This Top Ad Agency Rearranged Its Office Around Millennials
Lazy, self-entitled, digitally savvy yet socially adrift: Such are the criticisms lobbed against so-called millennials, also known as Generation Y. Those stereotypes may not be true, but millennials, those born after 1980 and before 2000, are different than previous generations for one simple reason—they grew up with the Internet.
That digital-native status can cause workplace friction between millennials and their older co-workers, who aren’t accustomed to the kinds of immediate and frequent feedback their younger peers expect. “They’re hugely more likely than Gen-Xers and boomers to want feedback on how they can improve their performance and make sure they’re doing everything right,” says writer Neil Howe, who, along with William Strauss, coined the term “millennial generation.”
Grey, a prominent New York advertising agency whose clients include CoverGirl and Gillette, thinks it has a new model to help millennial employees transition into professional life and ease the strain on their managers: Move members of the younger generation to a different part of the office. This fall, the agency relocated its 40 assistant account executives (AAEs) into a discrete area dubbed Base Camp.
The idea first emerged in 2011, when Grey pitched the U.S. Army on an ad campaign, says Michael Houston, Grey’s chief executive officer for North America. Houston hired Howe, who co-authored Millennials Rising in 2000, to learn how to attract young military recruits. Previous Army slogans had centered on personal achievement—“Be All That You Can Be” and “An Army of One”—but the younger generation, Houston learned, wasn’t guided just by individual development but also a collective spirit. So his team’s pitch made the Army’s iconic white star transparent, to reveal a “community of things happening.”
Grey didn’t win the account, but Houston (a Gen-Xer) became intrigued by what ostensibly defines millennials: a positive outlook, disregard for hierarchy, and trophy-for-participation mindset. “I must admit, at the beginning—and for a long time—many of us thought, ‘They’re just naive; we’ll bestow our wisdom upon them, and they’ll grow up,’ ” Houston says. But as the largest generation in American history, millennials don’t have to adapt to Gen X the way Gen X had to conform to their boomer bosses. (Gen Y counts 88 million, Gen X only 50 million.)
The cultural rift between Gen X and Gen Y tends be more prominent in industries that skew young, such as advertising, says Lindsey Pollak, a millennial workplace expert. After battling entrenched boomers for promotions, Gen X now has to contend with a big new crop of competition. Says Pollack: “I think it’s kind of a big-brother, little-brother thing—‘I just paid my dues five minutes ago, and you come waltzing in here and want to take over.’ ”
A few months into Grey’s experiment, the new office structure seems to be working. Three AAEs I spoke with said their physical distance from supervisors offers time to consider how to best approach the higher-ups. “Since I’m not sitting in front of my supervisor, I’m not able to just turn around and say, ‘Hey, this is what I think,’ ” says Sean McNamara. “It makes you think: When does this call for me to go over and talk about things, and when will an e-mail suffice?” AAEs also receive guidance from a senior manager and attend “Wisdom of the Week” workshops, in which senior Grey executives offer career advice.
Howe thinks Base Camp might work, as long as AAEs receive the guidance they crave. “They’re fanatics for mentorship,” he says. Pollak agrees but has reservations about isolating young people to the workplace equivalent of a kids’ table. “I wonder if you’re shooting yourself in the foot for the future,” she says. “That you’re creating a group that would only thrive amongst its own.”
Houston hopes the setup will create a culture that persuades talented AAEs to stay at the agency. He also sees Base Camp as a means of creating healthy competition, as the campers see some of their colleagues being promoted out of assistant roles. “I’m completely fascinated by the attitude that everybody’s a winner and nobody loses, but that’s not true in our business,” he says. “They’re going to see amongst themselves who’s doing a good job and who’s then rewarded for it.”