The benefits of generalism in advertising

Originally written for Marketing Magazine

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You know you’ve enjoyed a presentation when you walk away with a head full of exciting thoughts, contradicting arguments and insights. Last month I was part of an audience of about 30 Dublin strategists who had the pleasure of an IAPI hosted audience with John Willshire.

An agency planner turned consultant and product creator, the Scot is a fiercely interesting character with a lot of smart things to say. But one point in particular really stood out for me. Asked to take a look at the state of agency land, Willshire strongly emphasised the need for complexity and co-operation to build strong brands and safeguard the future of the industry. It’s a statement that many of us need to take heed of.

Most agencies see it as a necessary evil to work collaboratively with others. If we’re completely honest, we’d all rather have complete control over a campaign. We all have our own internal biases and of course everyone wants to be the client’s favourite.

Inter agency friction is a common scenario that Finian Murphy summed up well on IAPI Rant Night during a short talk entitled ‘can’t we all just get along?’. When we sit around a boardroom table with the client, each of us, whether in media, creative, strategy, P.R. or digital, all think we’ve got the one true answer. It’s almost never as simple as that.

Sure, a utopian world where every agency entity steps back and doesn’t tread on toes is perhaps not realistic. But being over zealous or too protective over your own specific area benefits nobody, not least the client who’s paying for your expertise.

Being open and self-referential are vital traits for marketers. Too often, we work towards a confirmation bias, taking a strong opinion on an issue and twisting the logic or research to suit our point. This can be both dangerous for the brands we work with, but also untrue to ourselves and unprofessional. The American startup investment guru Marc Andreessen said recently that ‘existing knowledge often blinds us to the depths of our true ignorance’. Specialisation of thinking can make us retreat to defending what we think we know best, rather than making new lateral connections. It makes us averse to intelligent contrarian arguments, and unfortunately, it’s an affliction that affects most agencies.

Us Irish agency execs need to start behaving more like creative generalists rather than specialised monopaths. The concept of the ‘polymath’, a person with knowledge spanning a number of different subject areas, is something we should aim towards. Being a generalist means one can draw on disparate influences and benefit from the cross-fertilisation of two or more fields.

While we can’t all be Benjamin Franklin or Da Vinci, excelling in multiple disciplines, it’s human nature to be curious and at least somewhat knowledgeable about many things. Yet as a marketing industry, we seem to be losing that.

In the context of the digital era, this non-siloed way of thinking is even more important. Dogmatism doesn’t work any more; you have to be a dedicated hunter-gatherer of information and skills to keep up.

For example, learning the basics of many different digital skills will help to build better relationships both within the agency, but also externally. Through online learning portals like Treehouse and Codecademy, it’s never been easier to expand your knowledge base.

And it’s also critical that we don’t become snobbish about ‘traditional’ advertising. Digital isn’t always the sole answer, and this is something that I myself have struggled with, as a so called ‘digital native’. A great campaign often needs a smart mix of channels, so a copywriter who knows a bit about UX design will be beneficial, likewise a social media manager who understands P.R. or a developer who understands the fabric of branding.

Of course, nothing can substitute for depth of analysis, and there’s proven value in specialisation. Disparate, knowledge intensive disciplines like SEO, media buying, copywriting and design need strong specific skillsets. But there also needs to be room for the bigger picture, for people who take separate strands and draw the rich tapestry of a brand campaign together. I fully believe that organisations can benefit by adding divergent thinkers to the mix. Though our ego might say otherwise, none of us are correct all of the time, and if nothing else, they bring a fresh viewpoint.

Paraphrasing another esteemed advertising figurehead, Russell Davies, advertising creativity is about ‘the collision of ideas’. Therefore, the logic follows that we need to be interested in a wide range of topics and ‘a little bit of everything’.

Here’s a challenge: the next time you sit around the table with other agencies, do so with an open mind. Be willing to be challenged and probed on your viewpoint, and try to see the bigger picture rather than merely focusing fervidly on your slice of the pie.

It might be difficult, but in the long run, creative generalism benefits everybody.