Can you survive by being good at only one skill?
I got my start in the advertising industry as an intern in a small agency. There, they had a Sr. Art Director/Illustrator who didn’t want a Mac in his office, and wore his resistance as a badge of honor. Finally, he relented, and one day the agency gave him a Mac Classic to play with. As I saw him struggle to move margins in Microsoft Word to fit some type onto one line, I came in to help him. And I vowed to never be the kind of person who was resistant to change or developing new skills.
But change happens, and fast. It’s simply no longer enough to be good at one thing in advertising or marketing. Can people in advertising do more than one thing effectively? Is it better to be ”jack of all trades” or a master of one? And if you’re thought of in only one capacity, can you transcend your job description?
As my internship was in Business Development, I’ve always been attuned to new business opportunities and helped land a few clients for agencies. And while I pursued a career in the creative department, I never forgot what I learned then. But these days, I still hear, “You’re just a copywriter.” Usually it’s been said by someone with two or three slashes in their job title. I’ve had numerous people prevent me from participating in the production of my own work, or discount my opinion on topics beyond what they thought my area of knowledge was.
For professionals in advertising, there’s a constant struggle between being great at one’s job and becoming more well-rounded. If you’re determined to be incredible and irreplaceable at one thing, well, it’s tricky. Because no matter what that “one thing” might be, in advertising or marketing it’s gonna change — sooner rather than later. If you’re not learning new skills, you’re screwed. Even if it’s within your chosen discipline. For example, writing for the web is not the same as writing or print or radio. But it can be learned, and anyone who knows how to write well can adapt.
Some agency cultures are supportive of employees seeking to expand their skills. Many, stuck in the age where the precious billable hour is king, are not. Some agencies like to say “ideas can come from anywhere,” but in a tightly structured ad agency they generally have to come from whoever’s job description it is to come up with those ideas.
I’m a little puzzled by the need for agencies to compartmentalize their employees. Because most agencies themselves don’t specialize. They’ll take most any business that comes through the door and claim that they’re “media-neutral.” It keeps the revenue flowing, but as a result most agencies are alike and do indistinguishable work. Rare are the agencies that specialize in one medium or style — because they live and die by it.
If you look at job postings these days, the job descriptions today are fully loaded to get one-man bands. If a job is dependent on computer programs, you’ll need more than proficiency with one program or skill — you’ll need many. But far too often, agencies hire people with a cross-section of abilities only to throw them in a cubicle to tackle a single task.
Anyone who’s worth anything in the advertising business learns to be conversant, if not proficient, in most elements of the business. I’ve dabbled in account planning, new business research, videography, audio & video editing, and a little art direction. It doesn’t mean I replace people with lots of expertise in those areas, but it means I can walk into any agency or client meeting and contribute.
One thing I’ve definitely noticed: You certainly won’t succeed at compartmentalizing to the latest generation of ad people, who are becoming DIY experts simply because they can. When you’re a student in a college or ad school, you’ve got the time and resources to take the kinds of classes that teach you a wide variety of skills, particularly digital production. The rest of us, as we become more experienced and work full-time, need to shoehorn that into our spare time.
Perhaps it’s why so many people leave a structured agency life for a more entrepreneurial path; you’ve got no limitations imposed upon you by higher-ups. And you learn to do so many other jobs because there’s simply no one else to do it.
We’re living in an age where you can become a master at something only to discover, one year later, that skill isn’t as valued as it was. So more and more, we’re all turning into utility infielders. That’s not saying you can’t aspire to be the rare expert at something, but more often, variable skills are needed.
Always be learning, and always be curious — but also look for the chance to apply newly learned skills. Because if you let yourself become pigeonholed, you’ll never learn to truly fly.
Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small.
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