While I just about manage to keep some cultural common ground with those who don’t remember Euro ‘96 (and the idea that people don’t remember that well and truly freaks my nut out), I have been forced to accept that a divide has now opened up between me and the newer members of Generation Z – that is, people born from 1995 onwards. They’ve not just grown up with the internet, they’ve grown up fully plugged into it, 24-hours-a-day. The point in my life where I got an abacus – and was glad of it thank you very much – they got an iPad. I am, to be quite frank about it, a bit intimidated by them. Just how long will it take until they listen to their computers when they calculate that I, a man who did not hold a mobile phone until I was 19, am very much expendable in the robot-assisted fight for water that awaits us in a few short decades?
And my concern was only raised higher when I read about a 12-year-old CEO of his own “digital media platform”/”multi-channel digital lifestyle hub” – which could be found at iCoolKid.com – named Jenk Oz. Instantly, my heckles were up and I wrote a somewhat(/very) cutting article during the course of which I gradually admitted that perhaps it could just be that I was simply jealous of this precocious triple threat (he also acted and was, seemingly, a consummate musician), ending it with the words: “Can I have a job?”
Normally, when one asks a rhetorical question (eg. “Is there a better pop song in the last decade than Taylor Swift’s ‘Style’?”) one does not expect it to be answered. On this occasion, it was. iCoolKid’s PR person got in touch to see if I would like to come and spend a day in their office to see what it was really like.
I’ve been around long enough to know that if you can’t beat them, join them. Journalism is dying and I’ve started forgetting where I’ve put my keys on a regular basis: it’s a matter of time before I get fired from this job, so I needed to get stuck in with a start-up who might not notice my limitations until the probation period had passed and employment law protection had kicked in. I said “yes, that sounds good, does next Thursday work? Does this make me the work experience kid? Yeah? OK great, see you then”.
Then I realised that I would soon be face to face with people that I had openly insulted in an article. Hopefully, they didn’t read it properly. Most people don’t read my articles properly, and for once, I was grateful of that.
Off I trotted to swanky central London (properties now worth a little more than 400 of your finest Monopoly pounds) to the iCoolKid offices where I was met at the front door by Mr Jenk Oz himself (Of whom I had written: “Is it wrong to hate a child?).
Jealousy is a terrible thing, isn’t it? I was already jealous of the fact that he had met Dua Lipa and I hadn’t, and there he was, super-friendly and with some seriously good hair. When I was 12, it was difficult to spark up a conversation with anyone if they weren’t into football, and I certainly wasn’t able to engage in coherent conversation with anyone older than me, other than to ask them if I could go to the toilet please, but Jenk managed it with supreme ease; we nattered away about a recent choir trip to Malta (him not me, although I do have the voice of an angel).
He lead me into the office to meet the other members of the iCoolKid team (who I had speculated “pick up their paychecks at the end of the month and then they go home and cry”) including Jenk’s mum, Carmen Greco (“an ex-managing director of Goldman Sachs (yes, the investment bank memorably described as a ‘vampire squid’)”). They were all as friendly and welcoming as Jenk. They didn’t read the article properly. No one does. That’s good to know. That’s good to know.
Having taken a place at my desk for the day, the morning ideas meeting began in earnest, directed by Jenk. It was impressive, as he spoke clearly and confidently about events in their six ‘pillars’ that would interest potential readers of iCoolKid, with their target audience of 8-15 year-olds:
-Science and technology
-Art and build
-Style and sneaks
-Brains and biz
Now, while I might not know what ‘sneaks’, ‘biz’ or ‘Xtreme action’ actually are, who was I to question their importance? After all, who was better placed to know what those people were interested in than an actual 12-year-old? CEOs of companies across the globe (and a fair few political parties, *cough* Activate *cough*) could learn something from that. If you want to appeal to ‘the kids’, probably good to ask ‘the kids’ what they actually want. One of their regular ‘mini-interns’ was also in the room; 12-year-old Rufus, who was wearing a Nirvana hoodie (Kurt had already been dead for 11 years when he was born) and was immersed in, naturally, a Macbook Pro looking for cool videos.
My task? Write a preview feature on the rumoured-to-be-coming comeback Taylor Swift single. Luckily (or perhaps they’d just looked at my Twitter feed), this was something of a specialist area for me. I was far less adept at trying not to look like the dad in the room when I filmed an Instagram story alongside Jenk to promote it.
Of course, like everything in the current media landscape, what was made clear in no uncertain terms is that: in today’s world, there is no singular way of reaching people. Being a brand in 2017 means being visible not only on your traditional base camp of a website, but also – as an end in and of itself – a presence on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Twitter plus whatever else is bubbling under. Each has its own precise language, and the average 9-year-old can smell an imposter an absolute mile off.
It’s this youth tech savviness which underpins the entire business model of iCoolKid. Greco’s theory – and I would guess it’s a theory that’s being tested with some serious funding – is that technological knowledge has never been possessed at such a young age before. Millennials may remember sighing as we sorted out yet another problem on our parents’ PCs as teenagers, but these days you’ll find 4-year-olds updating apps on mum’s iPad. Spending their entire lives immersed in the internet, one way or another, means that they have also been surrounded by marketing since they popped out of the womb. By osmosis, they know all the brands, all the companies, and know how to access information at a rate that even millennials would struggle to do.
This has led to, in Greco’s opinion, two main developments.
First: young kids now wield enormous ‘soft’ purchasing power. Who decides where mummy and daddy go on holiday this year? ‘Oh I’ve heard Greece is nice this time of year, I want to go there.’ What car should mummy and daddy buy? ‘This one is the highest-rated on the top tech website, you should get that.’ Parents can’t even begin to compete with the digital knowledge of kids, and they’re using them to shape their purchasing decisions at an ever earlier age.
Second: that there is now no such thing as ‘kids’ tastes’. The internet is a grown-up place and they can see anything, anytime. Why should they waste precious years of their life on kiddy stuff, when they can access cool brands that their older siblings are into already? Moreover, they’re more likely to know how to game it so they get access to the new trainer drops before the rest of us older losers. Greco postulates that there is now no significant difference in cultural tastes between a 10-year-old and a 25-year-old.
I look again at Jenk, who is dressed with more style than I have ever managed in my life, and begin to think she might have a point.
I even go so far as to ask Rufus, who is now working on a piece on ‘back to school style’ to rate my outfit, piece-by-piece. Miraculously, I am wearing Levi jeans – literally the only decent-branded pair I’ve ever owned – so they get a genuine pass (thank god Levi’s are still considered alright), as does, somehow, but not quite as enthusiastically, the rest (he has no idea who Stevie Nicks, proudly emblazoned across my t-shirt, is, which is fair I suppose, given that she literally could be his grand, or even great-grandmother). Despite my urging, Rufus is too polite to really criticise, giving me an overall, and utterly undeserved, 6 and a half. I’ll take what I can get these days though.
Anyway, leaving aside my sartorial challenges, it soon becomes clear that this is mum’s company more than it is son’s. And you know what? That’s a good thing.
While the idea of a hub for a hyper-young age range was, I don’t doubt, Jenk’s idea, it is Greco that spotted that, actually, there could be a business in doing this – catering to an economically-powerful but neglected demographic. Jenk is the kid-on-the-ground to advise on what to cover and – with his natural charm, confidence and handsomeness – the ideal celebrity-in-waiting to be the face of the brand. He’s a bigger asset outside the office – giving TED talks, hanging out with pop stars and going to film premieres – than he is actually writing the stories. Do you think Kylie Jenner actually creates any of the cosmetics she makes in her $1bn company? Not a chance, but she can tell those that do whether they’re making the stuff that teens will buy or not, and she can give it more publicity with one Instagram post than a thousand billboards will.
And where’s the real money in this game? It’s consultancy. A load of hits on a website or a YouTube channel can get you some direct advertising wonga, but the real cash comes from becoming the expert in the game on what kids want and charging a fortune to either advise other companies, or for them to pay a pretty penny to be associated with you or your brand. It’s the new world of Instagram influencers and it now reaches down as young as 8-year-olds.
I had visions of meeting some horrendous, super-driven (either by himself or by a parent) super-brat but, pleasingly, this was not the case at all. Speaking to Jenk and Rufus, I found two pretty normal, if super-confident (no bad thing) young kids who had tons of other creative ambitions (they both, clearly, genuinely loved acting and music) – not ambitions to just make money.
Before long, Jenk will be too old to advise the company, and another CoolKid will replace him. The circle of life I guess. Even the cool kids can’t be cool for ever.
But what about my task, to understand the youngsters, the future, and business?
Well, weirdly, I left feeling not quite as uncool as I was expecting. If 10-year-olds really are into the same stuff as 25-year-olds, then they have no hidden ‘cool gang’ which us oldies can’t understand. When I asked Jenk and Rufus about the latest cool pop star, alongside a few new YouTube sensations, they were all the usual suspects I knew well. And when YouTube and Spotify are able to give you access to the entire history of recorded music, then the longer you’ve been around, the better able you are to navigate such a giant ocean of choice. Also – and this may prove crucial once they give over to the dark side – they weren’t yet avid social media users (you have to be 13 to have a Facebook account, not that any of them will be on that given it’s now only for old people) and had also been well-educated on its dangers. Give it a couple of years and that may change.
They were also actually, underneath it all, a little bit shy, and, dare I say it, respectful. There was no bratty ordering around from Jenk; I was probably the least-worked intern in history. I didn’t even have to make the tea.
While Jenk might understand his age group perfectly, and kids are full of great ideas who should be listened to, ultimately, still, you’re gonna need someone with a bit more experience – and probably some cold, hard cash – to get stuff off the ground. Hey, even Zuckerberg needed Peter Thiel at the beginning and Peter Thiel is the least cool man who’s ever lived (please don’t sue us Peter). I’m not redundant quite yet.
Mind you, perhaps Jenk was just respectful of my extensive Taylor Swift knowledge, which he’d borne witness to earlier in the day. Jenk knew he was dealing with a professional, one that spoke his language. Which is pretty ‘sick’, right?
There’s life in this old dog yet. Now, where’s my skateboard?