Episode 201

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Millennials (people born from 1981-1996) comprise the largest and most diverse generation in American history. Most agency owners are either older millennials or Gen X or Boomers. When it comes to leading the team — sometimes those two worlds collide. They’re coming at the world with completely different expectations, wants, needs and goals. Whenever I talk with agency owners, they almost always talk about the frustrations that come from that disparity. Who are these people and how do we manage and motivate them?

In this episode, I ask these questions of agency owner and millennial whisperer Chris Tuff. After living it, researching it, and then literally writing the go-to book on the subject, Chris has some wisdom to share.

The perception is that millennials don’t have the same work ethic that we had at their age. However, the reality is we aren’t from different planets, despite the fact that the world and the work environment today is vastly different from what many of us experienced when we were breaking into the business.
Chris and I dig into perceptions and misperceptions of hiring and leading millennials with the goal of understanding what motivates them, the role of culture, and the fact that we are all people in different stages of life. Hopefully, this will give you some tangible takeaways to help you engage with, inspire, get inspired by, and work with millennials – to everyone’s benefit.

Chris Tuff is a partner at the advertising agency 22squared in Atlanta, GA, where he successfully attracts, motivates, and whispers to Millennials every day. When Chris isn’t working, he kiteboards, mountain bikes, runs and spends quality time with his wife and two daughters.

A big thank you to our podcast’s presenting sponsor, White Label IQ. They’re an amazing resource for agencies who want to outsource their design, dev or PPC work at wholesale prices. Check out their special offer (10 free hours!) for podcast listeners here: https://www.whitelabeliq.com/ami/

What You Will Learn in this Episode:

  • Why managing Millennials doesn’t have to be so challenging for older agency owners
  • Why transparency is so important for Millennial employees
  • The kinds of leadership that Millennials are seeking
  • How to make promoting culture and company goals the job of everyone in the agency
  • What to look for in Millennial candidates
  • How to make a contract-to-hire “test drive” worth the risk for both the candidate and you
  • The benefits that Millennials are seeking
  • What the Millennial-owned company of the (very near) future will look like
  • Why diversity and inclusion are not optional with Millennials
“The reason young millennials are looking for a place to hang their hat and have more job security and longevity is because they saw their parents lose their jobs during the recession.” – @christuff Click To Tweet “Transparency is not about crying in front of your employees or showing the bottom-line numbers. It’s about creating a personal connection.” – @christuff Click To Tweet “If diversity and inclusion are not in your top three workplace priorities, they need to be. And part of that inclusion is putting millennials into leadership roles.” – @christuff Click To Tweet “Millennials aren’t the problem. They just expose all of the problems.” – @christuff Click To Tweet “Want to be more transparent? Tell your employees who beat you up in business and why.” – @christuff Click To Tweet

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Speaker 1:

Welcome to the Agency Management Institute community, where you’ll learn how to grow and scale your business, attract and retain the best talent, make more money, and keep more of what you make. The Build A Better Agency podcast, presented by White Label IQ is packed with insights on how small to midsize agencies survive and thrive in today’s market. Bringing his 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey, everybody. Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build A Better Agency. Just a couple of business notes before I tell you a little bit about this week’s episode, a couple things. Number one, we are getting ready to do the drawing for this month’s winner of the ratings and reviews. So again, if you have not left a rating or a review, or you have and you just haven’t sent me a screenshot of it, remember that we are giving away a free seat to any AMI workshop live or any of our on-demand courses. Once a month, we are drawing a name out of the hat if you will, of someone who has left a rating or a review or obviously both for the podcast.

So because many of you use usernames like Golden Retriever Lover 192, although, I think we should all love Golden Retrievers, I don’t know specifically who that is. So that’s why I need you to take a screenshot of your review and email it to me at [email protected]. I sort of wish I had thought about the URL on that. That’s a long one, sorry about that. Anyway, leave a review if you haven’t, or go find your review if you have, and take a screenshot of it and get yourself in that drawing. Those workshops are worth about $2,000 apiece. So we are literally giving that away every month to encourage you to leave us a rating and review. So we’d love you to do that.

Secondly, you may have gotten an email about it, you may not have heard about it yet, and this is hot off the press as it will, but we just announced that we are doing a conference in 2020. So the Build A Better Agency Summit will be in May of 2020 in the Windy City of Chicago, have some amazing keynote speakers, great breakout speakers. So excited. It is purposely going to be kept as a kind of an intimate conference. So we have about a room for about 200 agency owners and leaders from anywhere and everywhere on the planet. So wherever you are, I promise you, these two days are going to be worth it.

Right now we’ve got very early bird pricing on the registration for the workshop. So head over to agencymanagementinstitute.com and read about the summit and who’s going to be there, who’s going to be speaking. It’s a great opportunity for you to meet other agency owners, to network with other folks, to hear how other people are doing it, and to really learn from some of the best of the best. So I am super excited about it.

Obviously, you’ll be hearing me talk about it between now and May of 2020, but I wanted to give you a heads up that registration is open, and I would love to see you there. And I do expect that it will sell out fingers crossed, because as you know putting on a conference like that, signing the hotel contract was a little like signing a mortgage. So A, I hope it sells out, but B, I do think it will. So don’t wait too long. And why pay more than you have to? You might as well get in now while it’s cheap.

All right. So with that, let me tell you a little bit about this week’s episode. So as you know, I am with agency owners and their leadership teams pretty much every day of the week. And there are two topics that I can count on coming up when I’m hanging out with my friends who own agencies. And the first topic is always Biz Dev, whether it’s going well, whether it’s not going well. A win streak, a lose streak, whatever it is, we always talk about that. And the second thing, we always talk about are employees. And for many of you right now, you’re struggling to find and keep great employees. And in the conversation around employees, oftentimes the M word is mentioned: Millennial. And usually it’s mentioned through gritted teeth.

For many agencies and agency owners, we have not quite figured out how to get the best out of Millennial employees. I think sometimes we struggle with understanding what’s important to them, how to motivate them. And so when I heard about my guest for this week, and the nickname that he goes by, which is The Millennial Whisperer, I knew that I needed to get him on the show and I needed to pick his brain so that we could all be better about how to deal with Millennials in our workplace. And so Chris Tuff is his name. Not only is he a Millennial whisperer, but he is also an agency owner.

And so as you’re going to hear in his story, as he grew in his own leadership inside agencies and eventually became an owner, like all of us, he was dealing with more and more Millennial employees. And so he decided to take the time to really learn what mattered to them, to learn about them, to learn about what motivates them. And over time, he became such an expert at it in terms of building up departments filled with Millennials who turned out to be great employees and grew into leadership positions that he realized that he had some knowledge that he could share with other employers, and particularly with agency owners. And so he wrote a book called The Millennial Whisperer.

And so, again, I knew that we needed to get Chris on the show, And so he’s here with us today. So settle in and get ready to learn about those young employees. And the reality is for most of us, we’ve got to have this young blood in our shop. We need them because they have a digital prowess that many of the older employees don’t have, because they are affordable, because you know what, we’re all getting older, and so more and more of our workplace is getting younger, younger than us certainly.

So this is not an optional learning opportunity for us, we’ve got to figure out how to deal with these 20 and 30 something employees and how to motivate them, how to keep them fired up, how to figure out which ones are the good ones and the ones that we want to keep. And Chris holds the key to all of that. So without further ado, let’s get to the conversation. All right, Chris, welcome to the show. Glad to have you.

Chris Tuff:

Yeah. Thanks so much for having me.

Drew McLellan:

So my motivation for having you on the show is sort of twofold. One, you have an expertise that many agency owners are hungry for, which is an understanding of how to really find and get the best out of a young workforce, specifically the Millennials. And two, you walk the same walk that we all walk, you also own an agency. So tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to have this vast knowledge about the Millennial population.

Chris Tuff:

Sure. So I was one of the lucky ones. I say that because it was my lucky 65th job interview after graduating from Vanderbilt that I finally found myself interviewing at an ad agency. And that ad agency was Moxie Interactive. There were currently 12 employees there. And I got in there and I finally found a place that I was passionate about. And I was hired to many people’s relief from my family. And I kind of fell into the digital space. And I popped around, I was on the account side for a little bit. I was a creative copywriter actually going to The Creative Circus at night. I experienced that and I was like, “Yeah, this isn’t the thing.” And after four years of very lateral moves, I fell into my niche, which was kind of the digital and social space. And I was actually told by the owner at which time we’d grown from 13 employees to about 400 employees.

Drew McLellan:

Wow.

Chris Tuff:

So any agency undergoing massive growth, I can commiserate, and it’s a wild ride. But I fell into this social media space and was told if I got a million views of a video, then they’d give me my own department. I was like, “Bring it!” So, I filmed my engagement to my wife. And once again, this was before cell phones. I mean, I had to put a camcorder hidden on a tree in Atlanta. One of my friends who was a cameraman for the real world, I was like, “Listen, I think I’m going to get engaged to my wife in about three hours and I need to film the whole thing. I’m going to do it while I’m running down the streets of Atlanta, and I’m going to do it at this telephone pole. I’m going to pretend to sprain my ankle and I’m going to go from spraining my ankle to popping the question. Can you film it?” He was like, “Absolutely!”

So he filmed the whole thing from the back of a car. And it was this scale of emotion that people had never seen before on really outside of maybe America’s Funniest Videos. And so it was me pretending to sprain my ankle, my wife laughing and calling me clumsy. And then me going to pop in the question and her crying and just totally overwhelmed. And so I put it on christophertuff.com, ended up getting seven million views within four days.

Drew McLellan:

Wow.

Chris Tuff:

And the server guy actually called me and was like, “Chris, how are you going to pay for this?” Because you actually had to pay server bills before YouTube.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Chris Tuff:

And so, the whole thing unfolded. I ended up getting on the front page of The Wall Street Journal, Good Morning America and all this stuff. And that was actually my first sign that I had fallen into the right place.

Drew McLellan:

What year was this?

Chris Tuff:

This was 2006.

Drew McLellan:

Okay.

Chris Tuff:

So 2005 going into 2006.

Drew McLellan:

Okay, so really before social and all of that was-

Chris Tuff:

Exactly.

Drew McLellan:

Mainstream. Yeah. Yeah.

Chris Tuff:

Exactly. And it was also around that same time that we were, as Facebook was evolving and launching into the general market from the college, they were going from colleges to the general market, on behalf of Verizon Wireless we got to work directly with Zach and some of those early guys. And so, we were at the very forefront of social and that was my jam. I had a failed startup in 2008 with the recession, that was kind of a city search for a younger generation. And then I fell into 22Squared 10 years ago where I wanted a full service independence shop to really learn, because I was so sick of being at a digital shop where these other shops would give us the strategy, and then we’d just have to execute underneath it. And I helped kind of push us into the social space. So I built the social media team from scratch just myself and a couple others to actually being probably our fastest offering.

And through all of this, I was surrounded with Millennials. And I lead business development after that for two and a half years. Hit rock bottom, I was burned out. I lost sight of my family, and some of those things that weren’t a priority that I wanted to be. And it was right around that, that I was like, “You know what, I’m going to double down in actually being a servant leader. I’m done Don Drapering it. I’m done being the tip of the spear. And I’m going to coach and I’m going to make these younger… I’m going to try to infuse and put as much time into building these people up.”

And it was about seven months into that, that this whole book was inspired where I was on an executive men’s retreat in North Georgia, and I introduced myself and I was like, “Oh, my gosh, I don’t really know what I do.” I’m not a creative. I’m not a social media guy anymore. I’m still an owner of the agency. I’m kind of the Millennial whisperer. And I introduced myself like that. And Tommy Breedlove who was leading the trip, turns to me, and I didn’t know him at the time, he goes, “You better write that book,” after I sat down by the fire. And I was like, “What book?” He goes, “The Millennial Whisperer. And if you don’t write it, I am.” And I was like, “Tommy, I don’t know how to write a book.” He was like, “We’ll talk more about it over the weekend.”

And that was about 18 months ago, and the rest has been history. We published about four months ago, and we sold about 40,000 copies. And I think we’re just now starting to really take off. So it’s been super exciting and a wild ride.

Drew McLellan:

So from your perspective, and certainly it’s woven into the book and through the book, a lot of this is just experimental learning, right? So it was you sort of experimenting on these kids until you figured out what the equation was that made it work, right?

Chris Tuff:

That’s exactly right. And I think we don’t put enough emphasis around that within our walls of our agencies is, okay, we might have this culture, but build a subculture within your culture. And especially as agencies get more diverse in offerings and people, I think that’s even more important. And so I really ran with that. I was like, “Okay, so I had the influencer team, which is now almost 20 something people, as well as all of the content strategists.” And I kind of ran with, “All right, our agency culture is this, and yes, that can act as the foundation, but we’re going to do things a little differently.”

So I think constantly experimenting, and tactically I talk about it in the book, but the importance of put it up to your people for as you put some of your money aside for those excursions, let them choose what to do. And I know you did this recently, but we did Bad Axe Throwing as one of our excursions because everyone was like, “Yeah, we got this Bad Axe Throw and we got to do it.” And it was super fun, different-

Drew McLellan:

It was a blast. Yeah.

Chris Tuff:

And a great bonding. So really allowing your people to help mold that subculture within.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. It’s interesting because I think, and maybe I’m wrong because I suppose we don’t know how other people look at our generation, but it seems like Millennials are the first generation to be completely painted as this sort of lazy, entitled… It’s like all of them have been sort of branded with this stuff. How did that happen?

Chris Tuff:

So, and that’s funny because that’s the cover of the book, right? Entitled, needy, impatient, naive, poor, shallow.

Drew McLellan:

There are so many memes about it and funny videos and all kinds of stuff, but I just think as a general rule, they’ve been labeled.

Chris Tuff:

100%. And it’s no different than actually any time before us. There’s always massive disdain and pushback on generations as they transition in. But I think what makes this very different is one, we’re talking about a massive generation, we’re talking about people that were born between 1981 and 1996, an application that is 37-year-olds and 23-year-olds, and that is a huge generation. And then what’s happened within those times is the world and the rate of change has increased dramatically. So that disparity between generations is only getting more exacerbated because of these things like cell phones and social.

And one of the things I set out in the book within that generation, first of all, I think we need to put it into two different generations, older Millennials and younger Millennials. And what makes them different are two massively impactful societal things that have made them different. One is older Millennials had beepers in college, right?

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Chris Tuff:

They didn’t get their first cell phone until… I mean, and social account until they were in their first, second jobs. Younger Millennials were given an iPhone with a Snapchat account on it at age 13. That is a huge difference. And so from a societal standpoint, the younger Millennials went through their most formative years with social media around them, and the older Millennials didn’t have any of that. So technology adoption is that first piece. The second piece is when the recession of 2008 either hit their parents, or older Millennials then. They were in the marketplace, and so they are either forced to become entrepreneurs and do something different and jump around, or it was much more of that entrepreneurial spirit.

Versus the younger Millennials, the reason why they’re actually looking for a place to hang their hat and to have more job security and longevity is because they saw their parents lose their jobs. They inherited a massive amount of student debt because of the timing of that. And so I think that’s one thing that is I think important to note. But why there’s so much… One of the things I tell in a lot of media interviews is we’ve got to stop using Millennial as synonyms for just young and inexperienced, because guess what, Millennials are young and inexperienced. And I think that’s one of those things that a lot of generations go through when you’re undergoing that transition.

Drew McLellan:

One of the quotes that I loved was this whole idea of Millennials aren’t the problem, they just expose all of the problems. And so often when I’m talking to agency owners and they’re lamenting through gritted teeth and often over a whiskey, their frustration at how these younger employees come to the workplace, show up at the workplace, respond to the needs of clients. We live in a 24/7 world and clients are demanding, and agency owners are typically of the mind of we’re in the service business and so we serve our clients, and if that means we get a text at eight o’clock at night, then so be it. And they get push back, and so they’re frustrated.

But my conversation with them is really around the idea of we have to understand that every generation isn’t going to work the same way we work, that we earned our stripes a certain way and that doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s how they’re going to earn their stripes. It doesn’t mean they don’t need to earn their stripes, that they don’t have to prove to you that they are a good employee and committed to the same things that you are-

Chris Tuff:

Sure.

Drew McLellan:

But they may show up differently. And that to me is that whole idea of its exposing really the cultural shifts, the technology shifts, all of that. It’s not so much about the people, it’s just about the fact that they really grew up so differently than we did.

Chris Tuff:

Absolutely. And I think if you take away kind of… One of the things that I feel like I run into a lot, especially as I’m starting to talk to corporations about how to apply some of these tenants of the book is that there’s sometimes this mentality of, “Well, I had to do it this way, why don’t they?” And that’s what, it’s like, “Okay, let’s ease into it. I get it. I get it. It’s different.” And but if you go down into the guts of this thing, and you look at wh