Podcast episode 20: Gen Z’s wake-up call for the telecom industry

illustration of Ziad Ahmed

Your phone company consistently ranks at the bottom of consumer satisfaction lists. But how do you satisfy Gen-Z in the 5G era? Ziad Ahmed, the young CEO of JUV Consulting has a unique understanding of this environmentally-aware demographic that was born and raised in the age of the smartphone because, well, he’s part of it.

Below is a transcript of their conversation. Some parts have been condensed for clarity.

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Michael Hainsworth: He’s a modern-day mad man that Don Draper would respect. Draper would also check his ID before offering a scotch. Ziad Ahmed is the 20-year-old CEO of JUV Consulting and he knows how to talk to the kids today, and we’re not talking millennials. For Gen Z, born in the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, the internet has always existed; it’s been fast and it’s been evolving. From entertainment to telecom, we learn why marketing to this demographic can’t rely on an approach best left to the 1950s.

Ziad Ahmed: I mean, I think the major thing that people get wrong in terms of marketing to Gen Z is that they believe that their assumptions about us are correct. That their cursory understanding based on seeing young people on their phone is enough to understand how to market to us, and that large research reports and the offhand intermittent focus group are sufficient to understand such a complicated and powerful generation. 

I think beyond that, we’re frustrated oftentimes to see people assume that Gen Z’s a monolith and assume that we’re all the same and I think that’s true of all groups that when we talk about them oftentimes, it’s much easier to paint with broad strokes and I think that, that is a really toxic and dangerous way to look at marketing in the world and I think we need to have diversity. Young people have to have a seat at the table if meaningful work is going to be done. 

I also think that people oftentimes discount Gen Z and our power or they’re skeptical of our knowledge or information because of our youth, instead of really accepting and acknowledging that. Because of the access to information that we have, we are reading and learning constantly and are so tuned in to the suffering that’s happening in our world today and subsequently, our world view has been shaped around that. We are young and we are looking at the future of our world and saying, ‘Things don’t have to be this way just because they’ve been this way.’ And we are gonna do what we can to make tomorrow better. And I hope more and more adults and older generations look at us and say, ‘They’re not entitled, they are dreaming and making those dreams come true and that’s what we need more of.’

Young people have to have a seat at the table if meaningful work is going to be done.

MH: You say that it’s a complicated and powerful generation.

ZA: Yeah.

MH: How so?

ZA: We are a generation that’s 72 percent of the world’s population, making us the largest generational cohort in the world. And certainly, we are complicated in geography. What it is to be me, who was born in Princeton, New Jersey and now I split my time between New Haven and New York is vastly different than someone who’s living in Wuhan, China right now, for example. I think that geography always is a complicated factor in terms of context and reality. 

Furthermore, I think that it’s complicated because so much of our generation and our power derives from social media, but social media’s a double-edged sword. For some of us, it has been this incredibly empowering vehicle to find ourselves in our community and to make a change. And for others, social media has been a really toxic force that has really made us doubt ourselves and experience FOMO and in some cases, experience severe mental health problems because of social media. For most of us perhaps, it’s both. It’s simultaneously this ecosystem that has become our whole world that is empowering and beautiful and necessary and also toxic and draining. This “compare culture” can be really dangerous to our psyche and so I think we’re complicated and nuanced because of that. 

I think our power is that we are the largest generational cohort in the world. We influence well over $600 billion in spending. Every middle school or high school and college student right now is a Generation Z-er and I fundamentally believe that middle school girls set the trends of every generation, right? They knew Musical.ly and Justin Bieber were hot long before we did and I think that power is tremendous. That we are not speculating about youth culture, speculating about culture; we are living it and setting it and people should not be sleeping on that.

MH: Okay, I’ve got a middle school daughter.

ZA: You do!

MH: Who I guess is setting the trend; yes she’s 13, going on 19.

ZA: She on TikTok?

MH: She’s not on TikTok; as a matter of fact, she’s very much against TikTok.

ZA: Why is that?

MH: She thinks it’s just for the cliquey girls, the pretty girls, the ones who are the mean girls, basically, in any given cohort and maybe that’s not true, but that’s a perception that she carries with her.

ZA: Interesting, interesting.

MH: So then help me understand how the consumption of content by those born between 1996 and 2010 is different than that of Millennials or Gen X. What is my middle school girl trendsetting?

TikTok is deciding what issues we talk about, what trends we are leading into, what songs we listen to and it’s not the 20-year-olds who are setting those trends, it is the 15-year-olds.

ZA: Certainly, I mean she would be the outlier in the case of TikTok. TikTok has well over 600 million users and is rapidly growing. There’s speculation that they’re gonna hit a billion very soon. 60 percent of TikTok users are Generation Z and the vast majority of the biggest TikTokers are like 15-year-old, 16-year-old girls and boys. 

Charli D’Amelio is the biggest TikToker in the world who Gen Z-ers are talking about every single day in our colloquial conversations. This is a random 15-year-old high school girl from Connecticut and that’s the norm right now. Charlie D’Amelio makes one video of a dance and suddenly hundreds of thousands of people are replicating that same dance and video to that same audio track. That power is tremendous and so, when I go on TikTok as a 21-year-old (and I spend quite a bit of time on TikTok), the vast majority of influencers that I’m looking at are high schoolers, are young kids. And they are setting trends. 

The top 50 songs on Spotify right now, a sizeable percentage of them are songs that have blown up through TikTok; the number one song is. TikTok is deciding what issues we talk about, what trends we are leading into, what songs we listen to and it’s not the 20-year-olds who are setting those trends, it is the 15-year-olds. Generation Z spends nine hours a day online; four hours of which they’re doing multitasking; our attention span is eight seconds.

MH: How do you get the attention of Gen Z when their attention span is eight seconds? And then more importantly, how do you keep that attention?

ZA: I spend a lot of time working with clients of all sorts asking that question, answering that question. If Gen Z has so much oversaturated content to choose from and you only have eight seconds to grab their attention, how do you do it? And what I tell my clients is mean what you say and show up for it. I think that what cuts through the noise are things that are true, are things that are real. There are three ways, in my view, to go viral: Doing something new and novel, doing something provocative, and doing something that gives somebody something. And I want my clients to do all three of those things; to do something new, to do something bold and big and brave, and to give people something and to be giving. 

When we make content that tells stories of in-between moments that we know are true because we’re living them, but that no one’s telling, I think that’s the content that we can’t stop watching. I think TikTok is a really relevant example of this because people are making jokes about life experiences that young people share, that older folk would have never known about because they’re not talking to us. They blow up because we’re like, ‘Wow we’re all living the same life LOL.’ 

We’re telling stories that are true but that no one’s telling that we all share and can commiserate about. And I think that we can create better content and have a better media landscape when we trust those closest to our reality and tell stories that haven’t been told before in a really authentic way, with calls to action.

MH: What is that call-to-action though? Because the bullshit meter of Gen Z is just as finely tuned as it is of a millennial.

ZA: Yeah more, I would say it’s more.

MH: More?

ZA: We’re that much more oversaturated with content and choice, etc. and certainly, we tune out most of the advertisements that we see and we’re very good at using the internet very quickly. 

The call to action, yeah. A lot of the time we will say it’s bullshit, but I think we won’t when it’s [a brand like] Patagonia. Patagonia’s been standing up for the environment and staying true to who they are and their product and their story forever. And so when they give donations and do campaigns around environmental justice and advocacy, we believe it to be true. It resonates and we share it because it’s true to who they are and they’re showing up for it. They weren’t forcing themselves into an issue they didn’t understand, that they didn’t know, and that was popular at the moment. And I think that we want all brands to do this; to know their why and to keep showing up for it consistently and repeatedly, and to do so in bold and disruptive and innovative ways. I think everyone has a capacity to do that, but first clients and companies must answer the question: why do I do what I do?

We develop close relationships with brands and that becomes a part of our own identity.

MH: Are Gen Z consumers loyal? Are they fickle? If the attention span is only eight seconds and you get their attention by way of authenticity and by speaking to them directly, does that create a lasting bond or is it more like the dog from Up? “Squirrel!”

ZA: I think we definitely have brand loyalty in some ways but it’s more complicated. You have people whose attention span is eight seconds, yes, but we also have the capacity to pay attention for hours and hours and hours, like [binge watching] on Netflix. It’s not that we can only pay attention for eight seconds. It’s that eight seconds is how long we give something to earn our attention. 

In terms of our brand affinity, you know, my dad only wore New Balance sneakers; he still only wears New Balance sneakers. We don’t make decisions like that or have this like bizarre affinity to one company that reasons that we can’t even quite articulate, for the most part. That’s not necessarily true in all cases. Many of us are super loyal to Apple, for example. We can’t even imagine migrating away from the Apple ecosystem. But that’s not necessarily because we love the brand so much. The ecosystem is so powerful that we cannot escape it. To leave iMessage, to leave all the things syncing would just be impractical. 

In terms of more consumer goods and retail, I think what you will see is that we are quite willing to change but when we love a brand, we really love it. I’m wearing Vejas right now and I wear my Vejas every day; they’re environmentally sustainable sneakers from Europe and they’re really popular with Gen Z right now and I love my Vejas and I will talk about them all the time. Whereas my parents you know, don’t really talk about brands in the same way or love brands whereas Gen Z-ers, for example, people love Fenty and will talk about it and post about it and share their content. We develop close relationships with brands and that becomes a part of our own identity. And so I think what you have is our extremes are more severe. We can really love something or we can drop it the next day rather than passively consuming whatever is convenient.

MH: It sounds then that marketers must constantly reinvent their messaging wheel.

ZA: Well I mean, Patagonia hasn’t constantly reinvented the messaging wheel. They said they always stand for the environment, but they adapted who they are and what they’re saying to what’s happening today. 

I think Adidas is another great example of a brand that has reinvented itself powerfully and made itself so culturally relevant by being ahead of the trends, by standing for creativity; That works with really diverse influencers and creators and expanding this notion of sport, including musicians in conversations around sports, fashion, and streetwear and by talking to the people who are setting the trends and setting the culture. You need to constantly be reinventing yourself, but not your why. Your why should stay the same. The mediums and the folks that you work with to make your why come to life, you should pivot because the world is pivoting.

MH: Gen Z is complaining about subscription fatigue. You know, when it was just Netflix, that was okay but now there’s a fracture in the streaming videos, stream audio. Pampers will even sell you an IoT diaper as a $60 a month subscription. Does Gen Z feel this fatigue or is it just the way the world works in their eyes?

ZA: I think it’s a rather interesting age where some of our subscriptions might still be in our parents’ plan. Some of us are paying for our own subscriptions, half and half, and some things we don’t have to yet subscribe to because we’re not old enough to need them. Not all of us have regular bills yet and so I think it’s sort of TBD if you will. 

I can speak for myself, personally. I have a number of subscriptions. I’m on my family’s Netflix; I’m on my family’s Hulu and with my Hulu plan I get Spotify, Hulu and Showtime all together through my student plan now, as I switch to my own. I have Class Pass for working out I pay for that myself. So I have a number of subscriptions and I don’t feel fatigued by it yet because I use them all regularly and consistently and they make my life better. I think there will be a point, especially when I have many more regular bills, that it will feel more overwhelming to have all these monthly recurring costs that I might not even be using. 

I think we will increasingly look for ways to manage our subscriptions and ability to toggle them on and off and I do think it is a way the world works. Right now, I think the problem is there are no good ways to manage the many subscriptions you have, but if there is – and I think there will because that’s where the market is headed – I think we will be okay and I think that we accept that this is the way the world works and I think we’re really happy with the products that we have. I can’t even believe that when I was in middle school, I used to pay $1.29 per song sometimes, right? Like that’s crazy to me that I had to choose what songs I loved and I paid per song. Now I can’t even imagine in my wildest dreams doing that.

MH: Wow, me telling you a story about going to a store and buying a compact disc must sound like ancient history to you.

ZA: Yeah, it is crazy. Walkmans and even the concept of an iPod that we had. Like you had to download specific songs onto it. It wasn’t like you could play any song at any time.

MH:  Right.

ZA: And streaming has just really changed the content game. I cannot imagine us reverting away from this model of subscriptions and streaming as it is but I do think that we will need better tools to manage the many subscriptions that we’re gonna have.

MH: Are Gen Z consumers less likely to go out into the world to get their entrainment now that everything comes to them at a glowing rectangle or is that just a Boomer question?

ZA: I don’t have data on this so I don’t wanna say definitively but I would say Gen Z loves a good experience more than a good product. I definitely think Gen Z-ers are going out to have great experiences for sure; there’s no doubt about it. 

Specifically, in a content space, I think this is why movie theaters are so much better now. We weren’t going to sit in those uncomfortable chairs and watch a movie when we can watch so much amazing content from the comfort of our homes. But these nice-ass chairs that recline all the way and that you can go on a cute date with and cuddle, with your parents not around… That is a value add that you couldn’t get at home. If I can get a better experience right now, I’m not gonna go somewhere else. It’s just a matter of giving me something better.

MH: So when a Gen Z consumer needs help, do they call a help desk or are they just satisfied with a chatbot?

ZA: I hate talking on the phone. I spend so much time on the phone because I’m running this business and talking to my clients and people on my team, especially since a lot of my team is remote. That’s enough for me as it is. But I would never in my wildest dreams, if I had a problem with a product, call on the phone. Like in no circumstance. Yes, I prefer a chatbot, I prefer email form or form on a website; literally anything else but talking on the phone.

MH: Why is that; what’s the aversion to talking to a real human?

ZA: So many times, the customers lines that I’ve called are just not helpful. They transfer me from person to person and I just want whoever I’m talking to, to be able to solve it and to solve it quickly and easily. And I think it’s much easier to just type out your problem once and then have them go run around and deal with it internally than staying on the line and waiting for them to figure it out. The idea of staying on a line seems impractical and antiquated. 

I also think there’s a sense of intimacy with talking on the phone that makes me feel weird about talking to some stranger and some call center, sometimes about personal problems with products. It’s much easier to chat with a chatbot or fill out a form. I think we want the ability to call on a phone. I think there are some problems that necessitate that, but by and large, we need those other formats too. 

With Twitter, you know we do it all the time. We @ company to help and then we DM them and get things handled that way. I think that instant communication and being able to hear back from somebody immediately is really important to us.

MH: So with that in mind, is privacy dead to Gen Z? Have they just accepted that or is there going to be pushback?

TikTok is free, therapy isn’t.

ZA: I think when the Cambridge analytical scandal happened I think it was mostly older folks who were alarmed and Gen Z knew that they were taking our data. That wasn’t a surprise to us. When you play games or quizzes, you consent to let the app post for you. 

We don’t like that companies are misusing our data or selling it or being dishonest about how much they’re taking. Don’t get me wrong, but I don’t think it’s at the top of our priority list in terms of issues that we care about. 

The mantra is, TikTok is free, therapy isn’t. We have access to free platforms and TikTok is an incredible case study on using data that they get from just looking at how much we scroll and how fast we scroll, etc. So they have content that is curated to you without you answering questions when you make a new account. And I think that we love things like that. Our phones know so much about us and in turn, should give us content and advertisements and things that we want to see. We want that; we want good content. I don’t think we want our companies to be dishonest, but as long as your terms and conditions are true, yeah, you can have my data. I’m consenting to it when I click accept and I might not be reading all the terms and conditions. 

I hope the companies aren’t being dishonest and in exchange, give me something personalized and useful and relevant to me. I don’t think I ever thought my data was secure on the internet. I’ve known from a very young age that my digital footprint will be massive and that everything that I put out there is in the public domain. I don’t know that everyone unilaterally has that same level of education regarding digital citizenship but I think, by and large, Gen Z is the most adept at understanding the consequence of the digital era because we’re constantly in it and we understand it and we see what’s happened to our peers and stories that things have happened to our peers. So while I certainly have concerns sometimes about security and privacy, I don’t think they’re the top of any of our minds. 

MH: Let’s pivot a little bit further down that Apple path. You point out that there is a garden that Apple has that makes it difficult, if not impossible, for someone to extricate themselves from that garden. The telecommunications industry that provides the backbone for that little glowing rectangle doesn’t have that benefit, and often the mobile telecom industry lands itself at the bottom of consumer satisfaction lists. What does the mobile telecom industry need to do, to keep a young consumer as a subscriber?

ZA: We work quite a bit with mobile telecommunications companies so I definitely think about this question quite a bit. The truth of the matter is the vast majority of Gen Z are on our parents’ plans; we’re on family plans. It was not a choice that we ever made to have the carrier that we have. We don’t have a tremendous brand affinity to any one of them. The carrier that I have, I feel nothing about. I have no communication with them. I have never been to the store. 

My parents got me my phone and my plan and that’s true of most of Gen Z but not all, obviously. People come from very different socio-economical family backgrounds and some people are supporting themselves. But still, by and large, people are on family plans and it was not a singular Gen Z-er who made the decision of what carrier to have and if they did, it was a cost choice for the most part. Often times it’s whatever the cheapest one is. I think carriers do have it harder than retail and technology companies because it’s really invisible. 

Gen Z really cares about virtue signalling and signalling something about our politics and who we are by purchasing things and having them show up in our day-to-day lives and in our social media. But no one sees your carrier and so I think it makes it harder to market and convince someone it’s worth switching when you already have something that works. As long as it works, that’s all we really care about. 

What I’m excited to see is that, right now, I don’t think people are agitating for technology and telecommunications and social media companies to be ethical or sustainable because we’re really focused on the small day-to-day purchases that we’re making. Those are the purchases that Gen Z’ers are making. The oldest Gen Z is only 23 or 24, so purchases that we make most regularly are like, going to the CVS and going to the random stores. I think we’ve pushed those industries quite a bit, but I think that increasingly we’re gonna be pushing our telecommunications and technology companies to say, “Hey, what is your environmental impact? What do you stand for?” I don’t think we’ve really had that conversation yet. We’re sort of giving those companies a free pass and I think we’ll hopefully shift the industry over the next decade to say it’s not enough to provide mediocre service. You need to provide a much better product and have a much better why.

MH: I wonder about that much better product, you know with 5G on the horizon for most of us and present for some of us already. You know that old William Gibson line about the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed. I wonder if there’s an opportunity for that industry to reinvent itself in the eyes of Gen Z because 5G is going to offer way more than just a faster internet connection.

ZA: Yeah, but I don’t think that Gen Z particularly knows that or cares about that.

MH: You mean Gen Z’s not too keen on industry 4.0? My 13-year-old daughter doesn’t care?

ZA: I am a 21-year-old CEO of a Gen Z consulting firm who is on my phone and computer and desktop and iPad all day long and is plugged in constantly and needs good service. I could not tell you the difference between 4G and 3G or LTE or any of these things. When my phone works, it works and I’m happy it works. 

Our office is in Times Square and as I walking in I see three different companies with these giant 5G billboards and I don’t know what that means and I work with telecommunications companies. I know more than the average consumer but I don’t really functionally know what it will change. I have some case studies and examples that I know, but I think consumers don’t know what it will change and don’t particularly care. 

I think that people care about cost. People care about mission far more than they do about some branded technology that we don’t really quite understand. I think a lot of time is being spent between telecommunications companies fighting over who really has the real 5G and the most 5G. 

But consumers are sitting here saying like, “Why are you exploiting me? Why am I getting bills for things I didn’t ask for? Why does my signal not work half the time?” and what is this marketing gonna do about that? I think we sometimes focus on the wrong issue by not talking enough to our consumers. In the conversations I’ve had with my peers, I don’t think any of us want our carriers to have 5G. What I want is for my carrier to have is a way to cancel my plan through an app so I don’t have to go in the store and wait three hours. What I want my carrier to have is forgiveness if I miss a deadline to pay a bill so I don’t get fined. What I want my carrier to have is a cheaper plan for students. Those are the things that I think people care about, not some branded technology that we don’t quite understand.

MH: One of the things that 5G’s going to bring us on mass is this cloud gaming idea. No matter where you are, you’ll be able to pull out your phone, your Switch from Nintendo or sit on your couch in your house and watch something on a big screen tv, play it, and then move along with it. Google Stadia is a perfect example of that. I wonder if that’s an opportunity for 5G to say here’s what we can do.

ZA: Absolutely, and I think there are lots of case studies like that. For example, a lot of Gen Z-ers hate that when we go to concerts, our signal gets jammed and we can’t post stories. And 5G is going to mitigate that issue when it is installed in stadiums. 

I certainly think there are case studies that are compelling and that will propel us to the future regarding gaming and such will be transformative but I think saying we have 5G and the other network doesn’t, doesn’t mean anything to us. Marketing should tell that story of the problem that we’re solving for rather than just the name of a technology, if that makes sense.

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