How an agency comprised solely of Gen Z employees creates viral ad campaigns

March 21, 2021
Posted by
Ashley R. Cummings

What do Salt-N-Pepa, Wilson Phillips, and Whitney Houston all have in common?

They are all prominent figures that some of my Gen Z friends have never heard of. Ever. I know it’s mind-boggling, but there are people in this world who don’t know all the lyrics to “Shoop” by heart.

Do you know who members of Gen Z heard of, though?

Younger megastars who rose to fame on YouTube and TikTok like Charli D'Amelio, Loren Gray, and Brent Rivera.

There’s no getting around it. Gen Z has different celebrity heroes than older generations. They also favor content that’s very different than content from a few years ago. They have grown tired of being fed polished, picture-perfect ads and have flocked to TikTok in search of something new and more authentic.

To better understand how brands can engage Gen Z; I interviewed Charlie Naus, Managing Director and Co-Founder of Carson+Doyle.

Carson+Doyle is an agency composed solely of Gen Z employees and they work to help brands market to Gen Z audiences.

Carson+Doyle has:

  • Developed and produced paid ad campaigns for Tinder, including the viral OOH campaign “Put Yourself Out There” featuring Megan Thee Stallion
  • Rebranded and marketed one of London’s fastest-growing restaurant groups, Tootoomoo, and reached over 2 million locals in their latest campaign
  • Worked with Backcountry Access to lift sales by 150% with a 60-day integrated campaign

This is all to say, Carson+Doyle knows how to create campaigns that hit it out of the park.

Here’s what I learned from Charlie.

Tell me more about Carson+Doyle. How did you get started?

I started Carson+Doyle my sophomore year of college. My co-founder, Thomas, and I went to high school together, and we work well together. He ended up going to school in London, so we’ve always had this international approach to our business.

Before we started this creative branding and advertising agency, we went to school and worked on the side on other projects.

I was in the Entrepreneurship Department at Miami University (Ohio), and there were many students starting businesses. They were sharp, smart kids and starting cool businesses, but they lacked any sort of customer acquisition identity or strategy. Some of the students lacked a brand, so I took it upon myself to help them in that respect.

I called Thomas, our Co-Founder & Creative Director, and proposed that we work together. The first project we worked with launched a Kickstarter campaign, and we were behind all of their visual identity. They ended up exceeding their Kickstarter goal and excelled as a company.

It was then that Thoams and I realized we should think about getting more business and invoicing people for our work. So, we created our advertising agency, Carson+Doyle.

Since then, we have continued to learn different skills and figure out the ins and outs of the branding and advertising world.

Why did you decide to build an agency composed of only Gen Z employees?

We realized that our young age could work toward our benefit. In many situations, you would think we were too young, not established enough, or don’t have enough experience to succeed.

However, we realized our young age was one of our biggest strengths. We were able to act kind of like a secret tunnel for larger companies to understand our generation. Granted, Thomas and I can’t explain Gen Z to everyone, but as members of Gen Z ourselves, we made it possible to cut some corners on having to do quantitative research for a Gen Z audience.

We have taken an empathetic consumer interview approach rooted in finding helpful insights—insights that you can’t capture with a survey or by looking on Google.

We used this unique audience research approach and our ages to position ourselves as the advertising agency for brands to connect with Gen Z. Once we found that positioning, we got a lot of inbound requests to work with us.

We changed our website and started to reposition our brand as the brand for and by Gen Z. Since we made this change, we’ve been getting a lot of inbound interest, and our work speaks for itself. We are inherently rooted in helping brands provide a better experience for our Gen Z peers on the consumer side of things.

Brands have loved working with us because they can outperform their competition by using the insights we provide and the creative strategy we suggest.

Do you have backgrounds as creators, or do you partner with creators when you work?

Oddly enough, we don’t have backgrounds as creators. When we make a new campaign, we mostly partner with creators. The bulk of work has been on the brand side to help brands make genuine connections with consumers.

Typically, when we work with a brand, they will already have influencers they like to work with or access talent. In some cases, however, we will find talent for specific projects, but usually, the brand already has creators they use.

Our company wasn’t rooted in the fact that we were creators. It was more built around the idea that we can help brands understand our generation. However, we have started taking whether or not someone is a creator into consideration when hiring new employees, especially our TikTok service. We have a couple of people on our team with ~20K followers on TikTok.

What strategies do you use to create successful ad campaigns for Gen Z?

We focus on starting a campaign with a natural conversation with our potential audience members. Nothing we do, say, or ask is pre-scripted. We don’t send out surveys or write out questions beforehand.

We have learned that having an hour-long phone call with someone about life and the bigger picture of things while touching on the context of the project is wildly beneficial. We focus on really getting to know people through natural conversations.

The brands we work with sometimes want to see a percentage of people surveyed or some quantitative analysis. However, our position is that we want to bring what we experience in our daily lives and the nuances of our culture into the audience research process. The best way to find those insights is through honest and detailed conversations with the right people.

That’s the basis of our strategy. Once we started conducting these in-depth interviews and gleaning valuable insight from the right audience, we realized we would win pitches. We would gather the information together and then pitch ideas that we thought were funny, cool, or interesting. We saw a lot more success when we changed the narrative from what we thought the clients would like to what our generation would like.

Another successful strategy we use is we focus on making platform-native content. I always raise my eyebrows when brands build many creative assets and then extrapolate them on every platform. Yes, that’s consistency, but it’s not the right kind of consistency. Content needs to be unique to different platforms and tailored to fit the audiences on those specific platforms.

For example, the persona that we build for Backcountry Access on TikTok is significantly different from Instagram and Facebook for the same brand. This is because there are different customers across these social platforms, and you use different content to engage different people.

The first step is to develop a creative strategy and different assets for all of the different platforms. The next step is to find the niche or have solidified yourself on specific content, then stay consistent with what your audience likes.

What are some examples of campaigns you've created that have gone viral?

Our work with Tinder has been the most viral, and it’s the biggest brand that we work with as an agency. We developed and produced paid ad campaigns for Tinder.

Most notably, we supported Tinder in its viral OOH campaign “Put Yourself Out There,” featuring Megan Thee Stallion. We also worked on the #PYOTchallenge, where Tinder gave away $1MM to users across the U.S.

Another campaign we did for Tinder this summer called “Your Next First.” It was all about the emergence of the pandemic, and the messaging was directed toward 18 to 21-year-olds. The main purpose was to show Gen Z all of the new experiences Tinder can provide them as they emerge from the constraints of the pandemic.

But, this specific campaign was for the students that graduated high school or college virtually and didn’t get to go to big events like Prom. So, we wanted to hone in on that and position Tinder as a vehicle to experience the things those kids may have missed out on now that the world is open.

We also have seen a lot of success with Backcountry Access. Backcountry Access is one of our oldest clients. We started at a very basic social media management level with them, and now we are its full-speed ad agency and handle all of its creative work.

We have built out a comprehensive YouTube initiative for Backcountry Access this past few months. We are taking creative content they produced out in the backcountry, and we are tailoring that content and changing it to be platform-specific for something like YouTube.

We also did go viral on Backcountry’s TikTok when we launched the TikTok campaign in December. That was our big break on the organic side of TikTok.

Backcountry Access TikTok

Within the first 30 days, one of the videos hit half a million views and started to gain great traction.

Within 90 days, Backcountry Access had acquired over 3K followers and had a solid presence on TikTok. This has been an awesome experience because all the results were purely organic. We’ve just been posting, managing, and creating the content but haven’t poured any ad spend into the campaign.

The Backcountry Access campaign has been different from what we did for Tinder. It’s much more zoomed in on one specific niche and service. It’s a smaller scale, but we’re proud to see an organic campaign experience such success.

What contributes to the virality of a campaign?

Authenticity. I think brands feel like they have to fit the mold of what other brands are doing or like they have to follow a one-size-fits-all script on everything they do. Brands often think everything they post has to look pretty and sound great.

We’ve found that most of the time, virality and positive reactions come when the brand can be authentic—create content that’s a little funnier or do something outside of their lane or unexpected.

Sometimes the campaign can even be self-deprecating, which Gen Z particularly enjoys. I’m not a sociologist, so I can’t tell you why, but it’s an inherent thing that we all love. We love making fun of ourselves and each other in lighthearted ways.

Success for anyone trying to reach Gen Z is rooted in authenticity, especially on the brand level. We all grew up in the age of Instagram and what has been the norm on Instagram for a long time. For example, we’ve seen a lot of filtered and touched-up imagery, and that has gotten old to us. We want to see real content from real people.

The “Your Next First” Tinder campaign was shot entirely on an iPhone. That approach was game-changing from what was initially these big shoots, super polished and high value. A better approach is to think of how the campaign can fit the brand and resonate with Gen Z instead of looking polished and better than everyone else.

We do what we think will be funny or cool and run with it. Sometimes brands will do what is funny and cool and then make it hyper-branded and polished and look perfect. That’s where a disconnect happens, and you lose audience interest.

Are there any campaigns that you're loving right now?

Our team has been talking a lot about the Duolingo TikTok account. Their team created this persona that’s in most of the Duolingo videos.

It’s a person in an owl mascot suit, and they run around the office and do funny things. The owl has this tangential vibe from a language learning company. The mascot does the most random stuff, but people love it, and it has gone viral.

Duolino TikTok

This approach is something that we’ve learned is an interesting and well-performing tactic. We can take a brand and give it a personality. It’s smart to have a person or a mascot that can speak for the brand and be the face of the brand.

We considered this approach with Backcountry Access. We’re in the process of pitching a couple of new accounts where we will be managing TikTok content creation. As we discuss with these brands, we’ve been asking if there is someone in-house or someone who could be the brand’s face.

This approach provides an additional level of audience interest for brands. It’s almost like creating a brand within a brand.

What is your advice for creating a successful campaign collaboration?

The first thing I would recommend is to find a team that can move fast. It seems obvious because we’ve seen platform-specific content become so focused on trends of micro-communities that aren’t always going to be there last year.

It’s critical to have a team that moves fast and is super with it in terms of what’s going on and what is trending.

That’s the most important piece of advice I would give because if you’re too slow and have to do everything perfectly, you’ll miss the timing, and your campaign will fall apart.

Granted, that’s not to say to rush through everything. There is a fine line between being quick but not hurrying too much.

When we partner with creators, it works to have a brief that outlines what you want them to do and asks them to put their flair into the video.

I think giving creators a brief is helpful because there are so many potential gaps in communication. I’m not sure what is standard practice for briefs, but we worked with Sarah Jade and Tayler Holder, and we either made them an example video or gave a 15-step description of what they needed to do. Then, the revisions were less than two rounds on everything.

Another thing to remember is not to skip steps when working with a brand. For example, with a first-stage startup, you might think to first go and get as many people on the platform to follow you as possible. But before you do any of that, you need to first consider things like:

  • What are our brand values?
  • What does our brand represent?
  • What is our visual identity beyond a logo?

You have to build a personality and identity around the brand. That’s where we start with new clients. We’ve learned that we may hit a short-term goal when we don’t do that, but longevity is not there.

What are some ways to speak effectively to Gen Z?

This might be obvious, but it’s important to spend time where we are. You have to clock in and participate in the world where Gen Z spends its time. For example, you have to spend time on TikTok.

I think there was an article about this in AdAge the other day, but the article’s point was that brands realize that if they spend an extra few minutes on TikTok, their research is already halfway done. Of course, that’s a huge generalization, but platforms like TikTok and Twitch are inherently cultural to our generation, and you can learn a lot by spending time there.

Also, what resonates with Gen Z is different from what has worked traditionally across social media. Instagram, for example, is all about “look at me, look at my friends, and look at my life.” The platforms we like don’t focus on looking perfect, but the content shines a light on real and random people. So, it understands little cultural nuances like this that will help brands create the right messaging.

With respect to speaking to Gen Z, I already talked about the importance of authenticity. I mentioned to someone the other day that there is this meter Gen Z has where we can sniff out when a brand isn’t authentic. We’ve grown up with so many stimuli in our faces and seen so many ads to “buy this” and “buy that.”

Because of this, and this is my personal belief, taking a more passive approach when trying to make a sale will build your brand more effectively in the long run. It might not help the bottom line initially, but it does build trust in the brand, and Gen Z likes brands that aren’t trying to coerce them into something. I guess it’s all about building trust.

There’s a lot of merit in being brutally honest. One example is Patagonia’s “don’t buy this jacket” campaign. It was kind of crazy when they did that, but it worked.

This counterintuitive approach is something I’m trying to push our clients to do and to understand that it works with our generation.

Patagonia Campaign

Bottom line—

Gen Z grew up in a different world.

They have different priorities and purchasing patterns.

They like authentic, raw, unpolished content.

If you want to speak to a Gen Z audience, you have to spend time where they live, partner with the right creators, and take steps to build their trust.