Media companies love to talk about how they’re reaching advertisers’ favorite age group. Time Inc., for example, launched two sites this year for millennials: Mimi, a socially oriented site with original and aggregated beauty coverage, and The Snug, a DIY site that aggregates home content.
But to put out products that do well with millennials, it helps to actually have a lot of them on staff. As workers, they’re a job-hopping bunch, and they highly value flexible benefits and meaningful labor — even more so than high pay.
That’s why Time Inc. created a group for them called New Media Upstarts. The Upstarts grew out of a pitch last year that two InStyle employees, Gwen Rahn and Cassandra Skoufalos, made to CEO Joe Ripp over breakfast in the company cafeteria. The women were hungry for training, events and networking with other millennials at the company.
“We wanted to make sure there was a platform for millennials within Time Inc. to communicate across brands, across franchises, across age groups,” said Rahn. (She and Skoufalos became co-founders of the group along with two others, Callie Schweitzer from audience development and Katie Christiansen from HR, who had similar ideas.) “We specifically wanted to streamline communication between millennials and leadership. People are looking for any kind of interaction with executive management. It’s something they felt like they might not have had before.”
The pitch resonated with Ripp, who was already seeking to make Time Inc. a flatter organization and give millennials a louder voice at the company. “They work with HR, others around the organization,” he said in an interview earlier this year. “Their mandate is to find a way to engage them in what they want to engage in, help think through what Time Inc. should be doing, and tell us how we can help them be more effective in their jobs.”
Today, the group counts 600 members out of a U.S. workforce of 5,000 and is involved in myriad activities. (It’s worth noting that Time already has a number of other affinity groups, for Hispanics, gays and lesbians and women in tech, among others.) While members get mentoring and access to executives, the Upstarts group also is a vital source of feedback on everything from products and services to company benefits.
They have hosted two company-wide events based on the Open Space approach of loosely themed, self-organized brainstorming sessions, on audience growth and cross-brand products. They’ve brought in speakers including former banking executive Sallie Krawcheck and LinkedIn executive editor Dan Roth.
Schweitzer, editorial director of audience strategy for Time and Time Inc., said it was exciting to see people from departments like legal and tech showing up, wanting to work on a new product at the Open Space events. “It felt like there was this huge opportunity to work for the future,” she said.
But the group also plays a big behind-the-scenes role. HR has started a roundtable series called “Straight Talk” where they have sit down with group members over lunch or a beer to pick their brains. They are regularly asked for their feedback on new products and services that are aimed at millennial customers or the company as a whole. Millennial input helped lead to new benefits options that let employees lower their health-care costs by taking spin classes and wearing Fitbits, for example. In addition to traditional mentoring programs, the company is looking into reverse mentoring, where young employees mentor older ones.
“I would say not a week goes by that they’re not engaged in some aspect of the business,” said Greg Giangrande, Time Inc. executive vp and chief human resources officer and a big champion of the group. “From a business perspective, this is the audience that we need to make sure that all our products and services reach. So listening to them about how they’re reacting to our products and services and content is critical. It’s a captive focus group.”
Time Inc. is facing challenges as it tries to transition to the digital age, which have been accompanied by many rounds of layoffs. That could easily present a morale issue. Yet Giangrande stressed that it isn’t hurting for millennials. “Even through all the digital disruption and headwinds for companies built on a different business model, there is still an appreciation for this company in the media space,” he said. “The challenge is, once they’re here, how do you make them want to stay and continue to be excited about being here.”
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