This past year I had lunch with a friend who used to run his own agency. He closed it ten years ago and built a brand strategy consultancy. Although he calls on marketing executives, and sees agency people in meetings, he was remarkably removed from goings-on in the advertising business. Stopping for a moment, he thought, and said: “My overall impression is ‘turbulence’.”
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We won’t argue with that: Turbulence. Clients continue changing agencies at a rapid pace. Assignments are spread among different agencies, either within or across holding companies. It’s a buyer’s market, with agency fees generally down. There were more layoffs last week, and many others change jobs voluntarily. How do you survive all this turbulence?
It’s not just advertising. Also this year, Fast Company announced “The Four-Year Career” and advised that “career planning is an oxymoron”. The gist was that you may as well plan for constant career change because it’s going to happen to you anyway. Their modern definition of a career path: “Tacking swiftly from job to job and field to field, learning new skills all the while.”
How to Survive the Ad Biz in 2013
This blog made a similar point in How To Get Ahead in Advertising: “Advancement is not so much a straight line through one discipline, but tacking like a sailboat across various disciplines. We will always need specialists, but it’s the generalists who will advance the farthest in agencies of the future.”
In the days of Ye Olde Marketing, there were fewer specialties, therefore, fewer specialists, so becoming a generalist was more achievable. Most of the ways to reach consumers only reached them, i.e., with one-way messages from advertisers to audiences. Today, there are many, many specialties and new ones invented all the time. Media has multiplied and specialists have proliferated.
You’re already a specialist by virtue of what you do every day. Copywriter. Art director. Social media community manager. Web developer. Shopper marketer. Account executive. Everyone shows up for work to do a specific thing. You probably don’t expect to be doing that job forever. How do you become a generalist, too?
First, be curious. While you’re doing that job, have good peripheral vision, paying attention to how others contribute. If you’re at an agency with many different services, take advantage of the many opportunities to learn. If you’re at a specialist agency, for example a digital shop, you can still learn because by nature the work will intersect with other disciplines. For example, your mobile app may also be part of a shopper marketing program. You can also read about a couple of disciplines you haven’t learned yet. Pick a couple of topics and focus on those.
Second, be courageous. Take a step outside the comfort zone of your day-to-day activity and try a new specialty. I’ve been impressed by the willingness of up-and-comers to move from one discipline to another. We even ran a program that rotated account executives over a two-year period among advertising, direct, digital, shopper and experiential. More experienced people should do this, too. I had a colleague who took his 25 years writing successful TV commercials and applied it to writing all the SEM copy we did for a large client.
Capabilities lead to Possibilities
Over time, you will go from specialist in a couple of areas to generalist who can see the big picture. That kind of perspective gives you two super-powers. One is that you are obviously more marketable. The other is that you are more effective. You’re not just a specialist playing your position well, you have a sense of how the other parts of the marketing program come together. Ultimately, you’ll be qualified for a job to centrally run those interdisciplinary marketing efforts, either as a client, creative director, or agency account lead.
Put another way, capabilities lead to possibilities. You need possibilities. You could lose your job, it could bore you, or it could cease to exist, but chances are you won’t be doing the same job four years from now. The trick isn’t just to survive, it’s to survive by growing along with the industry.