Generations.

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GenerationsI offered some keynote remarks yesterday at a major media company sales conference in Manhattan, and was asked a very thoughtful question during the Q&A that followed. “How have the media salespeople in your workshops changed over the (18) years you’ve been doing this?” The answer came to me very quickly, but the question and its implications have been rattling around in my head ever since.

When I started working with digital media sales teams back in 1997 the root languages that everyone spoke were media and advertising. These were the dominant businesses and intellectual models of the 80s and 90s. Managers at that time were virtually all expats from broadcast, cable or print media companies, and the “digital agencies” were little more than departments within bigger Madison Avenue shops. Young sellers were deeply influenced by this bias: we create content, attract audiences and make ads available on the margins to advertisers who want to reach our readers/viewers/users. The business quickly got a lot more complicated, but the orientation itself persisted.

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In recent years, though, our people have changed. The immigrants to this industry now come from far flung places. They came of age in a world dominated by Google, not Time Inc. They’re more likely to have studied engineering or statistics than advertising and marketing. Ask them if they even consider themselves part of the advertising business and you’re liable to draw blank stares. If you’re in my generation (north of 50) you may feel more than a little disconnected to digital execs in their 30s. That’s not their problem; it’s ours. The leaders of media companies, agency holding companies and brands should take heed: it’s our job to reframe our thinking around the new generation and the one after that. The alternative is not for us to impose our worldview and orientation indefinitely; the alternative is our own irrelevance.

What to do? Get up every day and challenge your own conventions. Ask yourself what you must purposefully forget in order to keep up. To learn from history is one thing. To be shackled to it is quite another. I for one am excited about all I’m going to learn in the decade ahead.

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