Adapt or die. Could creatives and marketing experts alike thrive by refusing to specialize?

For years we have been told by our industry peers and leaders that if you’re not a specialist, you are worth less. Claiming your shop or business could “do everything” was the kiss of death in a meeting or pitch and automatically conjured up comparisons to straight up mediocrity.

But why?

What if your superpower, your genius, and your expertise is being a Generalist? I will give you an example of how a diverse resume actually helps you get ahead.

I have watched my partner grow from editor to certified colorist to storyteller to director to photographer to camera op in the eight years I have known him. That is an incredible and impressive journey, yes, but it is also a unique background to have. Many could criticize that this feels scattered. Unreliable. Ask, “who is this indecisive person who can’t make up his mind as to what he wants to be when he grows up?” Fair. There is that Malcolm Gladwell school of thought that proposes to become a true a specialist at your craft requires at least ten years of adequate study and practice to gain expertise.

But in learning each step of the production process on an intimate, tactile and technical level, we believe this unlocks another stratum to understanding how the end product (and the process) can be stronger. We are thoughtful. And more importantly, we are fully invested from start to finish because we’re involved in every part of the process. Of course we would best set ourselves up for success.

Not a Master of None, A Master of Marketing

My friend, mentor and Founder of Noetic Consultants, Nancie McDonell Ruder,  recently wrote a book based on the interviews she conducted with over 50 top marketers in various disciplines. In “Jack and Jill Went Up the Hill: How Senior Marketers Scale the Heights Through Art and Science” she surmises that to be a Jack or Jill-of-all-trades makes you not a master of none, but a master of marketing. Coining the phrase, “Accidental Generalists,” she neatly summarizes what it means to be this ‘swiss army knife’ of a creative. She writes, “These dynamic men and women possess certain key qualities they leverage to great advantage. The first of these you need to know is that they are Jacks-and-Jills-of-all-trades, which to the uninformed can look a little like a drawback. To the contrary, I came to learn that this trait is among their greatest strengths.”

Hmm. Go on, Nancie.

She continues to challenge the assumption that Jacks and Jills-of-all-trades are ”just” Generalists. A word synonymous with, well, not an expert. “Generalists know a little about everything, but not overly much about any one thing. This can make Jacks and Jills seem flaky, or at least unpredictable. I agree, it can look that way at first blush. In fact, many of the men and women I interviewed readily admit that they didn’t take a prescribed path. They’re Generalists and sometimes this gets a bad rap. But the very nature of our field requires us to be agile in not just one but any number of different ways.”

Right. And although myself and my partner are not senior marketers, we share this common “crooked path up the hill.”

Generalists, Not Specialists, Are More Adaptable

Max Olson, the business blogger who studies Specialists and Generalists in nature noted that “Specialists thrive in certain environments because they fulfill a niche and are very effective at competing with other organisms. But they are limited. Generalists, on the other hand, respond better to uncertainty and change. These species usually survive for very long periods because they deal with unanticipated risks better.”

Science.

But I find this to be absolutely true. As Generalists, we practice, learn, share, collaborate with experts, listen, and learn some more. We don’t stop at okay or better. We keep pushing ourselves towards the BEST. That is always the goal. And as we push towards this goal, we tack on additional skills that have a compounding effect. Each one making us exponentially better at the many mediums we touch.

As Directors, we create original color palettes because we are also colorists so, we know how we’d like to grade before we step on set. We can quickly assess whether we will do a sky replacement so we don’t hold up a shoot day waiting for weather. We understand our gear, intimately. EVERY. SINGLE, PIECE. And this allows us to create ideas we are confident in executing. Everything down to our Olympic style time trials for swapping lenses on the Movi, including the inevitable trouble-shooting, so we can guarantee that our shoot schedule allows for the most stress-free, perfectly organized and flawless days. And we wrap on time and on budget without freaking out at crew or sacrificing lighting or shot selection. This stuff matters. We approach each project with the view of a Creative Director and the rhythm of an Editor. The shot composition of a DP and the knowledge of the codec and compression ratio of a finishing artist. And we owe it all to being okay with being Generalists. We don’t ever simply have one solve… or always push one piece of equipment or medium. We love being able to play on all courts.

Defy Traditional Definitions

The ability for people like my partner and me to intercept change, pivot and keep running is what makes us Generalists uniquely poised for this ever changing industry. Especially in times like these when the landscape looks like somewhat of a Dali painting. The ability to jump around is not a sign of flakiness or lack of passion for our craft. To the contrary, it’s a survival skill. As one of the world’s greatest architects said, “Talent is good, practice is better, passion is best” (thanks for the reminder Frank).

And at AlterEgo, our value proposition is just that. We have grit and polish alike because we are expert Accidental Generalists. This love for what we do is everything and we have devoted our lives to learning, adding to our learnings, evolving, and putting every ounce of our knowledge into being better for the next one. Creating the best work, while having the best time.

Learn more about the Accidental Generalist and hear from over 50 senior marketers in Nancie McDonnell Ruder’s new book, Jack and Jill Went Up the Hill: How Senior Marketers Scale the Heights Through Art and Science which can be ordered  here

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