Saturday, September 05, 2009

Learning from the Interns

Earlier this year I attended a Brown Bag Lunch put on by our Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce.

I don't recall the exact title, but the topic was Public Relations, Social Media and related issues.

The panel included three people from advertising agencies.

The old guy was sort of stuck in old thinking.

The two women who are in their late 20's or perhaps in their 30's had a more current outlook.

I have discovered that age is not really a determining factor for adopting new ideas, despite the way it was presented with this panel.

At the radio stations I work with, we have interns and we have guys in their 30's, 40's and 50's doing sales work. We can learn from each other, (and we do).

AdAge presented this recently:

From the Mouths of Babes: What the Interns Think

Surprising Thoughts on Advertising, Business and Social Media

Phil Johnson
Phil Johnson
Watching the summer interns grow younger every year is a humbling experience. I had a particularly poignant moment a few weeks ago. A bunch of us were hanging out in the kitchen, and I offered an intern one of the candies that I was eating. She lit up and said, "My grampy really likes these." I haven't felt that young since I dusted off my original Woodstock album.

All three of our interns came from the Boston University School of Communications, and I'm telling you they are impressive -- bright, hardworking and ambitious. As the summer went on, I found myself asking a few questions: Why in the hell are they interested in advertising? Why did they choose a professional program, as opposed to a liberal arts program? Where do they think the industry is going? A couple of days before they departed for Paris, London and L.A., respectively, I asked Margo, Lakshmi and Martin if I could interview them.

We should all be so clear-thinking and thoughtful. As for why they chose a communications program, all three of them have a practical bent and want to graduate with a definite career path. Lakshmi wants to integrate her interests in business, psychology and art. Martin wants to make his living as writer. Margo wants to balance business with creativity.

Margo, Lakshmi and Martin
Margo, Lakshmi and Martin
I was curious whether they had any cynicism about advertising -- you know, helping to sell stuff people don't need. Their idealism surprised me. Martin saw real value in getting the word out about good products that deserve to be successful. They acknowledged that advertising could be manipulative, but they are more focused on the power to inform people and solve problems like the economy or global warming. They don't like ads that manufacture problems that people don't have. As for favorite ads, they unanimously and emphatically said Apple, but for reasons that surprised me a bit. Lakshmi cited the simplicity, the soothing voice and the music. Nothing about the product.

When I asked what was hot in their program, they answered in unison: "Social media." What else, I asked? "Social media," they repeated. Here's where the conversation veered off center. They see the social-media universe very differently than I do, and there were some surprising contradictions in their responses.

While they all acknowledged its importance, there is much about social media as a career that doesn't appeal to them, especially the always-on aspect of blogs and social networks. Someone said, "Why pursue a career in social media? It's what we do with our free time." They are also suspicious of the hype, especially around specific platforms like Twitter, and suspect that it has peaked. They are much more curious about what's the next big thing. Margo said she is interested in where people will experience social media, and everyone expressed excitement about applications that will make social media more useful. Margo mentioned an application that integrates Google with Craigslist, so, for example, if you're looking for an apartment, you can see the location.

All three confirmed a fact about Twitter that has been picked up in the media: teenagers and college kids find it boring. They're not interested in what their peers are posting. They see it as a platform for people in their 30s and above who like to share content. Lakshmi made a great point: "Twitter is not just for people. It's a great platform for fiction and entertainment." Facebook, on the other hand, "is for your life. It has your books, pictures and friends."

Since business consumers increasingly rely on blogs for product information, I was curious if they read or followed a lot of bloggers. Only their friends, they said. All said that if they want content, they go to traditional news sites that they trust. Another surprise was a general dissatisfaction with Google for the difficulty in pinpointing specific data. Margo uses KGB, the mobile search service, but predicts it will fail because it charges 99 cents per query.

So, what does the future look like, I wanted to know. Martin wants to spend a year with Teach for America and then explore a career as a writer. Lakshmi hopes to get the chance to work on a great campaign, on the magnitude of Apple. Margo wants to play a role in a world-class agency where she's excited by the work and surrounded by good people. All three fear monotony and boredom. They want to make enough money to be comfortable, but wealth won't be the deciding factor in their life choices.

We've got some good citizens in the making, and I'm feeling optimistic about the future.

~ ~ ~
You can follow Phil Johnson on Twitter: @philjohnson.

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