No more ‘millennial’ twaddle please


Peter Mead, the co-founder of Abbott Mead Vickers, had a profound dislike for one particular word. An old school ad man from a modest background, Peter had huge respect for the ordinary people that bought his clients’ products. And as such, he absolutely hated those that worked for him calling people ‘punters’.

It wasn’t quite a fireable offence but for Peter the appalling lack of respect that it implied was pretty damn close. It’s two decades since I worked at Peter Mead’s agency but this is a lesson I have never forgotten and I share the same disgust for people that use deeming language when talking about their customers.

I dislike the hideous batching and labelling of people created by most segmentation studies that reduce real human beings into nasty two word descriptors crushing their individuality and distancing marketers from the real lives of our audiences.

And I’m not overly keen on using the simplistic term ‘mums’ to lump together 18 million British women into one homogenous group as if every woman’s experience of motherhood was identical.

But I reserve my greatest ire for the stereotypes of generational marketing. You know the kind of thing, calling people Generation X, Y or Z or that ghastly and offensive label of ‘millennials’. I would no more refer to anyone on this planet as a ‘millennial’ than I would call someone from my parents’ generation geriatric.

It can never be right to categorise people, real people, according to the year in which they were born and then claim that as a result they exhibit behaviour and display attitudes that are entirely the same as each other and completely different to any one else. This is not just bullshit, it is demeaning of our customers and, frankly, of our industry.

Of course, I understand why research companies and consultancies peddle this sort of rot. By pretending that in some way a group of people are different, unknowable or strange they create a demand for their services. But it saddens me that professional marketers in both agency and client organisations slip into this behaviour too. Particularly when the descriptions of these groups exhibit such an absence of common decency.

The New York Times recently described ‘millennials’ as “narcissistic, brash and entitled”. I’m absolutely certain that there plenty of people that were born between 1980 and 2000 that are narcissistic, brash and entitled, just as I know that there are plenty of people born at every other time in history that are narcissistic, brash and entitled. But all of them?

For me, the event that has thrown this whole sorry approach into stark relief has been the recent general election. An election in which record numbers of young people turned up and turned out and in which their votes played a critical and defining role in upsetting the political landscape.

It now appears that at 57%, turnout amongst 18 to 24 year olds was 14 percentage points ahead of that of the 2015 general election. While according to YouGov, turnout reached 64% amongst 25 to 29 year olds, only five percentage points lower than the figure for the total population.

Young people came out in force on the 8th June but try as I might I couldn’t find any of the ‘millennial’ clichés on show that day, their engagement in politics was anything other than narcissistic, brash and entitled. And I certainly didn’t see anyone looking beyond the product and its characteristics to the purpose, motivation and ethos of the company that’s makes it and sharing these beliefs with their wide social network through their love of technology or any such ‘millennial’ marketing twaddle.

I saw millions of young Britons that have been shat upon from a great height, saddled with debt, forced into low pay gig-economy jobs and seeing the value of their income decline, gnawed away by inflation, public sector pay freezes and the economic stagnation that is squeezing the private sector. That’s what I saw. Real people, really struggling and really deciding to do something about it.

The sooner that the marketing industry starts to engage with young people in a meaningful way, responding to the real issues that they face rather than clinging onto our pathetic and pejorative obsession with ‘millennial’ marketing the better for our businesses, our brands and the people that we all ultimately serve. For, if as marketers, we are not the voice of respect, empathy and understanding towards our customers, what is our role?

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7 Replies to “No more ‘millennial’ twaddle please”

  1. The message against “Millennial-ism” marketing, is fine, as any mono-dimensional view, it is sloppy, where “sloppy” is one of the deadly sins of the millennials, ironic, innit?

    Furthermore if we want to be a bit more honest, if these “millennials” appear “narcissistic, brash and entitled”, the question is: who raised them like that? who gave them that example, who put in their hands too many screens too early…
    At the end of the day, they tend to be the version “2.0” of somebody, or the lack of them.

    Re the political part, it is very good news that a good part of the “millennials” (neutrally used, as I am sure it was originally intended) is getting out of the inter-generational political apathy of our times.

    What I am worried about is that they are offered “easy solutions” both left and right (literally) by the so-called adults, who use left and right sloppy “neo” versions of ideologies from the 19th century.

    Again, it is about the examples we get as we develop from children to adults…


  2. Spot on Richard. We’ve been urging brands to throw out their tired old demographic models! See our original report on this:

    I gave a talk at ad:tech where I shared a few of our favorite quotes on ‘authenticity’ – first loved by Gen X…then by Millennials…then, surprise surprise, by Gen Z?! Or, could it be just a general human trait to prefer things that are ‘authentic’?!

    See slides 35 onwards here:

  3. I agree that labels like ‘Millennial’ aren’t always helpful. You might as well market to me in a certain way just because I’m a Virgo! It’s crazy to think that everyone thinks, acts and works the same way just because they happen to be born at a similar time. Having said that – and to play devil’s advocate – I think a lot of organisations don’t have the resource to really think about customer personas. If it’s a mass consumer product, you could end up with hundreds or thousands of them – so is it good that they’re at least thinking a little about their target market? If you don’t have the ability or resource to do detailed analysis – is it better than nothing?

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