Gen Z Week: A Conversation With Melissa Lavigne-Delville

The following is an interview with Melissa Lavigne-Delville, Vice President Trends & Strategic Insights, NBC Universal. Excerpts from this interview were included in our 2014 Outlook Report

IPG Lab: At the Lab, we often focus on specific tech behaviors; people are moving to messaging apps in mobile, for instance. Can you talk a little bit about the overall mindset or perspective of this Gen Z audience that drives these behaviors?

MLD: One of the things we say is that Gen X’ers, people aged 35 to 49, is that they saw the world with the glass half empty, if you will. They were characterized as a little bit negative and cynical and pessimistic. Gen Y is the very opposite; they have a glass half full, more optimistic and empowered. We say that Gen Z was born into a world where everything from stuffed animals to money to friends had a digital equivalent – not that they necessarily notice the difference between real and digital, but there’s always an assumption that there’s a digital version of anything that they’re seeing in the physical. I think that it’s very surprising to them if there isn’t because they’re two or one in the same.

As for some of the interesting influences tech wise for this generation, we say that they not only have the double vision and they see the world half digital, but also that they have photographic memories. This is a generation that was born at a time where their sonograms were posted on their parent’s Facebook pages, so they have visuals of themselves even before they were born. Their lives were highly documented, and this has happened for a while now even with Gen Y’s lives. Video has taken off so there are tons of photographs in this generation stored up in the Cloud now that could be accessed at any point, but also videos. I think that this is making the generation very self aware in a way that previous generation have not necessarily been.

I think it’s a continuum. I certainly think Gen Y is much more self-aware than Gen X’ers. For Gen X’ers, we have very few visuals to look at. For example, slide shows were big in the 70s when a lot of us were born so a lot of photos of our generation are stored away in these slide boxes and then you had the random portraits to look at. There were shots that you would get taken at the mall but you piece together your life between school photos and big family moments and there were a lot of question marks in between.

Cut through Gen Z, there’s no desk work; its all documented, its all right there for them and in some ways that’s great because they’re so in tune with who they are. On the other hand, it’s really hard to “forget” about this awkward moment or embarrassing situations; it’s all right there.

I also think that it makes the generation highly dependent upon visuals and I think that this is an incredibly important insight because in the same way that you know when  mobile phones all of a sudden emerged and most people had mobile phones and Gen Y’s and Gen X’ers would forget their best friend’s phone number if it wasn’t in their device. We didn’t remember that stuff anymore; we started to rely on technology to give us access to those people. The same thing is happening with photos. It might just be that if someone doesn’t have a photo of something or a visual of something in front of them, they can’t exactly remember what it is; its like the idea of ‘do you forget what your sweet 16 was all about if its not photographed intensely because they’re just used to that type of visual cues.’ That’s an exchange statement, and I think it’s interesting to think about how technology is providing so many visuals and recording their lives and what that will mean for their memories. There are a few things I can rattle on but I’ll stop so you can ask some other related questions.

IPG Lab:  That’s really interesting though. I also think about the fact that we’re always on. We always have such access to information. I often think about Wikipedia for instance. Is that making us more intelligent? Is it increasing our knowledge because it is being readily accessible at the time. I often think ‘are we actually absorbing,’ or is it really a crutch that we can just go to and pull up information and then we can disregard because we know its there?

MLD:  We were talking about this. Wikipedia to me is so interesting because on the one hand, every answer that we want right there in front of us, but I was talking to someone recently about is this type of technology making us more or less curious. If you think about it, I’m a Gen X’er, we didn’t have Wikipedia and we had the encyclopedia, and anytime you got a homework assignment, it was like ‘the assignment begins with L, let me just go find a book that starts with L, page through, find what I’m looking for and rewrite it a little bit, slap it in my paper and its done.’ The interesting thing about that process is there was a real randomness about the way that information was organization. When you got to L, if your topic was a lion, that might be right next to Lionel Richie.

The point is that all that stuff that you found yourself, the same way that people go from link to link. It was a slightly more obscure point of connection because a lot of it was alphabetical. I think it makes you curious. I think now sometimes even though we do go link to link, it can be a little bit more meaningful because you can find exactly what you’re looking for. Its just an interesting idea of now that information is so accessible and so neatly organized, does it make us less curious because we can get to what we want, when we want it right away and we don’t have to go through all of those steps that make us wonder about other things – or have to seek a little bit broader to find the answers that we’re looking for?

IPG Lab:  I actually had a question here about how you would say that this new generation actually discovers content, and you’re saying it’s more of an intentional and directed search.

MLD:  I think its two fold. I think one thing is that it is easier to find exactly what they’re looking for. In some ways people could say ‘its at your finger tips, its so much easier,’ but as you know, any Google search leads to 100 pages of content and its hard to tell when to stop looking, its hard to know what’s the most important. Google’s good but it can’t always get you the exact piece of information the user wanted, and I think its incredibly overwhelming. I think that Gen Z are going to have to be incredible simplifiers of information because there’s just so much of it all the time that its less about finding the information and more about being quick enough to synthesize a lot of information into something that feels intelligent and I think that’s something that will be a skill that more and more is in demand and something that Gen Z are good at.

I also think, on the flip side, that more information just comes to us whether we want it or not. People sending links whether it’s some funny video or an interesting article or whatever. On the other hand, it’s just seemingly like much more incoming whether you ask for it or not. I think in some ways its pretty amazing because it’s a time where we’re flooded with information and then on the other hand a bit overwhelming and stressful to figure out how to not only decide what you want to look at but take everything and piece it together and come out with something other than confusion, feeling overwhelmed or feeling like you want to go down the rabbit hole further.