The twenty-somethings are here; get out of the way

“So you have a college class visiting you today?” The comment came from one of the 10 small agency CEOs visiting Mullen last week as part of a 4As tour. He watched as 20 or so twenty-somethings filed past to take over the conference room where we’d just met.

“What are you talking about?” I replied. It never dawned on me that he was referring to a team of social media strategists, creatives, media planners and developers who were gathering to get briefed on a new client initiative.

He pointed to the team that had just gathered.

“Oh them. No, they work here.”

His look suggested surprise that we could actually have that many young people in one place at one time working on an actual project.

Yesterday, I encountered a similar reaction when the founder of a big New York rep company was visiting to show off his clients’ work.

“So, how do you manage to stay fresh in this business after all these years?” he wanted to know.

“I get out of the way,” was the honest answer, explaining that the wisest thing anyone my age could do was to hire smart young people, load them up with responsibility, point them in the right direction and hover in the background until someone needs you.

He, too, was stunned, assuming that no one would do that out of a need for control, or a fear of becoming irrelevant, or a concern that everyone else would get the credit.

To me, these reactions reflect some of the vestiges of the old days in advertising. They’re left over from a time when the industry made people pay their dues instead of rewarding raw talent, an age when people spent way too much energy protecting their turf or their rung on the ladder, the days when agency staffers were more obsessed with crediting people instead of the idea.

I find that the smartest, most inspiring people I work with tend to be the youngest. They move seamlessly from one medium to another. They have the courage to try new things.  They’re so familiar with technology and its potential that nothing seems impossible.

In the last week I witnessed a team on which no one was more than a year or two out of college conceive and launch the Good Belly Project. They came up with the idea, took it to local restaurants, sold it internally, got it online and into the press.  No one cared about personal credit; they just wanted to make it.

It was the same kind of initiative and determination that led to TNGG signing a deal with Three 24-year olds had the idea, did the work, initiated the dialog and have been delivering the goods.

Take a look at the companies that are thriving, inventing, creating new stuff.  Big companies like Google. Small companies such as Hubspot.  New companies like Kickstarter or SCVNGR or Livefyre. They’re filled with 20 year olds making products, reinventing service, and leveraging new technologies.

Want to stay young, relevant, and deserved of some control?  Want to attract the kind of talent you actually need to prosper long term? Focus on the bigger stuff: culture, vision, standards, organization and casting. Then let go and out of the way.


Video: Young minds from Zeitgeist 2011. Eric Derdinis, 20-year-old U Penn student, talks about his prototype belt to aid the blind.

Kirk Tanner
Kirk Tanner

What a great article. I agree 100% with everything said. I'm a 50-something CMO that started out in large international agencies in Chicago, but found my home on the client side of the technology industry. I work for a very fast growing software company that has received lots of national and local recognition for its growth, and the amazing thing is the average age of our employees. It's about 24. We have our management team that are all between 30 and 50 something, but the ones who make it happen every day are all early 20's.

I have to agree with Edward when he says he, finds that the smartest, most inspiring people tend to be the youngest. They do move seamlessly from one medium to another. They do have the courage to try new things and because nothing seems impossible, they do some amazing stuff, and solve problems that would stump the old guys.

If you are my age, learn from them, grow with them, stay out of their way, and just be ready to jump in and help them when they want it or need it. They will respect you, and they will make you look good. The big upside is It will keep you feeling young and thinking young.


Love this, but I have to ask: how do you fund these people? I haven't been in a management job for awhile, but I remember how tough it was to add staff. Even freelance/contract was hard, because everyone (CFO, GM!) was obsessed with profitability and everything, I mean EVERYTHING, had to be billable and this made it murderously tough to do the kinds of things you seem to have made routine at Mullen. I'm just blown away by what you're able to do, especially under the guiding "light" of IPG. It's amazing. Which brings me to one other question: do the IPG C-Levels ever cruise the halls of Mullen and ask why such levels of innovation, risk-taking and FUN aren't happening as much in their other offices? (I can only speak for McCann SF which is now GONE, assimilated into Agency 215, but the morale there before The Fall was bad and most tech processes were, at least from what I heard, outsourced.)


@edwardboches I work in social media marketing for the real estate industry. At 29, I am one of the oldest people in my office.


@edwardboches It's a lost and sad generation too focused on their iPads and Twitter. It's a shame that I have to cater to them

edwardboches moderator

@JeffShattuck It helps to be in a city that has a young population and lots of colleges. It helps to have a high quality internship program that helps us identify talent. And it helps to have a culture that believe in pushing responsibility downwards if people can handle it. i have to believe that there are other great agencies -- R/GA, Crispin, et. al. who also liberate new generation employees. And older, slower, traditional agencies that don't. There are also senior folks who are intimidated and threatened and conversely resist embracing Gen Y. Their loss. The new generation gets digital, social and mobile. So much so in fact that they don't need the words/terms to define them. It's all mainstream media to them.


@jtsadsfadsndd You must be working with the wrong ones. My colleagues invent, create, push, teach, work long hours and strive to get better.