Marketing Needs a Rebrand to Attract Millennials

By Caroline Cooke

The once-glamorous world of marketing and advertising is losing its sex appeal.


Millennials aren’t buying in to careers in the industry. Instead, marketing organizations and ad agencies are losing top talent to technology companies that offer “purpose” and “culture,” according to the study “Bridging the Talent Disconnect.” 


The Association of National Advertiser’s Educational Foundation (AEF) conducted the study to better understand the growing challenges of new talent acquisition in the industry. The study surveyed stakeholders representing various aspects of the industry, including professionals, educators, and students.


We had the opportunity to speak with ANA Educational Foundation President Gordon McLean, who shared his unique insights into the study’s findings. He also provided recommendations on how to reverse this troublesome trend.


The study revealed four major areas of disconnect between industry professionals, academia, and students.


1. Digital transformation is constantly evolving its skill requirements 

In the age of digital marketing, top talent is considered a “T-shaped candidate” – someone who’s both qualitative and quantitative in their approach. The peanut butter and the jelly.


“Does that sound like a tall order?” McLean asks. “One CEO says, ‘We're looking for super-humans.’ They don't exist, but you need that single discipline area of expertise…with an indication that there's more capability in critical thinking to come.”


Some recent graduates lack the skills needed for marketing today because they don’t know what skills to focus on. Many students have a murky understanding of what constitutes a career in marketing or advertising. One reason: Roles and responsibilities are constantly evolving, making it hard to map out a successful long-term career path. From the outside, the career ladder in marketing and advertising looks more like a “jungle gym,” the study says.


Some students aren’t even thinking about the skills they need in terms of their coursework. Instead, they’re focused on getting real world experience through internships, which they see as a critical opportunity to separate theory from reality.


Plus, the life of Don Draper doesn’t appeal to many modern-day millennials. “Mad Men has done more to raise awareness to marketing and advertising than any other program or initiative,” McLean says. “It's probably also done more to damage the credibility and meaningfulness of it as a profession.”


Millennials see the work of advertising as “lacking purpose,” according to the study—a direct slap in the face to anyone who’s worked on an advertisement or marketing campaign that’s actually inspired positive action. 

2. Universities and businesses disagree on who’s responsible for training marketers

It takes a village to raise a marketer or advertiser, yet the industry wants fully-formed professionals upon graduation. Does the industry also want newborn babies to come out potty-trained?


Colleges and universities are expected to transform rowdy teenagers into skilled professionals in just four years. They’re also facing increased pressure to cover new material that meets ever-changing industry needs in that short time frame. But educational institutions are unprepared to keep up with the speed of digital transformation and its shifting skill sets, leaving many graduates unprepared for jobs in the field.


Educators are trying to balance providing a job-focused education with their primary purpose of developing well-rounded leaders. Students are frustrated that half of their college experience is spent taking general education courses, which may prepare them for backup careers as Jeopardy contestants, but doesn’t provide them with enough opportunity to explore multiple career paths.


One area universities are making some headway is incorporating analytics into course curriculum. Many graduates trained in analytics find themselves at a significant advantage, as its importance continues to increase.


Given the speed of change, the only way for universities to develop job-ready graduates is if the industry is involved with curriculum planning and internships. After all, students are graduating from college, not Hogwarts. According to McLean, “Agencies have to take the lead.”

3. Tech companies are competing for talent with better culture and pay

Due to the huge demand for data analytics and digital expertise, marketing agencies are on the losing end of a talent war with technology companies. Tech company are offering millennials culture, purpose, work-life balance, stock options, napping pods, travel sabbaticals, and avocado toast with a side of “purpose.” The hoodies are beating the suits.


“If you look at where marketing is as a career choice, even within a business faculty, out of the thirteen different business faculties, it's probably number eleven,” McLean says. “We're at a competitive disadvantage to virtually every other profession.”


To make matters worse, in the rush to keep pace with the speed of digital transformation, most marketing organizations and ad agencies have been focused on hastily filling immediate talent gaps instead of investing in the next generation of talent. “HR leaders tend to be hiring to fill immediate slots,” McLean says, “whereas, [marketing executives] are often thinking about, ‘How do I get the individual with the most long-term potential?’”


Agencies face an additional set of talent-related challenges, because they’re under pressure to deliver results for clients. Creative chiefs need skilled talent who can deliver those results without a steep learning curve, but they often struggle to find recent graduates who are prepared for even entry-level jobs in advertising and marketing.

4. Millennials have “great expectations”


Another issue is cultural fit. Some marketing and advertising industry professionals still balk at millennials’ desire for “purpose” and their “great expectations” for entry level positions. But this old-school mentality is backfiring. The industry is losing talent to other industries willing to meet millennials’ job demands.


“If there's one thing that genuinely motivates students, it’s doing something that makes a difference,” McLean says. “It’s ironic. As marketers, we spend so much time putting purpose at the center of our companies, putting purpose at the center of our brands, and yet we really haven't put purpose at the heart of our profession.”


Times have changed and the workforce has evolved. Millennials are taking over the workforce on their terms, which includes taking jobs that align with their interests and values.

The proposed solution


Simply put, the industry needs a rebrand.


The AEF is calling on marketers and advertisers to inspire the next generation of talent by shedding light on the purpose and significance of a career path in this field.


“Fantastic social campaigns are happening [in

advertising]. So many initiatives are being done around gender equity, diversity, and building businesses,” McClean says. “We need to provide more certainty around the fact that this is not only a meaningful career, but it’s also one that can be financially rewarding over time.”


In response to these needed industry changes, the AEF has created Pathways 2020—a three-part movement that “aims to create a wider, more diverse, and better equipped pool of talent to fuel industry growth.”

1,000 Industry-Campus Activations

With 84% of students reporting improved perceptions of the industry after speaker visits, it’s time for marketing and advertising professionals to hit the pavement and find diverse, new talent. In fact, the study found that diverse workforces are 35% more likely to outperform their peers.


Marketing organizations and agencies also need to develop new recruiting patterns, rather than continuing to recruit from the same five or six schools. The good news is, “when it comes to the new breed of talent that we need it marketing, talent is everywhere,” McClean says. “Many of the schools that aren't at the top of the radar are producing some of the most creative, highly motivated individuals. We just did a case competition at Wake Forest University; fifteen different schools [competed]. The school that won was Utah State University, and they beat Wharton and Northwestern.”


1,000 Professors Inspired

Professors need more industry exposure, so the AEF is asking industry leaders to offer visiting professor programs and industry fellowships. In addition, the AEF aims to collaborate with industry leaders on developing supplementary curriculum for professors and educational institutions.


1,000 Students Immersed 

The AEF is also working to create an internship program that will help to provide a relatively standardized internship experience. “It's not coming for ten weeks and working on a competitive analysis in some obscure category,” McLean says. “The intent is [for students] to be exposed to three to five of the things that constitute modern marketing.”


Industry heavyweights like GE, IBM, and NBC, are already working with the AEF to roll out this internship program in 2018. “We're getting the industry behind us, and it's not just marketers, it’s also their agency partners,” McLean adds.


The AEF is asking professionals to pledge a commitment to a speaker program, internship, or professor visit. We second the request. The best way to move marketing and advertising forward is together.

About the Author

Caroline Cooke is a freelance writer and stand-up comedian who brings a splash of humor to B2B content marketing. She draws on her combined experience in marketing, sales, and client management within the employee health and wellbeing industry to engage audiences and drive lead generation. 


Caroline holds a B.S. in Psychology from James Madison University, where she founded 

the JMU Nap Nook, the university’s beloved student napping center. She has also advised academic institutions globally on creating student napping centers.


Find Caroline on LinkedIn.