The marketing industry may be hurtling toward a massive train wreck. Businesses are pouring more and more money into automated technologies--think programmatic advertising--while the up-and-coming generation of consumers, known as  Gen Z, doesn't like brands or being targeted.

Considering that they'll soon have $413 billion in buying power, this could be a problem. Or maybe not?

If you're not familiar with the research around Gen Z, you'll find it surprising. These kids are actually pretty cool. A quick look at their major likes and dislikes reveals a generation unlike any that has come recently.

  1. They're way into analog. They're definitely a making-and-building generation that is not glued to their phones like the rest of us. Gen Z likes board games, hanging out in person, film photography, and doing arts and crafts.
  2. They are overwhelmingly practical. Gen Zers are much more likely to look at the bottom line than their predecessors. They think college is about learning how to do things, not following their dreams. YouTube is massively popular with them, not just as an entertainment medium, but as a way of acquiring skills. 
  3. Asked point blank, they say they don't like authority figures or brands. Okay, this shouldn't be surprising. They've watched their parents screw up the world and have learned to trust themselves, not us. And they seem to prefer quality to brand name.
  4. But they actually click ads more than most people. According to one study, Gen Zers pay attention to digital advertising in a big way. Not only are they more likely to click on ads than the rest of us, they are also more likely to buy as a result.
  5. They want to be treated as individuals. They have very unique identities that they've constructed through their rich social and entertainment landscape. As a result, they expect to be treated in more individualized (not personalized) ways than ever before.

How do you respond to such a contradictory set of values?

They are digital natives who go on YouTube to learn how to play acoustic guitar. They distrust brands, but are strangely open to advertising.

What gives?

To understand the answer, you have to realize that with Gen Z, where they're going is more important than who they are. Gen Zers are movers. They're kinetic. They have specific traits, skills, and identities they want to acquire. And they don't really worry so much about what it takes to get there.

If they want to carve a statue, digital media is a good teacher. They click banner ads not because brands are targeting them individually (though that would certainly help), but because they are helping them be individuals.

In other words, the answer to the $413 billion dollar train wreck is simple. You have to get out in front and move with this generation.

That's going to require great data...

...and tools like programmatic advertising are going to be of great help in figuring this out.

The whole disconnect between disliking brands and responding to messages shows that this crowd may respond quite differently from our expectations. Only by trying out a wide range of approaches can you zero in on what works.

I spend a lot of time talking with Gen Z kids (mine included: I have two kids, ages 12 and 9) and find their outlook grounded and refreshing. This is an exciting generation that's going to do great things. It's going to be a challenge for brands to keep up with them, but it's probably not the looming disaster it seems on paper.

The more brands align themselves with Gen Z's goals, the more valuable they will be.