NEW YORK — When CJ DeLeo founded his record label, Right Coast Music, he knew that reaching teenagers would be crucial to its success. But rather than thumbing through Instagram to figure out how to talk to 10- to 21-year-olds — or Generation Z, as the demographic after millennials is sometimes called — he reached out to JÜV Consulting.
The company is one of several new marketing firms that illuminate the inner workings of kids these days without condescending to them. How? JÜV Consulting is staffed entirely by young people who range in age from 14 to 22.
“I was honestly quite skeptical when I found out they were teenagers,” DeLeo admitted. “After the first call, they blew me away. They could walk into a regular business setting with people in their 30s and 40s and be completely comfortable. They are living the demographic we were targeting.”
That’s the whole point. The employees at JÜV (named for a combination of the words “juvenile” and “rejuvenate”) are out to teach brands, companies and nonprofits what it means to be a young person by commodifying their own quality time.
“Don’t talk about teenagers, talk to teenagers,” said Ziad Ahmed, 19, JÜV’s CEO and a rising sophomore at Yale (major undecided). He co-founded the consultancy firm in 2016 with Nick Jain, 19, the company’s COO and a rising sophomore at Princeton, and Melinda Guo, 19, who goes to Stanford and serves as a member of the board.
This summer, Ahmed, Jain and six other members of the executive team lived and worked in a loft in Brooklyn, where they would meet with clients and then just hang out. In addition to an executive team, JÜV has five senior partners, 15 junior partners and 90 consultants on staff, all of whom (it should perhaps go without saying) are paid. Their de facto informants consist of friends — and friends of friends — from around the world.
“Gen Z moves fast, and so do the trends,” said Jacob Chang, 19, JÜV’s director of marketing, and a rising sophomore at the University of Chicago. A big part of his job is flagging memes and whatever is catching viral fire on Twitter. “There are a lot of things coming in and out of favor,” he said.
For example, “‘Lit’ isn’t really cool anymore,” said Ahmed. “Even though a lot of us still colloquially use it, if a company did it, that’s cringey. Because lit — our parents now know it.” On the other hand, he said, “if you were to, in a tweet, use a word like ‘hella,’ no one’s going to be like, that’s so cringey, because that’s just how we type.”
“Generation Z is Generation We,” said Chang. “We love sharing experiences with each other. And that’s why memes have taken off, because it’s like the short, shared experience of our humor.”
To be clear, the JÜV team scoffs at the idea of a “Gen Z expert”: anyone who pretends to speak for a generation, whether that’s a peer or adult. They aren’t a research firm, they say. They aren’t a focus group. They are, according to Emma Himes, JÜV’s 18-year-old director of development and a rising sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, “a really diverse group of trained teen consultants who can help you.”
That approach has earned them work with big-name clients like Viacom and Edelman, as well as consulting gigs with smaller nonprofits and businesses. One of the company’s most appealing offerings is helping clients navigate social media to avoid the kinds of pitfalls that might make them infamous overnight — or canceled, in the lingo of the day.
“We grew up on social media. That’s kind of the way we describe it to clients,” Jain said. “The vast majority of us are fluent in it.”
Before the executive team disbanded this month to go back to their colleges (where they will work remotely on a part-time basis during the school year), they would host clients at their loft in the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn.
The space looked like a hangout spot from a high schooler’s dreams. There was a long desk in the middle of the light-filled room, where the team plugged in their earbuds and got to work, and a comfy sectional in the corner, where the team would occasionally stop working long enough to watch “The Bachelorette.” There were walls covered in Post-it notes (both to organize work tasks and delegate chores among the roommates), and pool floats were flung about the space as decoration.
For meals, JÜV employees ate a lot of pasta. They would gather together at a high kitchen table, debating with equal passion the efficacy of subway ads and whether Kim and Kanye might divorce.
Liz Toney, a JÜV client who is the head of brand and engagement for a social media startup launching this fall, described a typical meeting:
“One minute there are Nerfs, card games and inflatable pool toys,” she said. “The next our laptops are out and it’s focused, brilliant conversation, and two hours of exciting brainstorming.”
For a room full of students who have yet to experience the existential dread of graduating? Sounds about right.