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The X/Y factor

As a youth tide surges, trend guru Jane Buckingham helps corporate marketers connect with the next-generation zeitgeist.

December 30, 2007|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

Jane Buckingham, a slender, blondish woman in a diminutive pearly gray dress and knee-high black boots, clearly has a following. The 39-year-old founder and chief of the Intelligence Group was standing at the podium in a swank conference room at the Sofitel hotel this fall addressing 50 marketers from studios, major game developers, cellphone operators and toy companies. Each had paid $2,500 a head to spend the day at Trend School, a guided tour Buckingham holds every six weeks or so into the hearts and minds of Generation X and Generation Y, the 112 million or so Americans ages 14 to 39.

It's the youth demographic so beloved by marketers and networks, the very people who, Buckingham explains, "dictate what's cool to both those older than them and younger than them."

Given the convulsions shaking almost everybody who sells pop culture, these are jangled times in the business world. Buckingham has a girlish but perfectly soothing manner, which undoubtedly calms corporate anxieties. She doesn't proclaim herself to be innately hip but rather to just have the ability to listen to what consumers tell her. With specials on the Style Network and regular bits on the morning talk shows, Buckingham has been called the Martha Stewart of the younger generation. In actuality, she's more like a Dr. Ruth of corporate world America, with insight into the quirky emotional rhythms that influence consumption. For instance, in describing Generation Y, the 72 million youngsters ages 14 to 28, Buckingham has the acronym IWWIW emblazoned on the screen of her PowerPoint presentation. For her, that's the generation's mantra, their ode to immediate gratification. IWWIW's translation: "I want what I want. I want it when I want it. And I want it how I want it." No one this young remembers a world before DVDs, or TV remotes, or TiVo. Buckingham points to the iPod as the quintessential Gen-Y metaphor. Everyone can have an iPod but all have different playlists, or as she summarizes, "I want to be different just like my friends."

A recurring subtext emerges from almost all of Buckingham's research: the wages of technology. How is it changing younger and younger minds? At times she seems like a family therapist, translating the post-texting generation for the people who remember a time before cellphones. Indeed, one of the nuggets casually dropped at Trend School is that Generation Y thinks that e-mail is for old people.

"I definitely think [technology] is a divider," she says, "and it's something that will continue to be a divider. If you don't text message, if you don't twitter, it will change your day-to-day reactions. I don't think [technology] is horrific and negative. At some point, technology will become so integrated into our lifestyles, we won't notice it, but right now we feel its presence a lot."

When recently discussing the trends for the upcoming year, Buckingham mentions the true coming of age of mobile entertainment, with the rise of gadgets like Kindle, Amazon's new electronic reader, and video and social networking sites operating on cellphones.

She sees a further blurring of Internet and real life. "People are willing to do anything and take anything from the Web," she says. On one hand, there's going to be a rise in more professional services online and such sites as for people wanting to have affairs. At the same time, other companies, like Nau, are setting up storefronts for websites where people can try on merchandise but cannot buy it -- they have to go online for that. There also will be new applications of existing technology, like a new Google application that lets Gmail users check all their friends' schedules at once. "If everybody wants to go to a concert, you can check their appointment books all at once. Privacy is going to change."

Not that young and younger folk care.

Notes Buckingham wryly, "You're willing to give up privacy if it makes your life as 16-year-old easier for social planning."

Shooting for the hip

Buckingham is considered one of the go-to people in her field. She published her first book, "Teens Speak Out: A Report From Today's Teens," while a senior in high school in New York. In 2003, Creative Artists Agency bought her 15-year-old, 17-person shop. She estimates she has about 100 blue-chip clients; corporations like Fox, Sony, Electronic Arts, Lancome and T-Mobile shell out $35,000 annually to receive her triannual Cassandra Report, which features an exhaustive compendium of studies about the demographic. An additional 50 clients also buy the Tween Report, the Mom Report or the Latino Report at $25,000 a pop.

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