The rise of the 20-something creative class

The founder and creative director of Mistress finds inspiration in the young.

The award season has stirred from its slumber. "We’d love for you to attend the show and party," read an invitation from the Andy Awards. "It will be a special evening with industry legends in the room." As much as I appreciate "industry legends," I am a 20-year advertising veteran, and I find myself more inspired these days by 20-something creatives.

They struggle with meager wages, unhealthy hours, and layoffs; just like we did at that age. But today’s 20-somethings also have to deal with something the legends never had to when they were starting out: the responsibility of connecting and engaging with about 83 million of their millennial peers. The pressure to reach the most coveted consumer audience falls onto the youngest members of the industry who are expected to understand them better than their bosses. No small task.

Years ago, senior people didn’t ask junior copywriters for a quick explanation about how Boomers’ or Gen-Xers’ most popular media platform worked. It was television, duh. Senior agency creatives presided over a kingdom built of TV and radio scripts, billboard headlines, and magazine and newspaper layouts — mediums that essentially hadn’t changed in decades. 

Today, agencies look to their 20-somethings as authorities on platforms that have been around a year or two — sometimes just a few months and often in beta. It makes sense: They’re living it. And so, the pendulum swings. Creating campaigns using new technology falls on the shoulders of a group that wasn’t even alive when industry legends were interrupting The Cosby Show with 30-second works of art.

To land a job back then, all creatives needed was a portfolio of clever print ads and maybe a TV spot or two. Today, creatives who can’t design, write, Photoshop and operate a camera, while also bringing in passion skills like programming or music production, don’t get a second look from a progressive agency. 

The agencies attracting the best talent are dynamic. They’re reacting to real-time events, interacting with audiences, and aren’t tied to a predetermined medium. They’re solving clients’ problems with bespoke solutions. The result is energized clients and brands and a refreshingly unpredictable work environment.

Sure, there are a few dinosaurs roaming the industry, grazing on the same TV buys as their ancestors. But they are neither inspiring nor innovative; two traits driven 20-something creatives demand of the company they keep.

As for timelines: Two decades ago, a month to concept a print ad was considered polite, and you were well within your rights to yell at the fool who dared demand a day less. Not today. Shrinking budgets and growing procurement departments require the 20-something-year-old creative to churn out entire multiplatform campaigns in a matter of weeks. Just ask Brad Jakeman, president of PepsiCo’s global beverage group, who said Pepsi has gone from making four TV spots a year to between 400 and 4,000 pieces of content instead. 

And when it comes to executing that content — the posts, activations, social engagement tactics, and real-time responses to cultural events and content — the quality expected is just as high. The standard of the insights and the craft required are no different than that single print ad that once took months to make. 

Legends can hold up their great print and poster campaigns or those epic 30-second TV commercials as a testament to the great old days. They were simpler times. A creative’s job had fewer moving parts. More time was spent creating less, for much more money. Indeed, it was a great time to be a creative. But what truly inspires me is the work generated by a younger generation of creators.  

Don’t feel too old or discouraged, though. In 20-something years, a new crop of 20-something creatives will make this lot look ancient. 

Scott Harris is founder and creative director of Mistress. This story originally appeared on Campaign US.

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