How I Got Started
I accepted my dream job in November of 1989, after nearly seventeen years in the advertising business Director of Media Services at McCann-Erickson, Detroit. It was not only a major agency in Detroit but one that boasted two (count 'em, two) divisions of General Motors among its client list. Running the media department (almost any media department) was the job I had secretly lusted after for years. But in truth it seemed unlikely for much of that time that I would ever get this kind of opportunity. Then, suddenly it was there, and I was anxious to make a mark.
I undertook the new position with what I hoped was convincing public modesty, and much private glee, since never before had a hometown woman risen through the ranks to become Media Director at a Detroit agency with a major automobile account. Certainly, I was the only Media Director I knew whose first job had been as a secretary. It was not that Detroit was "backward" as a city, I used to say; it was just that the advertising business here was dominated by the automotive industry, traditionally a bastion of machismo Henry Ford, the assembly line, Hank the Deuce, the rust belt, the Industrial Revolution, John DeLorean, Lee Iaccoca, Ross Perot, and all that.
McCann's new female Media Director was a big deal, even in these semienlightened times. To give you an idea, in 1986, the Detroit Athletic Club voted to allow women full membership privileges for the first time in its history. In 1989, the Detroit Advertising Association (DAA), whose primary function was a monthly summer golf outing, briefly threatened to disband over the same issue. The Adcraft Club of Detroit, the largest and most active advertising club in the world, has never had a woman President.
In this heady climate, the Detroit membership of the Woman's Ad Club enjoyed a season of unprecedented influence and, in their enthusiasm, elected me Ad Woman of the Year. Success was sweet. Little did I know that I was about to discover just how ignorant I was.
About that same time, the General Manager of our agency, a rather blunt-spoken, but friendly fellow named Jerry Atkin, came in to talk with me about the annual all-employee meeting. Traditionally, Jerry held a meeting in January of each year to assess for the employees the achievements of the previous 12 months. New accounts were listed. Awards were handed out. Information was passed along from Worldwide headquarters. In his typically understated way, Jerry called it the "State of the Agency" meeting. "Usually," he told me, "I ask the Creative Director to do the presentation. Show some commercials something not too heavy something all the employees can enjoy.
But as you know," he said, "we just hired a new Creative Director, and he doesn't want to show the old commercials they're not his work....And he hasn't been here long enough to have new work to show. So I thought maybe it would be good to have the Media Director do the presentation this year, for a change. You could talk about new media technology, something like that. But don't make it too technical. Don't talk about cpms or anything like that. Remember, Todd the Mailboy won't understand that stuff. By the way, I think John Dooner and maybe Bob James will fly in for the meeting. So it's got to be really good. You can have all the A/V backup you need.
At that time, John Dooner was President of McCann-Erickson North America, and Bob James was Chief Executive Officer of McCann Worldwide. The assignment, as I understood it, was to write and deliver a presentation, on the subject of media, which would impress the two of them and Jerry and, at the same time, entertain Todd the Mailboy. The audience would include my new colleagues at McCann and everyone who now reported to me, but was actually still waiting to see whether or not I would fall on my face. Jerry was thinking about inviting reporters.
I considered early retirement. I considered hara-kiri, but this was Detroit. I considered asking the Woman's Ad Club to storm the gates with bras burning and placards in hand. None of these plans seemed foolproof.
At last there was no alternative but to face the challenge headon. I decided to fall back on the tried and true. I reverted to what I had come over the years to call privately "the Baby Boomer trick." And once again, it saved me.
Throughout the '70s and '80s, I, like many other marketers, had learned how to take a quick initial read on the potential of a new product, a new media opportunity, or a new campaign by asking one simple question: Will Boomers like it? I had learned, as others had, that the sheer weight of this birth cohort we called Baby Boomers was often the difference between success and failure for a marketing concept. By analyzing the peculiar appeal of each new proposition to the leading edge of the Baby Boom generation, I could often predict which magazines would grow in popularity, which television plots would have broad appeal, and how to "grow a market" for a new product. It was as easy as it sounds. After all, leading-edge Boomers were my contemporaries. I only had to look about me to observe my friends and relatives and then to project what I saw to the larger population.
If the subject of my "state of the agency" presentation was media, I would simply apply the same yardstick. I knew that television had been catering to Baby Boomers for years. I would simply show how changing Boomer tastes were reflected in programming over the decades how television grew and changed as Boomers grew and changed.
It promised to be a great show, if I do say so myself. I borrowed clips from I Love Lucy and All in the Family and still shots from the new television season. As I went through the history of Baby Boomers I was, I realized, also recounting the history of network television and the personal history of most of the McCann-Erickson executive group. Yet the twenty-year-old television footage was still entertaining for Todd the Mailboy and his friends some of the jokes were still funny after all these years.
Then I got to that part of the presentation which dealt with the future. What could we anticipate, what was coming in the 1990s and beyond? And suddenly my old reliable yardstick failed me. I didn't know.
Oh, I knew that the leading edge of the Baby Boom would turn fifty in the '90s (as I would). I could predict a brief wave of nostalgia, as a large part of the population marked half a century. Indeed, we were already beginning to see it, and it was easy to choose examples from current shows like The Wonder Years and from magazine articles marking famous Boomer anniversaries. I could also predict a revival of the political activism that had characterized our adolescence. I was seeing that telltale restlessness among my own peers, as career goals were achieved and families grew up. My friends were looking for a return to "meaningful" activities, and volunteerism was enjoying a resurgence.
And, of course, I could predict great gains in technology. McCann was affiliated with the MIT Media Lab, and I was aware of new research into interactive television, electronic print, the latest in computer communications. I knew the breakthroughs, and their subsequent impact on the consumer marketplace, were closer than anybody imagined in 1989. But as I tried to visualize the face of the consumer of this new technology, his attitudes, his style of living, I came up blank. I knew the driving force of the new media marketplace would not be fifty- or sixty-year-old Boomers. We were trying to make our lives simpler. And most people over forty looked upon computers with all the enthusiasm of a ten-year-old facing a plate of boiled spinach.
No, the new consumer would be younger, raised with technology, hipper to electronics and computers than my contemporaries were. This new consumer was now in his/her late twenties or just turned thirty, and I thought, with no little chagrin, that I knew or had read or learned virtually nothing about people in that age group. What were we talking about here? People the same age as my children. How ludicrous! I was thinking about marketing to my own children. My God! It hit me like a clap of thunder: I was thinking about marketing to Todd the Mailboy!
I tried to fix the presentation. I searched for examples of products successfully marketed to young consumers. I couldn't find any. I looked for television shows whose popularity could be explained by their appeal to twenty-somethings. There were none. I looked for pictures of young people in magazines and found not one. Nobody looked even remotely like Todd the Mailboy.
I went with what I had. My "Baby Boomer" media presentation was good enough, so they let me keep my job. But I knew it wasn't good enough. Even as I concluded my presentation that day, I knew that I had not begun to attack what would be the core issue of the '90s: what comes after the Boom? I knew, even as I brazenly accepted the trophy as Detroit Ad Woman of the Year, that I was totally unprepared for the future of advertising. During the next couple of years, I often found myself returning to this question. I was preoccupied with Generation X, but I was making little progress.
I would ask the young people on my staff about their interests and opinions. They seemed to find this amusing, but didn't tell me much that I could understand. I asked about their career goals. This was a concept that had inspired some deep thought. They would say things to me like, "You mean like earning twice your age? Goals like that? I would like to earn $50,000 by the time I'm 25. That's my goal. And also I want your job that's my other goal." I couldn't get my head around it.
I read Douglas Coupland's book Generation X. I didn't get it, but I liked the name.
I noticed that there were fewer and fewer people on television who were in their twenties. Everybody in the media seemed to be aging.
I would try talking to my twentysomething daughters. I would say things like, "Wouldn't you like to have your own apartment?" Or, "Are you and what's-his-name thinking about getting married? Ever?" Or, "You can't start all over in college now! You just spent ten years in college. And what does one do with a degree in botany?" Things like that. They would say, "You don't understand. Things are different now." Or, "Get real, Mom!" Things like that.
I kept thinking that something was going to happen. Sooner or later, all these kids in their twenties or early thirties would catch the fancy of advertisers, and somebody would do a study. Sooner or later they would start to act in some predictable, understandable manner and we would then be able to make reliable predictions about the future of advertising.
I felt that this was important. My experience told me that people who were unacknowledged by advertisers and by the media did not somehow have the same advantages, the same visibility in our capitalist society. The media, after all, depicted our role models, our heroes. It taught us who and what to admire. If a group was ignored by the media, it was invisible in a larger sense to society as a whole.
During my own career, minorities had successfully campaigned to be represented in the media, because thoughtful leaders recognized that lack of such representation contributed to bigotry and prejudice.
Imagine for a moment, the public outcry if the networks were to announce that, in the new fall season, Blossom and Married with Children will be the only prime-time network television programs that would portray the lives of white people in America....But if you can imagine how upset white TV viewers would be by a steady diet of narrow depictions of their lives, perhaps you can begin to understand why so many black television viewers are upset to hear news reports that the Fox Television Network has decided to drop Roc, Sinbad, and South Central from their fall lineup....
Clarence Page, June 12, 1994, The Detroit News
Blacks, Asians, and Hispanics wanted to be seen on television and to be acknowledged as consumers, because the alternative is to continue as an unacknowledged and persecuted underclass. When advertisers recognized that minority populations were potential "markets," they suddenly had "clout." And the desirability of these populations to advertisers helped them gain places in prime time, in daytime television, and on eyewitness news teams. Once there, stereotypes could be shattered and learning could take place on a broader scale. The desirability of these groups as markets, it seemed to me, contributed to their political and economic liberation.
Similar reasoning had inspired retirees, divorced or widowed women, homosexuals, and the physically challenged to regularly campaign for media representation and acknowledgment by advertisers. As a media buyer, I had been targeted by efforts from the American Association of Retired Persons, the National Organization for Women, and various other advocacy groups to help accomplish such recognition.
Still, Generation X stayed quiet. I kept waiting for somebody else to give me a clue. But nobody seemed very concerned about the younger generation. We called them "Baby Busters." We assumed they had no money. They told us they had no money. Everything stayed the same.
I went to Bermuda in 1992. I had been invited to speak at the American Magazine Conference, a convention of magazine publishers. I was one of a panel discussing the future of magazines-not that any of us had any special insights about what the future would be, but "the future of media" is a very popular topic with media people, and the panel was well attended.
I told the assembled publishers that I was puzzled by the media's continued emphasis on Baby Boomers. I told them that the media were ignoring younger people Generation X. They were writing nothing that would interest people in their twenties, there were no programs on television that featured twenty-year-old characters, it was still difficult to find a photograph of a twenty-year-old in a major magazine. The consequence of this, as I saw it, was that the next generation would never look to the media as a source of information, entertainment and popular culture, the way Boomers had.
A funny thing has begun to happen lately, I said. Lately, when I look at my brother the Baby Boomer, I see a fifty-year-old man with a pot belly, a bald spot, and his own corporation. Yet, every day in our business we talk about reaching the younger Baby Boomer. What younger Baby Boomer? Face it. Boomers are getting old.
Perhaps, I said, it was time we started talking to the next generation: Generation X...the purple-haired people...Your kids, I said, and mine. You know who I am talking about, I told them. You probably have one at home. Maybe it was yesterday, you came home from work, and you found one of these purple-haired people lying about in your living room. And you looked at him or her, shook your head, and said to yourself, "I gave up drugs for this?"
I had hoped that my speech would have an impact, since these were issues that I found genuinely perplexing. But nothing had prepared me for the barrage of attention that followed. Advertising Age printed the text of my speech in its entirety. I began to get letters from young people across the country, I was invited by ad clubs and media groups and private companies to speak to them about Generation X, and I traveled from New York to Hawaii and from Oregon to Dallas, talking to marketers, listening to Boomers, and meeting Generation X in every city I visited.
November, 13, 1993
Dear Ms. Ritchie:
I am a part of Generation X. I read your article in November 9 issue of Advertising Age and discovered that so much of what you wrote rings true. But rather than being upset that the media has in a sense skipped my generation, I am thrilled.
It is nice not to have a plethora of magazine articles, television shows and advertisements aimed at me....Please don't screw it up.
Joseph B. Schramm
In no time at all the lemming effect had set in. In the past year, I've seen more articles about Generation X than freckles on a redhead. Most of these articles are slicker and more superficial than a Coke commercial, but at least we are finally talking about people under age thirty-five. At least we have finally admitted to ourselves that they exist.
In 1994, we finally see younger faces on television, we can occasionally read the opinions of young people in magazines and newspapers. If we don't always understand what we hear or read, if we don't always get it exactly right, at least we can say we are trying to communicate. Xers themselves are not always comfortable with this new scrutiny. After all, there is a certain safety in anonymity. But the recognition was long overdue, probably inevitable, and healthier, I think, than pretending that the Emperor is wearing new clothes.
Now they're waking up to the discovery of 46 million people, which is like all of a sudden, noticing France.
Bob Guccione, Jr., SPIN Magazine, New York City
Finally, a brief word on the term "Generation X"' Despite the fact that I have heard some objection to the use of this name, I have yet to discover a better one. I have not adopted Strauss and Howe's designation "Thirteener." Calling them by the number "thirteen" does not seem an improvement over the no-brand label. Similarly, Details' "Generation 2000" will lose its relevance in just a few years. More pejorative terms like Baby Busters, Slackers, or Latchkey Kids seem unfairly biased. The "MTV Generation" is selfserving and misleading (as was the "Pepsi Generation"). Attempts to glamorize them as "twentysomethings" or the "re-generation" have failed.
If it is any comfort, most Baby Boomers hate that term, too, almost as much as they hated our other labels: Yuppies, Hippies, Yippies, and DINKS (Dual Income, No Kids). I actually prefer the term "Generation X," because it represents a group that has not yet named itself. There is also something anticommercial, antislick, anti-Boomer, and generally defiant about the "X" label. It is somehow specifically in your face, and at the same time hidden, like the generic brand, or the product comparison ad of the 1950s. It is mysterious, powerful, and a little threatening to the status quo.
One day soon, of course, they will name themselves. And that is how it ought to be.
Copyright © 1995 by Karen Ritchie