Forbes — Generation Z has fully captured marketers’ attention. Understanding them is a key challenge unto its own. CMOs continually seek to offer products and services in new and engaging ways—meeting Gen Zs where and when and how they want to be reached. Still an enigma in many ways, Gen Zs represent the next new opportunity for growth for marketers—as long as they get it right.
For informed perspective, it’s helpful to go to the source—in this case, Ziad Ahmed, cofounder of JÜV Consulting and an alumnus of the Forbes 30 Under 30 in Marketing and Advertising list.
Ahmed, a Gen Z himself, has deep insight into this group based on his own experience as a consumer but also as head of a consultancy designed to help marketers in their quest for understanding of this elusive cohort. As high school juniors in 2016, Ahmed and friend Nick Jain founded JÜV (playing on the words “rejuvenate” and “juvenile”) to directly connect Gen-Z voices to a roster of clients, among them Unilever, Viacom and Edelman. They started the consultancy while splitting their weeks between undergraduate classes at Yale and Princeton, respectively, and JÜV’s Times Square offices.
I caught up with Ahmed recently to learn more about him and his unique perspectives on Gen Zs as well as what marketers need to do to be successful. Our email interview, edited for length and clarity, follows.Recommended For You
Jenny Rooney: Tell me briefly about yourself—what makes you unique as a person, a consumer, a startup founder?
Ziad Ahmed: When I was in first grade, my notebooks were full of sketches of devices, companies, and places that I wanted to build. In the third grade, I founded an environmental club that met during recess after learning of the basic premise of climate change. When I was in fourth grade, I made my mom take me to the local Obama campaign office in order to plaster my backpack with pins after becoming enamored with his candidacy through reading TIME Kids. In eighth grade, I was founding a non-profit, texting over a hundred people per day, and becoming increasingly aware of the injustices that exist in our world.
I have always been a big dreamer, talker, and do-er, and that all stems from being a person who has never been afraid to ask hard questions. I was raised by a family who taught me to be unapologetically curious and unwaveringly community-oriented, so who I am is a reflection of that. As I grew up looking at the world, I asked “why?” a lot. I disrupted openly as I didn’t just accept that things should be the way that things were, and so when I saw how people were being treated in my school hallways — I started an organization to do something about it when I was fourteen (that is now an international, award-winning, and growing non-profit).
Fundamentally, I’m somebody who asks hard questions — and tries to be part of the solution wherever possible. I ask hard questions about the world that I live in, the teams that I’m a part of, and the things that I buy — and I’m deeply interested in continuing to push the ball forward wherever possible.
As a startup founder specifically, I’ve tried to build a team that challenges me openly, loudly, and constantly. I’m not just interested in asking hard questions, but I’m also interested in being asked hard questions — and I’m grateful every day to be surrounded by some many folks who push me to be better every damn day.
Rooney: What has been your ah-ha moment in your career—the whitespace you identified that your consultancy seeks to fill?
Ahmed: As a young teenager, I found myself in rooms at the White House, with industry leaders, and with marketing professionals where I realized just how misunderstood our generation is within these spaces. I remember being in a meeting with government officials at sixteen learning about the concept of “youth experts.” These “youth experts” are oftentimes middle-aged men who are paid to consult on the tastes of Generation Z.
I was baffled that “youth experts” actually exist, and it was then that I decided to start JÜV Consulting because there is absolutely no reason that we can’t speak for ourselves. There is no one that can know us better than ourselves, and by bringing many diverse young people to every table — we are disrupting how people make decisions about young people by being decision-makers in those conversations.
Rooney: What is the biggest misunderstanding about younger groups of consumers?
Ahmed: The biggest misunderstanding about younger groups of consumers is that we are just the future. There are so many companies that think that because Generation Z isn’t their target market directly right now that they can just overlook trying to understand us. The reality is though that Generation Z currently influences hundreds of billions of dollars in spending power, is the largest generational cohort in the world, and are the trendsetters on nearly every digital platform. If a company wants a marketing campaign to be successful, young people are an essential audience to make anything go remotely viral on the internet — not tomorrow, but today. Younger groups of consumers establish what’s cool, and I really believe that middle-school girls are always the ultimate trendsetters for culture broadly. We teased middle-school girls for loving Justin Bieber before he blew up, but if people just realized the significance of what young people love — companies wouldn’t need to constantly be playing catch up. There is this pervasive notion that young people are simply the leaders of tomorrow, and that companies can afford to ignore us today. I think that JÜV Consulting exists to say that it is clear that young people are the leaders of today, so you cannot wait until tomorrow to talk to us if you are at all interested in keeping up.
There are also the classic misconceptions that we are lazy, that we are a monolith, or that our time is later, but I think JÜV’s existence inherently disapproves all of that.
Rooney: What are brands getting wrong in reaching younger consumers?
Ahmed: I think brands get a lot wrong when it comes to reaching young consumers, but the main mistake is overly relying on two broken mechanisms: research and focus groups. Research is often obsolete because Generation Z’s trends are changing so quickly, and good research is still definitely important — but so many companies buy great research without knowing what to do with it (that is, they equate statistics with strategy). Furthermore, focus groups are the other way that companies use to understand younger consumers, and the paradigm treats us like guinea pigs rather than partners. The adults that shape these methodologies often don’t even know which questions to ask because they are so removed from teen culture. Ultimately, there’s a real lack of actual partnering with young people to co-create products, campaigns, and ideas that resonate with our generation — and that’s what we are here to fix.
There’s also this tendency in the business world to latch onto a key finding in a way that makes it the whole story. Brands often find out about a new word that the “youth” are using, and then plaster a new campaign around cities calling something “lit” in a way that is forced, bizarre, and cringe-worthy. Overall, companies tend to think that just having information about our generation is enough to be able to market to us, but by failing to rely on young people to understand the “how” and “why” of things, a lot of mistakes are being made.
Rooney: What can marketers do to better reach this core target?
Ahmed: We think the solution to how marketers can better reach Generation Z is quite simple: Talk to us rather than about us.
Rooney: How specifically must CMOs be involved with this effort?
Ahmed: I feel really lucky to be meeting with Fortune 500 CMOs at 20-years-old as a CEO of my company, but it shouldn’t be this rare to see someone as young as I am in these spaces. I was checking into a meeting with senior marketing folks at a major apparel company the other week, and I was asked by security if I was there to visit a parent. As young people, we are constantly assumed not to have earned our seat at the table because of our youth. It’s vital that CMOs are directly involved with this effort to invest in Generation Z because the power of young people should be validated at the highest level. Beyond that though, it’s essential that CMOs are directly talking to young folks as strategic partners in order for CMOs to do their jobs better. If a CMO is interested in disruptive marketing that stands out, knowing about finstas, Facebook meme groups, and the latest TikTok challenges are essential to understand how the tastes of consumers are changing. Furthermore, CMOs should not just know about these trends, but should actively work with young people to shape strategy that actually resonates.
Generation Z is shifting public discourse, popular culture, and purpose-driven efforts within businesses, and if CMOs don’t understand how that’s happening by actually talking to the source, they will be at a significant disadvantage, especially as Generation Z quickly becomes the largest consumer cohort.
Rooney: What are some examples of marketers/brands getting it right in terms of reaching this young target?
Ahmed: Some great examples of brands doing it right are Wendy’s Twitter really championing the idea of owning a voice that resonates with young people, Fruit Gushers’ iconic meme advertisements that really look like they belong in the Instagram feeds of young people, and Adidas having really rebranded in the last few years that has made a classic brand feel exciting to the middle-school-girl trendsetters.