23 September 2009

Are you a specialist or a generalist?

Are you a specialist or a generalist? Whether you’re a brand manager, creative director, media planner or whatever, I argue that you can be both. If you are, then we can call you a “Renaissance Practitioner”.

My definition of a Renaissance Practitioner: A 21st Century marketing executive with experience in, knowledge of, or appreciation for the complete range of channels available. This person specializes in some channels and becomes a true generalist by working with other specialists on a team. Renaissance practitioners always work outside their comfort zone.

This is an obvious riff on the historical term “Renaissance Man”, which applied to people of that era who gained mastery, accomplishment or experience in a range of a dozen or so areas such as sport, language, science and so forth. To become a Renaissance Man was not the result of merely dabbling in different areas, and the same principle holds true for a Renaissance Practitioner.

You don’t get a diploma when you achieve this status. In fact you never really “achieve” this status; it is a journey not a destination. Here are some practical things to keep in mind.

Study hard. It is important to maintain a solid understanding of the various disciplines that can build your business, from the technicalities of digital media to the personal connections of experiential to the mass reach potential of television. Take the time to read and talk to discipline experts.
Be curious. You never finish studying. Many disciplines are evolving. “Shopper Marketing” has had more than one definition over the past three years. On top of that, new disciplines arise: I joined Twitter in April 2007 and no one knew what it was back then.
Know your consumer. You’re knowledgeable. You’re up to date. So what? None of what you know about the latest channels means anything unless you know your own consumer. This applies to any marketing or advertising executive. I’ll write more about this topic.
Be open to the right answer. If you nail the above points, you may arrive at a surprising answer. For decades we have supplied one of our clients with TV, Radio and Print. Last year we took a fresh look at the business and realized we had overlooked a digital solution. Even though we have extensive digital capabilities, we called a sister agency that happens to have the digital AOR assignment for the same client.
This leads to a final thought: business partnership. Renaissance Practitioners can better serve their clients with the right solutions for their business.


  1. Steve,
    I came across your blog by clicking on a comment you made on the AdAge article, “Planning your next move in Ad land.” You argue that one “could” be both a specialist and a generalist, but I argue that one “should” be both in today’s business environment.

    The need for “renaissance practitioners” applies for everyone in the professional world today as many companies continue to downsize their staff, and employees are allocated responsibility for two or more job positions.

    I’m your typical Gen-Y consumer, three college-semesters away from breaking into the ad world. I found your “Renaissance practitioner” article extremely interesting— especially since I myself am trying to capitalize on a specialty to bring to an advertising agency, even for an entry-level position. I believe that agencies hiring young talent expect the college graduates to come in with “tech-savvy” knowledge, or at least a “one-up” in something, while expressing general knowledge of the industry. While I understand Gen-Y can bring valuable insights on their own demographic, what insights are the most valued?

    My question to you is this: what is your advice for new professionals seeking entry-level positions at a large advertising agency? What “specialties” are presently desired in young emerging talent?

    Great post.

    Hannah Qualley

  2. Dear Hannah: Thanks for commenting and for following Ad Majorem. I hope you derive some benefit from what we have to share.

    You made the point that being a generalist is even more important today as employees are forced to take on added responsibility. It's a great point. I confess I've always thought about Renaissance Practitioners in terms of the supply side -- it's possible and beneficial -- versus the demand side -- it's necessary for survival. Good point; thanks!

    To answer your question, I see two "specialties" that are and will be in demand. The first is anything Digital. We can train almost anybody to succeed in general advertising or in retail and promotions. We can train people in digital, too, but the learning curve is much steeper because that discipline is so technical. Moreover, agencies need digital experience right now -- there is little or no time to train. So if you have or can develop any skills or experience, you'd be quite marketable to a large agency.

    The second "specialty" is one that most agencies don't know they need: Data. I've blogged a lot about Data and will continue to do so. In the past three years several large agencies have started to understand the possibilities here and a very small number have taken big steps to exploit those possibilities.

    Anyone else with a comment or a question about this?

  3. Thank you for your article. I have struggled with this question of the value of being a specialist vs. generalist for years. I had already come to the conclusion that I am a proud generalist marketer, or Renaissance Practioner as you say.

    When I was just out of college, I printed and reviewed marketing job postings of all types and highlighted those areas where I did not have experience yet. I then went out and got many of them under my belt. I consider my life a painting. Some areas are much filled in and some are still light, but when done I will be the picture I envision.

    Currently I'm in sales and marketing for a market research firm, CAWalker.com, enjoying my immersement in data-driven business decisions. I also write a blog, MarketingROIorDIE.com, where I share my study marketing's impact on ROI. I just connected to you on Twitter, I'm MktgROIorDIE.


  4. You had me at "ROI", Rebekah!

    ROI is the one thing in which we all must specialize... or die.

    Thanks for commenting! I'm following you on Twitter as well.


  5. Hi Steve,

    Great post. It is very important to see the big picture when branding. The problem is that consumers will see the specialists different than the generalists. In the mind of the consumer-it seems specialists win more than the do-it-all shop.

    Erik Johnson