The Rise of the Generalist in a Specialist Agency World

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By Sarah Ivey, Published in Strategy Online, November 28 2018.

The skills to pay the bills 

When I ran a global study onthe millennial generation in 2014, one of the biggest findings was that this generation learned the hard way to value skills over job title. The reality was the careers they were training for didn’t exist by the time they left school. 


You could argue that ad agencies are among the most extreme in terms of these whiplash changes in skill set and talent. It’s safe to say that between massive structural changes and the advent of artificial intelligence, no one’s job will be the same in three years. Maybe two. 

Stay in your lane

Are we entering a world of increasing fragmentation and specialization, or are we actually embarking on a large-scale effort at re-integration?

Unprecedented pressure is on marketers to find the best tool in the toolbox, leading to the rise of project work, rosters, in-house agencies, and consultancies. The irony is that this approach splinters the responsibility for a holistic brand experience across many players. From an individual agency basis, it puts far more pressure on each agency to see the problem as a whole. From the marketer’s perspective, although it’s significantly more complex to manage, it’s a talent godsend. They’ve got a whole host of brilliant brains who are all working on their business. It’s classic portfolio theory. The more bets, the more chances you have of getting it right. That’s part of the reason why you see the rise (again) of ideas-only agencies, who specialize in inspiration but not execution. 

Specialist ninja or MMA master?

The big question for agencies is what kind of talent is going to make or break their future. 

 For so long, agencies have been focused on implementation. That’s where the money is. That’s where procurement understands their value best. But in a world where consumers increasingly compare experiences across categories, the ability to see parallels across great work, to see where the brand experience falls down, is the view of a generalist, and those are in short supply. 

Will agencies still need ninjas? Possibly. Artificial intelligence is making the most strides in specialized applications. That’s what machine learning does. It takes a very closely defined task and refines it. Dynamic copyediting? Media buying? Video editing? All of these highly specialized skills are far more likely to be assisted or replaced by AI. The role of the specialist/ninja will evolve into something far more involved in judgement and taste, and frankly closer to a generalist.

Front door approach 

On a macro level, the developments that are happening at the holding company level are a sign for the entire industry. As laid out in Forrester’s Agency Holding Companies Need A Brave New Business Model, August 13, 2018,nearly every holdco is moving towards some sort of front door approach. There’s the Publicis Groupe Power of One…there’s the move to holdco level client P&Ls at Dentsu Aegis Network. Or there’s structural reorganization, like the acquisition of Acxiom by IPG and the merging of assets at WPP. It’s about simplifying client contact and becoming more integrated in their approach – and that requires more generalists. 

How can agencies of any size cultivate more generalists? 

1.    Creativity as a cultural habit: Ditch the “one person with a marker brainstorm”. There are loads of ways, from brainstorming techniques to client immersions to simple fixes around the office that can give the team full permission to think creatively.

2.    Build a better mousetrap: When the team is working so hard on a client’s business, they never stop thinking about it. Find a place – digital or physical – to capture all that great thinking. At worst, it shows the client your dedication  – at best it gives you more authority to pitch proactive ideas. 

3.    Take an acting or improv class:Don’t laugh. Actually, laugh. One of the core skills of being a great generalist is empathy, and there isn’t a faster way on earth to develop your empathy muscle than acting or improv. 

At its core, being a great generalist is not unlike being a great general – in the words of George S. Patton “Always do more than is required of you.” 

Sarah Ivey is the CEO of Agents of Necessity Inc., a global communication strategy agency. One of our big missions is to help agencies evolve into new business models and ways of being even more brilliant.

Want to know more? Check out our brainstorming training for teams, or just give Sarah a shout at info@agentsofnecessity.com.

Sarah Ivey