Promo's Youth Movement

Photo: Getty Images by RyanJLane

Millennials are already having major success in the industry, and crushing stereotypes along the way. Here’s how promo companies are attracting them to the business side.

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by Joseph Myers
February 2019

Millennials, whom the Pew Research Center defines as those born between 1981 and 1996, totaled 71 million in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, a tally that positions them to exceed the amount of Baby Boomers—those whose birth years range from 1946 and 1964—next year, thus making them the nation’s largest generation. Their vast numbers have led to ample considerations of every facet of their identities, with observers frequently scrutinizing them as coveting instant gratification and seeking shortcuts to success.

Said critics must be having limited interactions with millennials, especially within the print and promotional products space. The industry is, increasingly, teeming with them, and they’re proving wrong the tired stereotypes. They need no encouragement to make their presence known to their employers and contemporaries. They know they’ll often have to pay considerable dues to advance. And they understand that growth won’t come with the wave of a hand, that job stress won’t just dissipate thanks to the newest and glitziest tech gadget. In other words, millennials realize that they can prove themselves as vital contributors without having to lock themselves into a specific timeframe by which they must achieve success. If they are heading to the workplace with ideas that will further a company’s mission, they know they will reap regard.

In fact, as Katie Swinburn, who serves as vice president of sales for Philadelphia-based Pop! Promos, contends, her fellow millennials desire immediate satisfaction only from themselves, as she and her contemporaries understand that giving their all will stimulate multi-faceted growth and perhaps inspire a few aspirations to start their own commercial enterprises. Owing to those qualities and others, millennials are establishing themselves as being as integral to bottom lines as their workplaces’ products and services. We talked to several promo industry sources, who told us how their businesses are welcoming and employing millennials today—and what the industry can do to get younger generations involved in promo.

Millennial Momentum

Census statistics reveal that millennials comprise 35 percent of America’s labor force, placing them 2 percent above Generation X (those born between 1965 and 1980) and 8 percent clear of Baby Boomers. The data adds that 56 million millennials have secured employment or are seeking positions, a figure that, if anyone still wanted to advocate for the stereotype of millennials as loafs with little ambition, further proves their value to the future of commerce. What, though, helps millennials excel within the promotional products world? Does it require gifts that seem better suited for 
their collective skillsets, or do they enter it knowing that doing so will help them preserve a thriving industry and give them a foothold in helping clients advertise and communicate more effectively?

“You can never speak for everyone, but I think many millennials take on these jobs because they’re hungry to achieve and eager to show their competitive spirit,” Swinburn, who’s been with Pop! Promos for five years, said from the supplier’s offices in Philadelphia’s booming Northern Liberties neighborhood. “We often find ourselves working with people in our age bracket, so that’s a plus in terms of camaraderie, and even when we’re dealing with people who are older than us, we’re gathering knowledge from them, too, and seeing how we can enhance customer satisfaction.”

Absorbing all that information has paid dividends for Swinburn et al, as Pop! Promos earned distinction in the Philadelphia 100 as the fastest-growing area company in 2015. Since then, the supplier has taken on enough business to merit a move, which, this year, will yield their third office space and fourth overall site since their 2011 inception. Under the leadership of founder/CEO Erin Reilly and founder/president Sterling Wilson, the company has excelled as a millennials-heavy supplier, and it’s no mystery to Swinburn and Clare Thompson, an account executive for Pop! Promos, why they’ve had so much success.

“Every day, all the people know they have so much say in how we operate,” Thompson said. “There are so many personalities here, and we all mesh because we all want to build on the reputation that this company has as a great partner for your business needs.”

The 24-year-old Thompson plays a huge part not only in furthering that reputation, but also in proving that youth is definitely not wasted on the young. With an average age of 26.72 years, the Pop! Promos crew is an extremely energetic bunch that goes against the estimation of young people as entitled individuals who shun responsibility and put in minimal effort while expecting to flourish.

“Yes, many people believe that because of the way that many millennials grew up, we all think recognition should be automatic,” Swinburn said in making a direct mention of what one might call The Participation Trophy Phenomenon. “I’m here to tell you, though, that this line of work has made it obvious to me, and many others, that we don’t expect things to be handed to us. We’re responsible to ourselves to learn all we can, and, if we do so, our employers are going to trust us with their businesses. So, to make a long story short, it’s rare, even if you’re really talented, that you’re going to make it anywhere without having major tests of your abilities.”

Members of the Pop! Promos team. With an average employee age of 26.72 years, the Philadelphia-based supplier is at the forefront of the promo industry’s changing of the guard.

For Swinburn and Thompson, life in the promotional products industry offers such challenges, but because of the gregarious nature of their higher-ups, themselves millennials, they feel prepared to refute any claim that their peers are subpar torchbearers for their profession.

“No matter where you go, simply because of the amount of us that there are in the workforce, you’re going to encounter millennials, and many of them are in positions of authority,” said Thompson. “This field is no different, and I’d say it’s a particularly good one for us to enter because so much of what we do relies on following trends and understanding how people’s preferences change. I’d argue that nobody knows that better than millennials.”

“We’re savvy and hard-working,” Swinburn said, with Thompson nodding in agreement. “That’s not a generalization, because people our age are showing every day that they want responsibility. They thrive on it, in fact, because they realize that they can make an impact through client interaction and lead generation.”

In displaying those talents, millennials, Swinburn holds, make essential hires, and companies would be wise to keep adding them to their ranks, especially those like Thompson who are close to the Pew Research Center age range cutoff.

“I think they can do better with respect to respecting what we can offer,” Swinburn said of how businesses approach recruiting and subsequently employing and retaining millennials. “Like Clare said, there are so many of us that we’re bound to end up in prominent places, and though we’re young, we’re not necessarily keen on 
always being reminded of that. We have potential that we try to show every day.”

No matter if millennials add to the operations of a promotional products company, they are going to be entrusted with many pressing tasks. Therefore, having the mindset that they are significant pieces of a company’s economic and interpersonal puzzle 
will encourage them to carve out a long tenure with an employer, but also to look forward to when they themselves are training their future helpers—fellow millennials or members of what the Pew Research Center dubs Post-Millennials (also known as Gen Z), those born after 1996. Since so many companies have chosen to take on more than one specialty, many millennials might find themselves employed at a company that sets the bar especially high, meaning the hires will need to exhibit extra curiosity and quickly get familiar with a number of tasks and product lines.

Headlocks and Hugs

Dynamic Advertising Solutions (DAS) Inc., also headquartered in Philadelphia, offers such an experience. Handling custom apparel, graphic design, logistics, print and promotional products, the 15-year-old company, under the leadership of Andrew Langsam and Charles Lee, began in Washington, D.C. with the goal of creating a “professional organization customers could trust to receive high-touch, quality service and get jobs done right the first time.” Growth necessitated the addition of a second site, with Philadelphia’s Manayunk section joining our nation’s capital in fostering employees’ skillsets, especially those of hires who belong to the millennial generation.

“All of them,” Joe LaRose, director of sales for DAS, said of how many members of his 10-person team are aged 21 to 37. “And every one of them is a major asset to what we’re doing at DAS.”

At 59-years-old, LaRose considers himself a proud member of the Baby Boomer generation, and uses his business acumen to consider how anyone, regardless of age, will enhance DAS’s standing. But he also desires to see how landing a position with the company will help an individual to grow. Having logged six years with the company, he has come to rely on more than two decades of high school football coaching experience to assist in personnel decisions, and can narrow down to three words what he feels millennials often need to excel.

“Headlocks and hugs,” he said. “We can’t have a great day all the time, and this business can be pretty intimidating, so I tell people that I’m qualified to give both and ask them which one they need on a given day.”

With 11 overall years in the business, LaRose has seen enough to know what attracts younger individuals to the print and promotional products industries, and, with respect to enticing people to join DAS and places like it, he believes the impetus for employers is to have candidates sense that they will flourish, and workers see that they will always have their opinions validated.

“We hear all the time how millennials have this obnoxious sense of entitlement, and I don’t agree with that one bit,” he said. “I do feel—and this is what I think of all of us as workers, no matter the line of work—that we want to have our ideas listened to. I know that since so many businesses worry nonstop about their economic future that they tend to lean on older, more established people for their major decisions, but that’s not always going to guarantee a successful series of transactions, and it’s likely to stir some dissension in the ranks among the younger set.”

LaRose thrives on being a mentor to budding contributors, yet he knows the perils of supposing that millennials, based simply on any age gaps between the workers and their managers, lack the tools to be competent salespeople. Having already debunked the belief that millennials want to skate by and have their every action praised up and down, he was also quick to critique those who believe that their mastery of technology and social media resounds as a major hindrance to customary forms of communication.

“I’m a bit of a dinosaur, so of course my main understanding of conversation comes through actual face-to-face exchanges,” he said. “And though that type of sharing of ideas is never going to go away, everyone has to face that the way we communicate is changing. It boggles my mind that we have businesspeople, who always talk about how change is necessary in order to build a company, balk at realizing that it’s not always the equipment or the products that are going to be alone in experiencing those changes.”

We need to get younger sooner. There are so many opportunities for millennials to learn valuable skills that are going to serve them not only in their professional lives but in their personal ones, too. We want to be able to say we comprehend so much about ourselves, and if millennials are part of this field from the beginning of their journeys as workers, they’re going to be more productive.

—Miles Wadsworth, president, Logo Mats LLC

Technological advances and the growing reliance on social media don’t make LaRose the least bit bitter for not having had such tricks up his sleeve when he came of age. In fact, he doesn’t have any trace of envy. He considers millennials’ eagerness to adapt and learn the latest systems a boon to their employability. “I think, when looking for young talent, that places want employees who can display admirable people and technical skills,” he said. “Folks like me, we’ll always be valuable, but millennials are going to outnumber us very soon, and Gen Xers are huge, too, so I know it’s human nature to be worried about who is coming next and who might replace us. But I think millennials should be respected and not feared. They can learn from me just as readily as I can learn from them.”

Believing that such mutual instruction should exist within every company, LaRose holds that those businesses that specialize in promotional products and print markets can gain standout status in acknowledging and nurturing millennials’ skills. DAS handles those commodities earnestly, and LaRose particularly feels that print, which many make out to be a realm where only far more seasoned professionals dare to tread, can surprise doubters as a great field for millennials, especially if said workers or would-be hires strategize well. While forming a plan to excel in the print world can sound daunting, LaRose thinks it all begins with giving young employees a chance to do what he asserts they are quite adept at—namely, communicating.

“We always encourage employees, no matter their age, to aim high,” he said. “I think, though, that many people forget that you also have to go for the low-hanging fruit, as there are great opportunities there. Also, you must, must, must know your environment, which is why we encourage our employees to know their community, which even involves our having them head to a local store just to engage with the general public.”

That sense of what LaRose calls “owning the neighborhood before you own the world” flies in the face of perceptions that millennials are introverted shut-ins who wish to fraternize only with those who hold the same beliefs and enjoy the exact pastimes. While having such a demeanor might work in certain settings, it will never, he noted, lead to any true professional maturation.

“Millennials get that, too, no matter what people say,” LaRose said. “They get grief because they might not be structuring their lives the way that people from other generations did and are doing, but they want traction, and statistics show that it’s not right to say they’re gaining it. Simply put, they’ve already achieved it.”

Getting Younger

Life as a professional has proven quite compatible with Miles Wadsworth, who has helmed Logo Mats LLC, LaGrange, Ga., for the last three years. As the supplier’s president, the 32-year-old stands out as one of the promotional products industry’s most successful millennials, with a wiser-beyond-his-years mentality helping him to gain admiration among his more-tenured peers. He has tallied many lessons from his journey and believes that those of his generation certainly have, too, therefore positioning themselves to overcome all stereotypes and covet and acquire leadership roles.

“Simply put, millennials are hungry,” Wadsworth, who was recently profiled in our sister publication Print+Promo’s Under 40 list. “We’re very willing to learn and enhance a company’s standing. Another big benefit is that we love to travel and interact with people. That goes against the thinking that we’re hooked on technology and lack the motivation to engage with people. While, yes, millennials know their way around technology, I don’t think their interpersonal skills are behind those of people who are much older or even a little older [than they are].”

With respect to how millennials are standing out in the promo business, Wadsworth, who began as a management trainee at Logo Mats, feels that the last five years in particular have helped people to see the benefits of believing in their skillsets. And technology, in what should not come as a shock to anyone, is leading their charge.

“I think that millennials are very aware that you have to adapt and evolve constantly,” Wadsworth said. “A repercussion, perhaps the main one, of not following through with that is becoming obsolete. Even though many millennials are just getting the hang of their professions, I think that message is pretty clear, and in the promotional products field, where you’re always challenged to be innovative, it’s an even more important one to understand and act on.”

While he asserts that millennials have mastered the art of making themselves marketable, he doesn’t feel that they should be doing all the work in landing positions with companies.

“We need to get younger sooner,” Wadsworth said of the promo industry. “There are so many opportunities for millennials to learn valuable skills that are going to serve them not only in their professional lives but in their personal ones, too. We want to be able to say we comprehend so much about ourselves, and if millennials are part of this field from the beginning of their journeys as workers, they’re going to be more productive. You’ll see the benefits in their comprehension of branding, business management and the like, but you’re also going to notice that they’re making strides to build their overall identities, too.

“There are many young and smart minds to welcome to this field,” he added. “Perhaps one of the ways to attract them is to make yourself known to them very early. This field is so heavy in terms of self-promotion, so when many millennials are just 
beginning to understand the value of promoting themselves, too, which happens for many of us during college, suppliers and distributors should be giving them a full look at what life could be like in this field. That way, if they join a company, the learning curve is going to be diminished, and more productivity is going to be the result. Like with a college sports team, for example, you have to recruit whoever is going to make you stronger. My contemporaries need to know that millennials are those key pieces.”

As a top supplier of custom logo apparel, Vantage Apparel believes firmly in the talents of young people, with President Ira Neaman holding that millennials thrive, industry-wide, because of their marketing and customer interaction acumen. As the chief face behind the Avenel, N.J. destination, Neaman, celebrating 41 years in the field, has employed numerous millennials and possesses a great read on what they seek in managing their identities.

“Primary to them is a work-life balance,” Neaman said. “Work should offer a sense of fulfillment and more than a paycheck. [It should be] an environment where people look forward to going, participating in and adding value to.”

While a great choice, “balance” might not come to mind right away for those who feel millennials always tip the scales in their own favor and do whatever they can to serve themselves first, second and so on. Thanks to people like Wadsworth, though, they deserve constant consideration as thought-leaders and action-takers. “There’s something to learn every day, and I’ll readily admit that I don’t know everything,” he said. “Everyone has talents, and one of those skills should be using your curiosity. Mine serves me pretty well."