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March 31, 2016
To Specialize or Not to Specialize
Limiting yourself to one client category could be very limiting, indeed

I know a freelance copywriter who specializes in healthcare clients. Healthcare is pretty much the only category he’s worked on for many years. And as a result, he’s good at it and can talk shop with even the most taciturn doctors and hospital administrators.

But when I recently asked him how business was, and he replied, “Slow. Since my main client got bought out they stopped needing me. I don’t have anything to do at the moment.”

So is it a good idea for anyone, a freelancer or an agency, to specialize in one major product category — what everyone calls a “vertical”? Or it is better to be great at the art of persuasion no matter what the product category is?

As a freelancer, I regularly get inquiries that are quite specific. People find me via Google or some other method and then proceed to ignore the type of work they see on my portfolio website. They’ll write me and ask questions like, “Have you written any blog posts for an insurance-related SAAS (software as a service)?” Yes, I actually got that request.

I find it pays to be honest when saying yes, I have that experience or no, I don’t. Because without the requisite category experience, a small assignment can turn into a nightmare. Now, with a little time and resources, I can dive deep into any client’s business or industry. But these days, time and resources are in short supply.

Part of being a creative in advertising means that in general, you have to know a little bit about everything. Be a mile wide and an inch deep. The exception is if you’re at a big agency primarily working on one or two accounts. You’d better know all there is to know about that business. You can’t fake it.

But there’s a school of thought that says being a specialist is much more unique and lucrative. In medicine, there’s a reason OB/GYN’s make more money than general practitioners. Specialization gets you noticed, and if you have a great reputation it often keeps you in demand. However, in advertising it’s feast or famine. So yes, you could be the best farm equipment copywriter in the industry but you’re at the mercy of that category’s ups and downs. And when clients merge or go out of business, all of a sudden the cash cow could suddenly run dry.

It’s also easy to start relying on formulaic ideas when you’ve worked in one category for a long time. You’re so convinced of what works and what doesn’t that experimentation and innovative thinking takes a back seat.

This isn’t just a dilemma for individuals and their career. Similarly, some agencies do specialize in a vertical category. For example, automotive and pharmaceutical marketing are big specialties. I even know of one shop that exclusively markets credit unions. Most agencies, though, will gladly tackle any client category when a RFP comes across. You’ve seen that all-agency email: “Does anyone here have any experience with ________?” A little prior experience goes a long way at an agency that’ll take whatever new business comes through the door.

The ultimate truth is that it’s hard to turn down work when it’s offered. Especially when you’re in business for yourself. The reality is, you gotta eat. That means sometimes, you gotta pivot.

And let’s face it, that client variety is still a big lure for many ad folks. Going from thinking about restaurants to tourism to canned vegetables to tractors keeps your mind stimulated in a business where everyone seems to have a little ADHD.

There’s no one right answer. You have to do what’s best for you, and what you prefer to work on. But no matter category your client’s business is in, it’s important to understand people most of all. Their perceptions, desires, fears, and everything in between.

Because no matter how deep you’re willing to go in learning a client’s category, human nature is much, much deeper.

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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. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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