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The common theme running through all this year’s presentations and discussions at the annual Sunday Times Generation Next conference was that marketers and advertisers need to learn to speak the language of Generation Z in order to win their buy-in.

A summary of the findings from the Generation Next study was presented by Jason Levin, MD at HDI Youth Marketeers. It’s no surprise that this is an important group – Africa’s population is the youngest in the world and in South Africa, 50% of the population is 25 and younger. Moreover, they spend big money – a reported R134bn in 2016.

It’s an era of opportunity and learning, said Missing Link’s Don Packett; if marketers want to crack this market they need to make their messages relevant and personal. Most important is to listen to what the youth are saying.

Creative advertising was the subject of the first panel discussion, hosted by Jeremy Maggs. The panellists shared their views on a selection of print and television adverts. In short, ads that succeed with this market promise you something – and deliver. Good narrative has become imperative to attain the new Holy Grail – staying with the advert until the end.

Uno de Waal, publisher at Between 10 and 5, discussed how to harness the power of digital. He compared viewing numbers of some of the country’s biggest television programmes to the reach that can be achieved via social media platforms. YouTube has negated the need for media deals and provides amazing opportunities for young content creators. Brands no longer have control of the audience and content must be memorable if it’s going to be shared.

“You’ll look a lot more like Generation Z than they will look like you,” CliffCentral’s Arye Kellman told the audience. He means that as digital natives, it’s likely that Generation Z have more to teach us about the digital environment than we can impart to them.

A panel discussion on trends and insights agreed that the youth market has always been hard to understand, but now it’s even harder to connect with them. In order to achieve breakthrough communication with this market, marketers and advertisers need to ensure they’ve got Generation Zers working on the team. A word of advice from the panel: “Don’t build a digital strategy, operate in a digital universe.”

SAB’s Bongumusa Makhathini spoke about the You Decide programme, an initiative by SAB Reality Check, NYDA, ARA and SADAG, which aims to curb underage drinking. We live in a world where the youth may desire a better future, but their reality all too often means they’re unlikely to get it.

That said, as the #feesmustfall phenomenon revealed, despite the challenges facing the youth of South Africa, they are not apathetic about their lives. The power of today’s youth was discussed with a focus on how brands can help them to make responsible decisions and navigate risks. Pride and patriotism are important values to nurture. While much has been done to support the youth in making responsible decisions and negating risky behaviour, this task cannot fall to just one group.

Pepsi Pokane, MD of Bonngoe Productions, hosted a hilarious panel discussion consisting of three mothers and their children discussing the potentially dangerous waters in a “parents versus the youth” standoff.

The conference drew to a close with a final perspective given by actress Pearl Thusi on your personal brand.

The big take-out: The common theme at the Sunday Times Generation Next Conference was the importance of talking and listening to the youth as well as working with them, to get them to endorse your brand.