Leticia Canela, Geoff Hawes, Paul Robinson, and Miguel Sumoza are hanging out. The four high-school students are shooting pool, listening to rap phenom Eminem, and arguing about whether it's okay to tell people that you're already 16 years old when in fact you'll be 15 for two more months. The room they're in contains a mini-refrigerator, an inflatable chair, and a bulletin board decorated with magazine cutouts of pop stars -- all of the trappings of a suburban rec room. But these kids are at the Stamford, Connecticut-based headquarters of North Castle Partners, an advertising agency so obsessed with teenagers that it has created an on-site clubhouse just for them.
It's easy to understand why. There are currently 31.5 million kids in America between the ages of 12 and 19, part of the biggest population surge since the baby boom. And these kids have money to burn. Teens spent nearly $105 billion of their own money last year, according to Teenage Research Unlimited. But these numbers also represent a challenge: How do you even begin to figure out what's interesting to today's media- and tech-savvy kids?
Skip the usual hit-and-run approach to marketing research, say the folks at North Castle, a 70-person agency whose clients include the Coca-Cola Co. and Nabisco. If you want to understand teenagers, you have to form relationships with them. That's something that the agency has been perfecting for the past eight years, ever since it was enlisted to reposition Slim Jim (once a ho-hum product aimed at adults) as a naughty teen snack. To do that, North Castle immersed itself in teen culture by attending sporting events and concerts, and accompanying kids on shopping trips to the mall. And then, in 1996, the agency partnered up with four high schools -- two in Connecticut, one in the Bronx, and one in Virginia. Agency execs teach biweekly advertising and marketing classes in exchange for the chance to run focus groups with the students.
"There was a point with Slim Jim when the light came on and we said, 'Let's talk to teens on their terms, not on our terms,' " says agency partner Grant MacDonald, 46.
Students engage in a wide range of activities. They create time capsules that reflect their lives, draw storyboards for products, and play guessing games with music and consumer products. The frequency of the panels allows North Castle to gather information that is brand new. "By the time some of the syndicated studies get printed, they're already dated," says Susan Chaggaris, 27, who, until recently, was director of the agency's teen-panel program. "We have access to these kids every week, so we stay tapped into what's going on."
And because North Castle sees the same students over and over during the school year, the kids feel more comfortable and their responses are more genuine. "We speak freely," explains Leticia Canela, 16. "That's what it's all about."
Maybe so. But this cozy relationship between kids and an advertising agency makes some people uneasy. "These companies are not really interested in kids' education," says marketing critic Carrie McLaren, 31, editor of Stay Free! magazine. "Companies are using the classroom for a private interest," she says. "Plus, we're telling kids to look at the world as salesmen, and that makes them start thinking about their relationships in terms of selling things and making money. Their friendships get commodified." But Paul Robinson, 18, believes that his experience with North Castle has made him more media-savvy -- and that it has given him a career goal. "My whole perspective on commercials is not the same as it used to be," he says. "I don't just see everything as a consumer."
For most students, the highlight of the semester is "agency day," when they go en masse to the North Castle offices and, among other things, create and tape their own radio spots. Robinson says that his mother was so proud of his ad for a soft drink that she played the tape for family members and friends. "Doing this has really made me want to go into advertising," he says.
Curtis Sittenfeld (email@example.com), a former Fast Company staff writer, is a graduate student in the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa. Learn more about North Castle on the Web (www.northcastle.com).
Sidebar: What's the Buzz?
When North Castle repositioned itself as kid cognocenti, it did so right down to its offices, where childhood photos of employees now line the hallways.
The photographs reflect the firm's mission, but they also serve as a reminder: "We are going to fail as adults if we think that what we were like as teens is what teens are like today," says Susan Chaggaris, former director of the agency's teen-panel program. In part, adults' inability to understand teens is due to the increasingly short shelf life of coolness. But it's also because today's teens live in a different world than their predecessors did. That makes sustained personal contact -- like North Castle's biweekly panels with high-school students -- that much more important, Chaggaris says.
The agency has certainly learned how to appeal to its teen panelists. "North Castle is awesome," says Geoff Hawes, 17, who attends Wilton High School in Wilton, Connecticut. "When they'd come to our class, it was a break in the day. They played cool games with us, and they brought us presents." But the agency also knows how to listen.
It was in its teen panels that North Castle first heard the buzz about South Park. North Castle made media buys during the show early on, when the program was charging only $20,000 a spot -- a sixth of what South Park was charging by the end of the first season.