Debunking the biggest myths about zoomers
Gen Z is transforming the way we create and consume media, and they are also holding brands across industries to a higher standard. At the Web Summit conference, Nora spoke with trailblazing genderfluid fashion designer Harris Reed, who was recently tapped by global communications firm Edelman to lead its new “Gen Z Lab”—part consultancy, part data hub—as the first ever “ZEO.” Edelman’s Chief Brand Officer Jackie Cooper also joined the conversation to discuss how exactly companies and brands should approach Gen Z, without being fake about it. For more info on our presenting sponsor, check out https://purple.com.
Host: Nora Ali
Producer: Raymond Luu
Video Editors: Sebastian Vega and Evan Frolov
Production, Mixing & Sound Design: Daniel Markus & Nick Torres
Fact Checker: Kate Brandt
Senior Producer: Katherine Milsop
Full transcripts for all Business Casual episodes available at https://businesscasual.fm
Nora Ali: For Morning Brew, this is Business Casual, bringing you convos with people you know, and some you may not know yet, to make business less intimidating. Because money talks, but it does not have to be dull. I'm your host, Nora Ali. Now let's get down to business.
I am thrilled to bring you another conversation from Web Summit 2022 in Lisbon, Portugal. Web Summit is the world's largest technology event, according to Financial Times. And there were over 71,000 attendees from 160 countries, and the energy has been absolutely incredible. Something we heard a lot from a number of tech and media experts here: "Ignore Gen Z at your own peril." Gen Z is transforming the way we create and consume news and pretty much all media, and the generation is holding brands across industries to a higher standard. I had the chance to speak with one Gen Zer leading the charge. Trailblazing, genderfluid fashion designer Harris Reed has dressed a list of VIP clients that includes Harry Styles, Solange, and Emma Watson. It's no surprise that global communications firm Edelman recently tapped Harris to lead its new Gen Z Lab—part consultancy, part data hub—as a first-ever ZEO.
Harris joined me at Web Summit, along with Edelman's Chief Brand Officer Jackie Cooper, to discuss how exactly companies and brands should approach Gen Z without being fake about it. They also dispelled major misconceptions about Gen Z. Spoiler alert: Not everyone wants to be an influencer. And we talked about what the rise of Gen Z leaders means for the future of business. It was so fun to have this conversation in person amid the hustle and bustle of Web Summit, and I hope you enjoy this very special episode, right after a quick break.
Welcome, Jackie and Harris, to the Business Casual podcast. Here we are at Web Summit in Lisbon. Let's set some context, Jackie, for what Edelman is, exactly. So it's a global communications firm. Can you describe who your clients are, and what services you provide as a company?
Jackie Cooper: Absolutely. We're actually the world's largest global communications company. We're independent, which is part of the reason why we're sort of so fired up and proud. We're actually just celebrated our 70th anniversary where Dan Edelman established the company in Chicago, and we basically have such a huge roster of clients because we work across reputation and crisis, or brand, or tech, obviously, or show business and entertainment. And so our clients are everything from Microsoft to Starbucks to Samsung. And this is actually my first time here at Web Summit, but not Edelman's first time. So we have a crew here who come every year, but I'm a newbie.
Nora Ali: Amazing. So what do you do as chief brand officer? What are your responsibilities?
Jackie Cooper: So looking after the brand portfolio and making sure that our teams are continuing to trailblaze and know what's going on in culture, know what's going on in business, know what the threats are, what the opportunities are, and that we have the best people around the world who can help our clients reach out, be famous, do good, make impact. It's exciting.
Harris Reed: She does it all. She does it all.
Nora Ali: She does. And one of those best people that you have is Harris. You are the ZEO. What does a ZEO do? That's a new role.
Harris Reed: It's a new role. Well, it's nice because it's still being defined, I think, every day. I'm someone who likes to have my fingers on everything. So I think the day-to-day is basically, the Gen Z CEO at Edelman is very much being in a space where I kind of bring my Gen Z perspective to clients, to briefs, to meetings, and make sure that clients that are nervous about approaching this generation, which is the future generation, can do it in a way that's communicating properly. It's not going to put them in a place of doing anything that's inauthentic. And really steering them in this kind of new space, across the LGBTQIA+ space, across sustainability, across environment, across everything. So it's still being defined, because I'm doing more and more within it and it's growing, and the appetite just keeps getting bigger. So the role just keeps changing.
Nora Ali: And we were talking off mic before, and you were saying that you have instincts; you get information from your peers how you're feeling about certain issues. And that's backed up by data that Edelman has. So how do you guys work together? How does that collaboration come to fruition?
Jackie Cooper: Yeah. I mean, it actually is good to say very quickly how the journey started. Because then that's how we made it work, which is that I was asked to host a panel for Adweek, when we were still doing virtual panels, and there were six CMOs on that panel. And it was a closed room, so it wasn't to showboat, it was to discuss. And we said, "What's the thing that's on your radar that's freaking you out the most about being in a chief marketing role right now?" And we asked each of those attendees separately, and every single one said Gen Z.
Nora Ali: Oh no. They're afraid of Gen Z?
Jackie Cooper: They're afraid of Gen Z. And everyone said, "What the hell's TikTok, anyway?"
Harris Reed: And that's when she called me.
Jackie Cooper: That genuinely framed it. Because we thought, "What happens if we get to be people who can reassure these great leaders who don't want to put a foot wrong?" But paralysis is the worst thing for marketers, right?
Nora Ali: Yeah.
Jackie Cooper: You have to be brave, you have to have some punch, you have to reach out. And so if we know stuff, then we can make decisions and we can help. So we did the first one in six markets, and we kind of bust the myths. We said, "Look, don't be scared of Gen Zers. They are actually not radical activists, but they are a bunch of people who are going, 'Can we have some action, please?' And, 'Can you explain why you've left us in this mess?'" And the biggest thing about all of this is, the thing that came out that then fired the Gen Z Lab and me reaching out to Harris was that this generation, in the data...we called it the generation of sensibility, because actually we've all been grown up in marketing to be aspirational and to be sort of things we can't reach. But actually, this generation is saying, "You know what? There's so many things that I need companies and brands to step up and fix." That unless you do that, 80% of them aren't going to buy your stuff.
And so we had the data; the data gave birth to people asking questions; the asking questions thought, we better have a service then, because otherwise we can't actually help, and we also need to have some inspiration, creativity, and boots on the ground. And so I reached out to Harris and said, "How do you feel like doing this?" Because he's been so passionate about change and getting communication to be bigger and wider in spaces where maybe voices haven't been heard. And then we back that up with 150 Gen Zers around the world.
Nora Ali: 150 people. So you're using them for research and asking them questions. And when Jackie says, "You are looking for change," Harris, what does that mean exactly, and how are you leveraging the Gen Z Lab to make that happen?
Harris Reed: So I think the thing that really excited me when...I've known Jackie, also to preface, since I moved to London nine years ago. She's the first person I met before all the design stuff, and the awards, and my own brand taking off, and becoming a creative director. And she told me straight, she was, you know, gave me the best honest advice. So when she came to me for this and brought up, "How do you feel about doing this role?" It felt so authentic and real. And to your point about the change, for me, in fashion, I feel like I've hit a little bit of a glass ceiling. I've done the New Yorker, I've done my shows, it's all about fluidity and trying to break down the gender binary, but it's such a kind of niche market of people within that fashion world. So when she was like, "Our clients are Starbucks, and Microsoft, and Samsung," I was like, "These are actually people that can actually implement big change."
So I can't say too many things, but even the things we've been doing internally with some major, major companies is me being like, "No, you can no longer sell a product in this way because you're alienating a whole market because you're so...masculinity that's completely dated, or you're not actually having the inclusiveness whatsoever through the typeface that you're putting on this product, or the marketing, or the choice of face."
And so it's been really exciting, because I think those are the things that makes the biggest difference, is what you're buying in the store, what you're seeing on the side of the bus on the way to work. And so I think for me, it was able for me to push my own ceiling of going outside my comfort zone of fashion, where still has a lot of work to be done, but it's kind of already embracing this idea of inclusivity and sustainability, whether it wants to or not. So bringing that to a grander stage has been quite exciting. And also meeting with companies that would probably never let me in the front door. And again I can't name names, but there's ones that I'm very excited about. So I think that's been what's quite exciting. And it's also whether companies want to or not, they know that they need to change, because this generation is going to be the next generation. They're going to be the majority of the people that are working within those companies and potentially taking them over.
Nora Ali: But in terms of what Gen Z looks for in brands today, Harris, from your perspective, is it taking a strong stance on social causes? Is it being a friendly employer and treating their staff well? What do Gen Z look for when they choose which brands to do business with?
Harris Reed: I think it's a 360. For me the main word is transparency, because it is every single one of the things that you've just said. I think it's not just about like, "Oh, we're taking a stance on the environment this month and we're doing all the products sustainable and all the packaging is sustainable." Which they should be doing anyways. It's also like, "Oh, within our company we're also making an effort to diversify the portfolio. We're actually hiring on different people." It's really a brand. And this is why I think social media is so massive in TikTok and Instagram and Snapchat, and it's because people want to see what's behind the closed doors. And if companies can't show that level of transparency, they're just losing people. So I think the main thing, though, is actually taking a stance for something that rings super true to the brand.
Nora Ali: Right.
Harris Reed: But then after, it's, you have to follow it up with, who works actually in your company. Because if it's Queer Month, or LGBTQIA+ Month, and then you literally have almost no kind of outwardly queer individuals within your company, then you're going to be heavily questioned. So it is a 360, I think, brand image, but definitely really taking a firm stance.
Nora Ali: You can't just do it when it's the month to do it and it's a marketing thing. It has to be part of your company.
Harris Reed: And companies know that. I mean, even for me, again without saying company names, even this last pride that came around, that was always my biggest thing with the massive six-figure, seven-figure offers for me to be on the face of things. And I obviously always said no. Because I'm like, "Oh, are you actually giving back to a foundation? Are you actually putting your money where your mouth is?" Where this year, all me and kind of my queer friends that get the emails, there was almost nothing. Because companies I think are now in this paralysis, scared, because they're like, "Uh, we don't want to get called out for doing it wrong." And I'm like, "Well, just bring on someone to consult or speak and give real advice in that category." And then you're not going to get called out because you'll actually do it correctly.
Nora Ali: All right, we're going to take a very quick break. More with Jackie and Harris when we return. So as Gen Z becomes those leaders and managers in the C-suite, what does that mean for the future of how businesses operate? And what even the workplace looks like?
Jackie Cooper: It's going to be so fascinating, isn't it? Because you've got your first Gen Zers voted into the Senate, you've got 24-year-olds increasingly in positions of power. Gen Z also hustle. They're not looking at one career. Look at Harris: He's like multifaceted and he's kicking it in every area that he's...
Harris Reed: Doing it all.
Jackie Cooper: He needs to say no, but not to me, but to other people. And so this notion of having a side hustle and letting one thing feed another and being really entrepreneurial, but being entrepreneurial with a view to impact. And so I think the impact of Gen Zers, already, you can see in employee policy, in corporate policy, in communications policy. The speed of that is going to increase as these Gen Zers come of age. And I think you either embrace it and have a world of hope...
Harris Reed: Or you're in the dust.
Jackie Cooper: ...or you're going to be in big trouble.
Harris Reed: Well, I was going to say, to your point, I think, or you're literally...it's going to fall apart. Because obviously you're going to have the Gen Zers there that are keeping in consideration head space and, you know, people's well-being, and all of these factors that are just going to be missed by a generation that's older that doesn't really maybe fully relate to those issues. So I think it's either like...even with some of the clients we've been talking to, I'm like, "You either kind of get on or..." Because everyone's like, "Oh, we're doing okay, it's kind of going okay." And you're like, "Yeah, well, it's not going to keep going okay."
Nora Ali: It's not enough, yeah.
Harris Reed: Because it's going to flip a corner, where Gen Z's going to kind of take over, and let's not make it a thing about Gen Z taking over. It's more like, embrace it, use it, because you're using genuine intuition, and genuine, you know...
Nora Ali: Right.
Harris Reed: ...the future. And then I think it's going to be more successful.
Nora Ali: Yeah. All of your hustles, Harris, you do so much, you've dressed people like Harry Styles, which is absolutely incredible. So for those listeners out there who are trying to juggle a lot of different things, it's now the norm to have a lot of different jobs, a lot of different streams of revenue. What advice do you have? What have you learned to also maintain your mental health through that whole process?
Harris Reed: Have? I think, for me, it's really writing things down and knowing what you're doing things for. For my fashion, that's my soul. It's what I do, it's how I express it. So I think it's just doing different things that cater to different parts of who I am. So there's like my soul, my gut, and then the things that are in my head, which a lot of times are more my kind of fun collaborations, like I did a thing with Lexus recently, where I just want to kind of whittle something up that's really creative and sparkling and beautiful that I believe in, and do that. So there's that. And then I think just remember to...you know, therapy is important.
Nora Ali: Yes, agree.
Harris Reed: Having a good core group of people around you is important. And like Jackie said, you have to learn to say no. Everyone is juggling everything. So just know what you're doing it for. And just remember to have that time to check in, and it's so much more easily said than done. And my boyfriend, if you're probably listen to this, is going to be like, "You need to take your own advice, because you're sitting on your three phones at home sometimes." And I'm literally like, "Blah, blah, blah, ex-client at Edelman, blah, blah, blah, ex-celebrity at Harris Reed, blah, blah, blah." But, you know, I think, and like Jackie said about even coming here, being quite an out queer person and coming to this quite intense, feeling a little bit male-dominated, environment. I mean, not here, women power, but I was quite nervous, and Jackie was like, "No, no, no, this is good because new situations bring out new creativity." And she's so right. Like randomly being in these different spaces, it brings out so much more passion and so much more drive within different kind of avenues. So I'm blabbing on, but remember, they all feed each other.
Nora Ali: Totally.
Harris Reed: And I think that's why Gen Z is so rich. Because besides caring about so many different things, we have so many different spaces to put our imprint and our footing on.
Nora Ali: Yeah, I'm confident you'll have tons of inspiration coming out of this tech conference for who knows what. And also, hello to Harris's boyfriend; we hope you're listening. We're going to take a quick break. More with Harris and Jackie when we come back.
I have also heard psychological safety in the workplace is very important, where you can share ideas and people will "yes, and" you instead of doubting your expertise or doubting your ideas.
Harris Reed: Yeah.
Nora Ali: So on that note, there's this misconception about this obsession with TikTok and how Gen Z all want to be influencers. I loved in Edelman's report that you found that only 12% aspire to be an influencer.
Harris Reed: Whoop whoop.
Nora Ali: Not a hundred percent. So on that note, what are some of the other misconceptions about Gen Z that Edelman has debunked with the data?
Jackie Cooper: That they're radical activists, that they're all about technology. Interesting that we're saying this at Web Summit. They're not; they see technology...they're not, right? They see technology as a means to an end, but they're actually all about real life. Technology is a means to having a better life and being out there. And Harris is a brilliant example of that, because he's got such a great grasp of how to use all the social platforms, but it's about experience. It's about touching things, making things, experiencing things, feeling things. They do really, really care about issues. But activism doesn't have to be bold and bullish. But we found out that, really interesting for marketers and for businesspeople, that 66% of Gen Zers believe that sharing is a form of activism. So that actually sharing information and pushing that information and having people engage in that information is a really constructive thing. And actually, that's again our superpower to be able to do that.
Nora Ali: One other misconception I saw in your report is that Gen Z mobilizes cancel culture. That's not actually true. So Harris, what is your take on cancel culture, and what do your peers think about cancel culture?
Harris Reed: It's so funny, because before you just brought that up and Jackie was literally finishing the sentence, I was going to go and be like, "And also, we're not all out here to cancel you."
Nora Ali: Yes.
Harris Reed: Because I think that's literally what was on the tip of my tongue, and I was even talking with Jackie last night about it. You know, I mean I joke with people. I'm like, "Cancel culture's not hot anymore." In terms of, it's not what my generation's trying to do. I think, you know, like a pendulum effect, sometimes things have to go such to an extreme to get a conversation going, but I feel like really it's about implementing actual change, and change doesn't come from being like, "They're gone." You know what I mean? They're like, off, you know, you can't come back from that.
It's actually open dialogue, communicating, having this kind of open conversation. I think that's much more...when I talk to my peers, business owners, or just people that I meet on the street, or fans, or anybody, it really is this camaraderie of, we gotta do this together. And yes, we see people doing things wrong, but the first things my friends say are not like, "Let's cancel them." It's like "It's a bummer that they couldn't do better. They should have someone on their team or someone there to really educate them." So I think it's much more this reeducation, because canceling's not hot, and...
Nora Ali: It's not.
Harris Reed: I shouldn't be so quick but it's not.
Nora Ali: I think we came up with the title of our episode: "Canceling Is Not Hot."
Harris Reed: There we go.
Nora Ali: On that note, we're going to leave things there. Harris, Jackie, it's been such a pleasure, and thank you for joining us at Business Casual.
Jackie Cooper: Thank you so much.
Harris Reed: Thank you for having us. Woo.
Nora Ali: This is Business Casual and I'm Nora Ali. You can follow me on Twitter @norakali and I would love to hear from you. If you have ideas for episodes, comments, thoughts on episodes you loved, fun segment ideas, feel free to shoot me a DM and I will do my very best to respond. You can also reach the BC team by emailing email@example.com, or call us. That number is (862) 295-1135. And if you haven't already, be sure to subscribe to Business Casual on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. And if you like this show, please leave us a rating and a review. It really helps. Business Casual is produced by Katherine Milsop and Raymond Luu. Additional production, sound design, and mixing by Daniel Markus, Rosemary Minkler, and Nick Torres. Kate Brandt is our fact checker, and AB Silver is our senior booking producer. Sebastian Vega and Evan Frolov edit our videos. Music in this episode from Daniel Markus and the Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. Thanks for listening to Business Casual. I'm Nora Ali. Keep it business, and keep it casual.