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Why Agencies Need Generalists
By: Dwayne W. Waite Jr.
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In ancient Greece, where thinkers reigned supreme, there was one course that was the umbrella of all others: philosophy. From philosophy came physics and mathematics, rhetoric and the study of languages, and from those came engineering, chemistry, architecture, agriculture, and many of the studies we know and love today.

From a single form of study, many studies appeared. One can say, back then, that being a generalist and touching on many subjects was much better than specializing. 

Can that still be applied today? Many would say no, but we disagree.

Specialization may have its perks. The biggest perk is job security. If you own a skill or knowledge set that others do not, you immediately add value. That's no fluke, it's economics; skill under scarcity definitely helps people compete in a competitive market. Specialization is also easier than being a generalist. You can focus on a single subject and become an expert instead of "wasting" time on multiple areas, some of which you just won't master. Concentrating on one area in this society would define you as efficient.

But why does being a generalist — especially in the agency world — get a bad rap? Is it because people perceive specialization to be that much better, or does being a generalist seem unfocused? Generalist is defined as "one whose skills, habits and interests are varied and unspecialized." 

That doesn't sound bad, does it?

In fact, for AdLand, it is not bad at all. Actually, being a generalist should be awesome. With consumers being as diverse, as media segmented, as creative and complicated, adding generalists to our arsenal would be a huge help. When networking at a cocktail party, who is going to be the better schmoozer: the Ad person who knows only one subject, or the Ad person who knows a little about a solid ten subjects? If advertising deals with forming messages in order to appeal to new and current consumers, will not the networking victor also be successful in this arena? 

Those who are able to spread their skills across multiple disciplines will be the ones who stay around the longest. If a shop is cutting its copywriting staff but boosting its market research staff, would it not suit you better if you knew a decent amount of both? In our last post about the findings Deutsch LA and 4A's provided, we totally agree with cross-discipline training. Not only does it make your staff generalists, but being involved in more segments of the agency makes you less disposable, not knowing more about a single topic in the agency. 

The tables, in our environment, have turned. Specialists are entering our industry by storm, and it is the generalist who now has the edge.

Generalists have an understanding of their abilities, and they appreciate the skills those specialists have attained. With a broader scope of knowledge, generalists can have a wider perspective than specialists. When problem solving, generalists can apply their understanding of other disciplines easier than specialists. 

All of these skills are needed in the agency world.

Are we saying that the Age of Specialization is over? Not by any means, but now AdLand is certainly feeling its effects. Gird up your ranks with generalists, and see the difference.

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About the Author
Dwayne W. Waite Jr. is partner and principal at JDW: The Charlotte Agency, a marketing and advertising shop in Charlotte, NC. He enjoys consumer behavior, economics, and football.
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