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“We don’t ever click through ads.”

The conversation ground to a halt in the conference room, the presenters’ eyebrows lifting in surprise. As marketing technology consultants, digital ads remain a keystone element of the marketing strategies we develop with our clients. To be presenting in a room where this basic tool of the marketer has no respect from the audience is rare.

Then again, this is not a typical discovery session, nor are the attendees the usual C-suite or executive-adjacent types. Instead, the board room on the 19th floor at the dentsu Chicago office is full of nearly 100 freshmen from Cristo Rey High School.

Sharing real-world knowledge

In early May, Merkle’s Technology Strategy team presented to these students on consulting and marketing, and in return learned some valuable lessons.

The relationship came about as a new element of an existing partnership between Merkle and Cristo Rey, the Corporate Work Study Program (CWSP). Along with many other Chicago businesses, Merkle hires Cristo Rey high school students as interns throughout their school year, subsidizing their tuition to Cristo Rey and providing experience, networking, and professional development through their office placements. With 96% of Cristo Rey alumni being the first in their family to get a college degree, it’s vital that they get exposed to potential careers and industries to guide their college major decisions. COVID-19 brought challenges to the CWSP, including a reduced capacity for student internships resulting from the increase in remote working. Seeing this gap, the Technology Strategy team applied for and won a Merkle Dream Grant to support a day of onsite training and mentorship for the Cristo Rey class of 2026.

The full-day program began with an overview of Merkle as a company, including its mission, values, and culture. Next, the Tech Strategy team presented "Consulting 101," covering the types of consulting, the consulting process, and the skills required to be successful in the field. The students asked insightful questions and showed a keen interest in the subject matter.


The next session, "Technology 101," offered an interactive inside look at how advertising works and the technologies that enable it. The team used examples and case studies to help the students understand the complex world of advertising in a way they could understand. The team created interactive activities, including a real-world workshop challenging the students to solve everyday problems, which was a major highlight of the day!

The session ended with exploring the specific skills and qualities required to be a successful consultant, such as critical thinking, problem solving, and teamwork. To keep the sessions engaging and interactive, the team incorporated quizzes and games along the way. The students had a lot of fun competing against each other and reinforcing the key concepts discussed.

Small group breakouts provided a great opportunity for the students to discuss preparing for the workplace, career questions, and other topics relevant to their future careers. This provided a more private setting for them to engage, ask questions, and get a deeper dive on topics discussed.

What they taught us

While we knew the day would be full of great teaching moments, we weren’t prepared to learn some interesting lessons from them in return:

1. Know Your Audience: We shouldn’t have been so surprised by the students’ statement that clicking through a digital ad isn’t one of their basic experiences. Digital ads have a 0.8% click through rate and these students, who are at the tail end of Gen Z, are still forming their market behaviors. Don’t assume failure in your digital campaign because you didn’t attract the youngest demographics – look to TikTok, Instagram, and other socials to gain ground with these audiences.

2. What Goes Around Comes Around: Similar to the resurgence of Y2K fashion and choker necklaces, we were surprised to hear the students most strongly react to receiving direct mail pieces. It appears that recent research from Forrester and Lob is correct in stating that direct mail as a channel continues to hold the attention of the next generation. Don’t count out any channels or strategies that may feel terminally ‘out’. Instead, figure out how to inject new ideas into proven methods. Check out Merkle’s new direct mail ebook here for more on that.

3. Earn Your Data: Consistently, our consultants heard from these students that they didn’t care about cookies on sites they visited, that they ignored requests for access, and that too much marketing personalization felt intrusive and off-putting. Brands need to be up front about the positives of sharing data and maintain high-integrity, transparent usage of that data. As legislation continues to strengthen individual data rights, it will be easier for individuals to opt out of letting you have any data on them at all. Brands who have built clear communication and strong incentive programs with their customers in exchange for their data will pull ahead of the rest.

By the end of the day, consultants and students alike had a lot to think about. For our part, we were inspired by the insights, ideas, and drive of the freshmen at Cristo Rey high school and so thankful for the opportunity to gather and trade ideas.

Want to learn more from our Tech Strategy experts? Contact the team here.