Mastering the millennial generation

June 22, 2012, 4:44 PM UTC

Besides digital media and the French Riviera sun, the hottest thing at the Cannes Lions International ad festival this week is the question of how to attract millennial to businesses and brands.

I told you here on Wednesday how companies like Coca-Cola and Burberry —as well as TV stars like Matthew Morrison of Glee—master the challenge. It’s particularly complex because this impatient generation, born between 1980 and 1995 and totaling some 80 million, demand extraordinary output from their media. Also known as Gen Y, they crave “a communal connection,” MTV president Steve Friedman explained yesterday in a panel discussion moderated by his boss, Viacom CEO Philippe Daumon.  Twenty-year-old actress/singer/budding businesswoman Selena Gomez, who was also on the panel, said that she involves her young fans in the clothes and fragrances and everything else she creates for them.

To engage this audience, you have to deliver “a participatory role in the creation of content” and “a 52-week connection to a show,” Friedman added. MTV has delivered that on shows like Jersey Shore and Teen Wolf, building them into hits.

What about companies that don’t necessarily sell to millennial but struggle to attract and retain them as employees? “Restructure your HR and your internships,” advises media consultant Jack Myers. Myers led a panel at a Cannes gathering hosted by media-buying agency UM and Facebook . He’s been studying a narrow slice of the millennial generation, those born between 1991 and 1995, for a book he came out with this week. It’s called Hooked Up: A New Generation’s Surprising Take on Sex, Politics and Saving the World. The book examines the 17- to 21-year-olds, whom Myers calls “Internet pioneers” because they represent a bridge between the pre-and post-Internet generations.

“They know how to collaborate,” Myers said. “They don’t know silos because they grew up without them.” For this generation, the Internet is “omnipresent and omnipotent.” Diversity–mixing with every race and nationality–is “second nature, part of their DNA,” he added.

“People born with the Internet think of it like electricity,” noted Paul Adams, global head of brand design at Facebook, who joined Myers in the discussion. As you would guess, Adams urged the baby boomers in the audience to get with the program by spending more time on Facebook so we can “understand how they share.”

Myers offered another suggestion: Create a “reverse mentoring” program at your company. Many companies, such as Johnson & Johnson , already have such programs, pairing graying execs with young people who can teach them how to embrace digital life and constant sharing. Interestingly, J&J keeps its reverse mentoring program informal and avoids labeling the participants “mentors” and “mentees.” Why? Well, sometimes it’s best not to let the old folks know how much they need to be taught.