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For over two decades, Matt Britton has made his career by having his ear to the ground on what is happening on the sidewalks. With a belief that youth is not an age but an attitude, he thinks every business needs to realize that Millennials are going to be changing the world of business in unexpected ways. To learn more about this, Matt and I recently sat down to discuss the changes of being brought by a new generation of consumers.
Dave Knox: You built your career at that intersection of helping big brands connect with youth and the emerging meaning of what that means. Why were you inspired to focus on youth?
Matt Britton: As I was starting my career, a lot of major companies had written off the Internet after the bubble burst. They thought it was kind of a fad, almost like people think Bitcoin is right now. I saw what was happening with these young people and I saw how powerful the Internet was, in terms of how they communicate it, how they did research, how they consume media, et cetera. I knew that there was this big divide and the divide was that companies that were sitting in board rooms had no idea what was going on in the sidewalks and that the future was really dictated what was going on in the sidewalks. That whole notion still exists today. There’s such a big disconnect between the people who are making these big corporate decisions and actually what’s really happening. I was always inspired by the fact that I could be that bridge because I had passion about what was going on at the street level, but I also sort of had the sophistication and kind of strategary, if you will, to be able to speak to the businesses and connect the dots.
Dave Knox: In 2015 you wrote your first book, YouthNation. One of the things I love about it is you talk that youth isn’t an age, but a mindset. What do you mean by that?
Matt Britton: That notion was built around the millennial generation and their impact on the world. I often get asked, “Why are millennials so important?” And the reality is, they were the first generation that grew up with the Internet in the household. Gen Z looks at the world differently. Their brains are hardwired differently. For them, it’s intuitive to say, “Why would I ever want to pick up the phone and call a car service when I can hit a button and have an Uber show up?” For everyone else who was born before the Internet age and grew up before the Internet age, it’s not intuitive. However, just because it’s not intuitive to you, doesn’t mean you can’t transform yourself to try to understand it.
So that’s really what YouthNation is, that the world is driven by the millennial mentality. Institutions that have been around for centuries are now being taken down through this millennial mentality. But just because you aren’t that age doesn’t mean that it’s beyond you. You just have to go to the sidewalks and you have to understand what’s going on and transforming your mindset. The reality is many companies just can’t, or they have C-suites full of old white men that are in golden parachutes that really have no incentive to. Those are the companies, like the Toys R Us of the world that are going out of business. It’s up to everyone, whether you run a florist or you run a large organization to really understand and embrace this mentality because we’re not going backwards.
Dave Knox: One of the things you’ve talked about is that today’s generation is actually leading to the inevitable extinction of branding. What do you mean by that?
Matt Britton: Starting with the 50s and the TV industrial complex, there were three channels in television and the family would gather around and watch the Ed Sullivan Show or whatever, it was on TV. That’s where a lot of the most prolific brands in this country were built, whether it be Hershey’s or Tide, et cetera. They were able to tell stories and the consumers had no other way to access information besides the stories the brands were telling.
That is the heart of branding that continued till the 90s. Then the Internet started to give consumers power and allowed them to understand if the ingredients in Tide really different that than the private label laundry detergent. For so many decades, consumers believed in the stories that brands told us about themselves. But now with many categories, especially the low involvement categories, whether it be soap or toothpaste or detergent or shampoo, it doesn’t really matter what brand you have, as long as it actually provides a utility in what we’re looking for. If you look at the growth of the fastest growing brands, most of them are not those brands that allow you to tell a story about yourself. Like when I grew up, Nike told me if I wore Nike’s, I’d become a better basketball player, but it didn’t work. It’s actually the brands that make your lives easier or the brands that provide you with an experience worth sharing.
It’s really at those ends where I think businesses and companies are thriving. They’re either companies, like Amazon or Uber that make your life easier by saving you time or they’re brands that are providing you with tremendous experiences that you want to share and talk about, whether it be Coachella, whether it be TAO nightclub. Things that you actually want to go to, take photos of, and actually share.
But if you’re in the middle, if you’re actually not saving consumers time and making their lives easier, or giving them experiences worth sharing, you’re kind of becoming a commodity. Unfortunately, so many brands that our country has been built on from an economic standpoint, live in the middle right now.
Dave Knox: You did a study on the Millenials and found that there is a generation of employees that want a different way of working and thinking about jobs vs careers. How do big companies respond to that and what’s it going to mean across the entire workforce?
Matt Britton: Yes, so when I was growing up, again in the pre-millennial generation, it was get a job at a Fortune 500 or become a doctor or a lawyer. Work your way up the corporate ladder to an enviable income. You were protected, if you worked within the walls in these large organizations. But the reality is that the average age of a company in the Fortune 500 was 50 or 60 years old in the 1960s and now it’s 10 to 12 years old because there’s so much disruption. Future employees need to be forward facing in terms of where the world is headed, not where the world was. There’s a new version of the American dream to learn an enviable skillset that’s highly marketable like a Ruby on Rails coder or YouTube search engine optimizer. If you have these deep skill sets, there is no shortage of companies that will pay you for your time and give you the flexibility and freedom, that is really at the center of the millennial ideals.
That’s why you see companies, like WeWork, so dramatically expanding because everybody now wants to become the CEO of themselves. They don’t want their future to be dictated by large corporations, since those corporations themselves have no idea of where the future is actually headed.
Dave Knox: If someone develops this enviable skillset, how should they think about evolving it to stay relevant over time?
Matt Britton: Take Vine as an example a few years ago. The people who were popular on Vine were successful because they knew how to make great content, they understood consumer insights, and they were creative enough to turn those insights into short form content that people actually wanted to see. That is a skill set that can manifest in a variety of different platforms. They should not have been dependent on a platform but instead dependent upon that unique skillset. It used to be that if you were great at interviewing people, you could only be on TV, then you could be on radio, now you could be on podcasts. If you understand the different mediums over time where the attention is, it almost doesn’t really matter what the attention is, you just gravitate in that direction. As long as you maintain that unique skillset that’s differentiated.
I look at those skill sets as either being deep into an art or deep into a science. Deep into an art, meaning that you are a writer, you’re a designer. You do things that the machines can’t, or you go deep into a science, which is that you’re a coder or engineer that can build and operate the machines. Once again, the risk is being somewhere in the middle because the reality is, it’s much more inexpensive for a company to ask somebody in Costa Rica to do that work in the middle. But, if you have those skillsets, then those jobs are far more complicated and less likely to become outsourced.
Dave Knox: You’ve consulted with over half of the Fortune 500, over your career, from Mr. Youth to what you’ve done with Alloy and other companies. What do you think big companies continue to get wrong when it comes to understanding the changes in society?
Matt Britton: I think it’s the basis behind my new company, Suzy, frankly. Which is, they aren’t listening to consumers and trying to build their business as a reflection of it. There are three G’s. It’s guesses, Google searches and guys with MBAs. I forget who said that, but it’s the truth. They’re not listening enough to their consumers to know where the actual world is headed.
In a world where everything’s changing, where what was hot yesterday is not hot anymore, brands need to listen. A company like Suzy allows these brands that are often so disconnected to have their ear to the ground and allow their business to be driven from the sidewalks and not from the board rooms. I truly believe those are the companies that are going to survive and thrive.
Dave Knox: Suzy was created within the halls of your last agency, Mr Youth, when one of your employees came to you with an idea. One of the things companies struggle with is how to harness that creative entrepreneurial energy vs working on the core business. How did you approach that knowing what you do about this generation of workers?
Matt Britton: I think the reality is that they’re never your people. They’re in their journey. So Brandon [founder of Suzy] was an entrepreneur stuck inside an agency. We were an entrepreneurial agency, but that was his passion. So I had two choices. I could either let him run with the passion and allow me to go along for the ride and be part of it. Or one day, I could have him come into my office and say, “You know what? I’m going to start my own thing.”
I think so many companies, they don’t embrace people’s true passions or side hustles. You have employees that actually have an Etsy business and when their boss comes by, they switch Gmail tabs to their work one, but they’re really focused on that passion. The reality is that most people will never be as passionate about your business as you, as CEO. You have to realize and embrace that and support people’s other endeavors, just like they’re supporting yours. Know that the more you support their endeavors, the more passionate they are going to be for you. Then they’re going to support you, not because they’re scared of you, because they don’t want to let you down. I found that over and over and over again.
June 6, 2019 at 08:11AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs