob

It sounds like the industry may be moving toward a movie cast/crew model, where an organization is recruited under contract for the duration of a specific project. Specific teams will be found to do the work a specific client needs. As wiith the movies, stars can make big money, and specialized professionals can be paid a professional sum. Other team members may be retained on short-term contracts to do work for more predictable activities, like the professional sports model. Either way, the casting director .will be a key player in the agency.

Shib
Shib

Without being over egotastical, I would say I fall into this "future digital talent" bracket and I see where these guys are coming from.

From my brief experience in working in advertising, I'm more and more becoming inclined to creating something that is going to make me money and be cool at the same time. The big rub is that many clients don't want to do things that most digital talent see as aspirational or see as pushing the limits of creativity.

For every old spice man, there are 1000 "I just want display ads." Until clients are educated and embrace digital, more and more digital talent will join and leave. So, it's all a mixture of what we can do at an agency, what we get excited about and how far clients will go. There are only so many times people's good ideas get shot down before they just jump ship and think about how their digital skills can benefit them as opposed to multi-national organisations who just don't get it or don't want to get it.

(Apologise if this is a bit ranty!)

JonHearty
JonHearty

This new talent, the technologically dominant, will play an increasingly important role in businesses of all types. Google's recent raises and bonuses prove that the talent pool is limited and competition is high. It will become more necessary for companies to provide an enticing environment for these new superstars.

kylelocke
kylelocke

I'm going to be the one who asks "how different is this from any other MBA program" in which groups of students come together, conceive a business plan, create the elements and present to their advisors.And the second question is "how many MBAs eventually end up at the companies they shunned originally when their 'next big thing' didn't work out.

The difference here is the BDW students are in a 'creative' program, vs. a more traditional MBA program where a entrepreneurial spirit is the norm. The fact that digital is tracking towards apps/functional tools to drive brand awareness also seems to play into this trend. Why build a tool for a single client(via an agency) when you can build a business that many can use, thereby casting a larger net.

pbj
pbj

Really good post. Realllly good. My only question is: What happens when ever one builds produts ? Could that be simliar to a superbowl game with rosters of only quarter back? My concern just as yours is in the post is how will these companies get the likes of my generation and keep them at these companies? Any thoughts?

Allison
Allison

Hi, I am one of the original founders at BDW. I think this post is timely, but what I'd like to discuss is - "now, what are we going to do about it?". What programs support entrepreneurs in agencies, what agencies support new types of thinking, learning, and doing? How are they doing this? How are agencies collaborating without the support of a post graduate program? I find that we often talk about things - what about doing things? BDW is a great start, how about another example of agency/industry reinvention to directly support skill building, knowledge sharing, and employees as entrepreneurs (at the agency)? Anyone have examples to share? At GS&P, we are way on our way - but I"d love to meet others who are out there "doing".

PlannerRick
PlannerRick

Respectfully, nonsense.

Many will dream of becoming the next Zuckerberg; one or two will make it.

Many will start their own businesses, but most will fail to grow beyond one and two-person freelance outfits.

Let's not confuse youthful idealism with business paradigm change.

Agencies will continue to offer clients and employees what they always have done. For clients, the confidence that their projects will be delivered, their invoices dealt with professionally, and the ability to tell their stakeholders that their digital communications are in safe hands. For employees, access to big brands and large budgets.

There's never been a period in advertising when the 'old guard' haven't been exhorted to accommodate the ideas, energy and work style of the 'young Turks'. The established players in every industry must always keep on their toes. In marketing, the brand of the agency has always needed to reconcile 'trust' with 'innovation'. And businesses which have chosen either over the other have prospered, but at a cost. I've worked for a successful network that only accountants would appoint; I've also worked for a boutique shop that never got to touch the big money accounts, despite its creativity.

I don't see the story here.

jmitchem
jmitchem

When I left the ad agency world in 2001, I had the same aspirations as this new crop of digital geniuses. I'd learned everything I could learn at an ad agency and my talent was being suppressed by dinosaurs who had always done things a certain way with predictable results. Plus, I was making about $30 an hour and being billed at close to $200. I was a junior copywriter, but a very good one that made the agency's clients very happy. It was total bullshit. And when I asked for a fair shake, I was given the 'you're too junior to negotiate anything' schtick.

These guys are digital. I was analog. But when I launched my virtual agency in 01, it was one of the first in the nation. Now I'm very happy being a small ad agency with a powerful network to do virtually anything. And I owe it all to the entrepreneurial spirit that lives in everyone who has the balls to see things for what they are.

I'm happy for these kids. Go forth and do what you need to do to be happy.

armano
armano

Really interesting piece. Ironically I was invited to participae in this years ago, but partially because of how my job was set up (at an agency) where such extra curricular activities was hard to pull off. Lesson leanred though. Good for the talent if they can get their platforms off the ground. However, worth noting that only so many platforms can actually exist and go somewhere. But will be interesting to watch.

JohnStapleton
JohnStapleton

Great talent in any skill set will naturally gravitate to places where they can flourish and have control. Very few agencies can offer this up to developers because many of the larger assignments get farmed out due to budget/timing/talent level/etc. But one benefit an agency can have over some places is ownership of the brand and the ideas that go along with it. I would think a complaint any creative/developer would have is control and ownership. Instead of being told what the idea is and ask them to grind it out, they can be asked to help come up with the ideas. I'm sure this can be of value to some extent. Beyond that, the developers with big ideas will go to where the opportunity is.

rnadworny
rnadworny

Talk about challenging traditional thinking about marketing and advertising. If you buy into the concept that the future of marketing is about providing utility, value and doing something, as opposed to watching, reading, or "experiencing" something, then its pretty clear that these students offer a mother lode for new marketing. They're creating the things that people will hopefully want.

If you don't buy into that concept, you'll never attract these people to agencies or marketing groups. Not in a million years.

Edward, it also comes tantalizingly close to that agency model where the agency "owns" the product and gets paid based on its success. If you're building platforms, it should be easier to quantify that number, share the risk with the brand, and reward the people who built it.

mranauro
mranauro

This is an up hill battle for many reasons.

Talented folks in the engineering and product development world are bored easily and are always looking to be challenged as programmers and tech leaders. Agencies typically lack those challenges. The tech/digital community is very tightly knit, and the vast majority of agencies do not embrace that culture… they just know they need them and want them on board.

Two main reasons why great engineers and tech leadership are put off by the advertising world.

So how do you fix it? Agencies can't rely on how they've worked for the past 10-20-50 years to be relevant today, we all know it, but so many are still stuck in that world of complexity. You've got to adopt and trust that giving up control to technology is a huge first step in making it work… it has to be a mandate to everyone you work with, they must understand "this is how we're working now." Technology and creative aren't even equal, give tech the lead.

And that's only the first step. You need to have interesting work for these guys. With the futility of one offs and the lack of ownership that comes with most projects why would they want to be a part of an agency and lose out on so many of the benefits of the startup world? While it's extremely tough to build a business, it's simple to get together with some friends and do what you love together as a startup… and that might be the best education you could ask for.

Clients need to allow for startup thinking. Create businesses and products instead of advertising.

FuzzyTheBunny
FuzzyTheBunny

darn it, I was just in Boulder! Would've loved to have checked out this program. FYI there are plenty of superbright future advertising agency candidates out there already looking for jobs... I suggest you ask for their twitter addresses as well.

Sidf
Sidf

Why would it be good to have these people working in advertising / marketing? What a waste! Surely the world needs people having and implementing viable commercial ideas - actually creating things - rather than talented people trying to make old ideas seem cool, interesting and new through some fleeting, ephemeral digital ad campaign?

Oh, except things that are so good they market themselves would make half of marketing communications redundant... Whoops.

Thomas
Thomas

I'm not surprised. The environment for starting your own business changed over the last decade dramaticly. Education is free. Technology is free. Marketing is free. Distribution is free. Networking is free. All these resources are available to anybody and this enpowers a hole generation. As Archimedes said: Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.

DanViens
DanViens

Great post. I'm a member of the first class at BDW and now working in digital strategy at W+K Portland. DavidSpinks is right - BDW draws people with an entrepreneurial spirt. For some that will mean the startup route and for others that wil mean the agency route. Others may find themselves as digital artists, journalists or any number of endeavors we can't predict.

Those of us who choose the agency route are drawn toward opportunities where that entrepreneurial spirit is valued and encouraged. That's the situation I've found myself in and man it's fun going to work every day.

What's incredible to think about is the future fo the BDW network with alumni scattered around the world connected digitally by a common spirit of entrepreneurship who are in any number of industries collaborating regularly.

DavidSpinks
DavidSpinks

Edward,

I consider you to be one of the few who truly understands the changes in the professional world amongst millennial generation.

Do you think that this group of young pros are an accurate representation of our generation? Do you think that they are an accurate representation of all millennial advertising/media professionals?

I remember reading about BDW when it was announced and thinking that I would love to do it. (It was really expensive for me at the time and didn't offer any sort of degree). I think that the types of people that this program attracts are more entrepreneurial in nature. Beyond that, Boulder is a flourishing space for startups and entrepreneurs so the environment is going to have influence on the participants.

The very fact that they were asked to create companies and pitch them means that they were on the startup track already.

You'd know better than me, but from what I've seen, there are definitely still a lot of young professionals who's ambition isn't limited to entrepreneurship. A lot of them are excited to be part of the agency/corp world and make big moves...which may be what you're referring to when you say "We can offer them opportunity to build things –products, platforms, services – with us"

Are young professionals really geared toward entrepreneurship? If so, would allowing them to build new things within your company really satisfy that urge?

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

Edward very thoughtful post. I love Boulder! I am sure you enjoyed the trip. The way technology is evolving barriers are coming down between industries. And with more media being digital and with other industries going digital, some skillsets will be valuable in and in demand. That creates challenge and opportunity. I think all businesses that seek to not be left behind have to view themselves as people incubators and not just technology incubators. That is something I know you have going with Mullen but not sure how much of the industry is as strategically visioned. But that is OK. I think it healthy for the dinosaurs to get eaten by their young. Key is not to be a Dinosaur. Which is the whole point of your post.

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