Apr 30 2024
Megan Reschke

How Advertising Leaders Can Engage and Retain Gen Z Talent


In March 2024, US employment across advertising, public relations, and related fields reached an all-time high, with ad agencies accounting for the largest portion of these jobs. However, this job growth doesn’t negate the longstanding challenge of high turnover within the advertising industry, particularly among junior-level employees.

To help mitigate turnover, the vast majority of hiring managers—in advertising and beyond—say they plan to hire in 2024. And as agencies and brands approach either filling newly-created positions on their teams or replacing those left vacant by employee departures, it’s increasingly likely that many of their candidates will be members of Generation Z.

The last several years have seen an influx of Gen Z workers: 17.1 million joined the US workforce in 2023, and they are forecast to overtake the number of baby boomers entering the workforce in 2024. While each generation is distinct, Gen Z is particularly so, having been shaped by the digital age, prolonged economic turbulence, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of this, agency and brand leaders who fail to adapt their hiring, engagement, and retention strategies for Gen Z may struggle to meet their distinct needs and expectations, which could in turn lead to long-term workforce challenges.

What Leaders Need to Know About Gen Z

Born approximately between 1997 and 2012, Gen Z is the first generation of true digital natives, with all its members having grown up at a time when the internet was a ubiquitous part of daily life. Members of this generation are also more racially and ethnically diverse than any prior generation, as only a slim majority—52%—are non-Hispanic whites. As a result, they care deeply about inclusivity and embracing diverse perspectives in their interactions and decision-making. Gen Zers are also adaptable and resilient, as a result of events like the 2008 financial crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, and subsequent economic uncertainty shaping many of their formative years.

Further, Gen Z has established itself as a socially conscious generation, one that cares about action over words and isn’t afraid to take a stand on social and political issues. Members of this generation expect brands to do the same, with mental health, caring for the environment, and racial and gender equity being 3 of the top values that Gen Zers want brands and companies to support—in honest and authentic ways. And given the high expectations they have for brands as consumers, it’s likely those who pursue careers in the advertising industry will hold their employers to the same standards.

A Tumultuous Entry to the Workforce

Many Gen Zers were wrapping up college, obtaining internships, and securing their first jobs as the COVID-19 pandemic surged.

This timing led some members of this generation to take time off college or delay graduation; for others, their internships or first job offers were rescinded as employers in advertising and beyond were forced to make cutbacks; still others started their jobs in under-resourced, overworked, and all-remote environments, contributing to high levels of burnout.

Even after the pandemic peaked, this tumult didn’t end—the years that followed were characterized by the Great Resignation, which was especially pronounced in the advertising industry. All in all, Gen Zers’ first experiences in the workplace were largely characterized by layoffs, thoughts of quitting, or actual quitting.

Continued Challenges at Work

Given their turbulent entry to the workforce, it’s no shock that Gen Z workers aren’t as engaged as older generations, and that they continue to experience higher levels of job-related stress and burnout. Additionally, many managers say they struggle to connect meaningfully with their Gen Z employees, with 3 in 4 managers reporting that Gen Z employees are difficult to work with, and nearly half experiencing this difficulty all or most of the time.

Given Gen Z’s increasing presence in the workforce, current employment growth in the advertising industry, and the fact that agency leaders are already articulating concerns about recruiting and engaging workers from this generation, brand and agency leaders must be proactive and intentional as they implement strategies to support their Gen Z employees.

How can advertising leaders engage and retain Gen Z talent?

Like every other generation, Gen Z has been shaped by the unique societal and technological context of their coming of age. Brand and agency leaders who seek to understand this, and then embrace strategies that meet this new generation’s needs, can enhance productivity, bolster engagement, foster creativity, and improve retention in the years ahead.

Lean into their strengths as digital natives

This generation has grown up immersed in technology, making them adept at navigating digital platforms, adapting to ever-changing tech, and understanding online trends. Agencies and marketing teams can tap into this expertise in a variety of ways. For instance, leaders can empower their Gen Z workers to play a meaningful role on digital campaigns or projects on platforms they’re intimately familiar with, such as TikTok, Instagram or Snapchat. Managers can also give Gen Z employees the chance to showcase their knowledge around the latest digital trends, platforms, and tools they use with their broader teams, such as through collaborative workshops.

Continue to prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives

Though many organizations seem to be walking back their commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), agencies and brands looking to support their Gen Z employees (and, frankly, all their employees) should be doing the opposite. Prioritizing and investing in these programs is not only good for employees, but also for businesses’ bottom lines.

As the most diverse and educated generation in the workforce, Gen Z is increasingly advocating for diversity and inclusion with their employers. In fact, 56% of Gen Zers say they would not accept a job without diverse leadership, and 68% feel their employer is not yet doing enough on this front.

Brand and agency leaders looking to promote diversity among their teams can start by ensuring their hiring practices are attracting and supporting a diverse talent pool. This could include evaluating job descriptions for potential biases, building diverse interview panels, and doing outreach to underrepresented groups.

Beyond their hiring practices, leaders can also invest in regular training and education, such as workshops or summits, for all employees. Focusing on education can help raise awareness, build empathy, and equip all employees with the tools to foster an inclusive workplace.

Create space for flexibility

“We’ve learned in the last few years that Gen Z employees value flexibility,” says Goretti Duncker Joseph, Director of Total Rewards at Basis Technologies. “Flexibility builds trust and loyalty—employees want to work for a company that cares about their wellbeing and demonstrates that through their policies,” she continues.

When leaders hear “flexibility,” many might think this only refers to where employees work—and that being flexible means adopting an all-remote approach. But Gen Zers, within advertising and beyond, have indicated that this isn’t the case: In fact, a recent study found that only 11% of Gen Z workers want to be fully remote.

While a hybrid work approach might work for some businesses, employers can also foster flexibility by allowing employees to work earlier or later than the traditional 9 to 5 time frame, to help foster balance between their work and personal lives and mitigate potential burnout.

“Flexibility isn’t just about when and where employees are working,” adds Duncker Joseph. “We’ve found that the Gen Z population also values flexible benefits that meet their unique needs.” This could look like providing student debt repayment programs, since many Gen Zers are working to pay off student loans, offering telemedicine benefits alongside traditional health insurance, or including mental health benefits such as free access to virtual therapy and life coaching. By leaning into opportunities to grant their workers flexibility, agency and brand leaders can help foster the trust and loyalty that is foundational to long-term retention and engagement—particularly among Gen Z.

Provide opportunities for mentorship

In a recent conversation with Gen Zers on their struggles working within the advertising industry, many shared they felt a lack of personal connection with their teammates and craved mentorship. Many said they feel they’re not given enough direction, and want guidance and support as they develop their skills. Given their entrance to the workforce during the isolation and upheaval of the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, this desire for mentorship and connection with teammates beyond their own generation makes sense.

To support this desire for personal connection and mentorship, agency and brand leaders might consider implementing formal mentorship programs within their organizations. These programs can pair Gen Z employees with experienced professionals who can offer guidance, share industry insights, and provide constructive feedback. At the same time, they create space for Gen Zers to share their own unique expertise. Creating a structured mentorship framework helps foster meaningful connections and facilitates knowledge transfer.

“We’re bridging the mentorship gap for our Media Operations team, which is largely composed of early-career professionals, by connecting them with seasoned revenue team members at Basis,” says Marissa Enfield, Group VP of Media & Ad Operations at Basis Technologies. “By facilitating a combination of one-on-one and group learning over 6 months, we aim to enhance our team’s understanding of our campaign workflow and address vital career themes like burnout prevention and goal setting.”

Additionally, leaders can support their Gen Z talent by ensuring these employees have a clearly defined manager or leader to check in with. This framework can help to provide Gen Z employees with clear expectations, and create space for consistent conversations around alignment, growth, and any challenges that might arise. By providing opportunities like these for mentorship, organizations can nurture Gen Z's professional growth, confidence, and engagement in the workplace.

Looking forward

It's crucial for agency and brand leaders to adapt their strategies to meet the unique needs and expectations of generation Z, given that these individuals are making up an increasing portion of the workforce. By leaning into Gen Z's strengths as digital natives, prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion, creating flexible work environments, and providing meaningful mentorship opportunities, organizations can enhance productivity, boost engagement, and improve retention.

As the industry evolves, embracing change and investing in Gen Z's success will be key to navigating future challenges and driving long-term outcomes. Plus, embracing these approaches not only supports Gen Z's professional growth and well-being, but also fosters a vibrant, inclusive, and resilient workplace for all employees.