Kevin Chesters: why the world needs specialists

Kevin Chesters, is the partner/CSO of The Harbour Collective and former chief strategy officer of Ogilvy UK.

If you were looking for the best butcher in your area, I suspect you wouldn’t find them behind the meat counter of the local supermarket.

If you did look there, you’d be likely to find a very good butcher. You would find someone with skills, experience and knowledge way in advance of the average layman. I suspect you would come away (unless the supermarket was crap) with a good solution to your meat-related need.

But you would always be making a significant compromise.

That compromise would be sacrificing the guarantee of getting the best answer in exchange for enjoying the convenience/scale of a generalist retailer. Now, if you were the kind of person who had quality as your first criteria, then I suspect you’d seek out a specialist butchers’ shop.

It’s the same with medicine. A visit to your GP will bring you into contact with a skilled generalist in medical health. One who’ll be able to give you a more accurate diagnosis than you’d get from Dr Google or a concerned mate. However, the moment you required any form of more specialist diagnosis then you’d expect the doctor to know their limits and refer you to an expert in that field. This expert practitioner would be in a much better position to give you a more targeted solution to the problem at hand. And this would just get more specialised as your issue became clearer. Makes sense, doesn’t it? If you want to get a more expert opinion, ask an expert.

So why has our communications world become so populated by generalists? This is something that has definitely come full circle in the marketing and communications industry since I started back in the 90s. Back then there were lots of specialist agencies, and clients tended to employ a collection of said experts to deliver specific elements of the marketing mix. This became especially true during the first wave of digital marketing in the late 90s when some really famous and feared digital agency brands emerged to challenge the famous advertising behemoths.

However, the world has tended to shift since the noughties (and the financial crisis) towards generalists – big agency or big holding company solutions that promised the convenience (or economic saving) of a one-stop-shop to meet all your marketing needs under one roof. This was the marketing equivalent of the big out-of-town megastores offering the promise of worry-free convenience if you weren’t too fussed about excellence in any specific vertical. Small specialist local shops went out of fashion (or business) as a result of this compromise - but the ‘consumer’ didn’t necessarily get the promised excellence (or savings, for that matter).

The world of marketing has got more complex over the course of my career. Significantly so. I think that the role of, and need for, the specialist has really grown over the course of the last decade. The role of the specialist expert agency has never been more necessary for clients in my opinion. And I think we are about to enter the new age of the specialist.

If you want sharper, better informed, more focused answers then you are better off going to an expert. And my observation from 20+ years of doing this is that the smarter, hungrier, more informed people tend to gravitate towards the more specialist agencies. Especially if they are the kind of owner, entrepreneurial folks who set up their own agencies based on their specialisms.

As a side note, I think this equally applies to the specialist skill of traditional advertising. The most lauded agencies over the last few years – W+K, Mother, Lucky Generals, Adam & Eve/DDB, VCCP - have massively over-indexed on traditional advertising output (especially film/TV) and have reaped the benefit for it in awards and new business wins. It might be unfashionable to say it, but the best agencies are still largely defined by their advertising output.

I’m not saying that there is not a role for big generalist communications groups or more generic folk (I’d count myself as one of the latter, for starters) but I think that the role of specialist agencies and experts has never been more vital than it is today. Beware the generalist who promises to be the ‘Master of All Trades’ - it is just not possible in 2019. To steal the words of Atul Gawande, modern marketing solutions need pit crews, not cowboys. And I think that it is unlikely that you find these real experts in vertical offerings in the big generalist supermarket-style agencies. They don’t gravitate there.

If you’re a big client with a meaty challenge, then you’ll certainly still need an overall diagnosis. It is good to work with an experienced brand expert who can see the bigger picture and give you a ‘big picture’ answer. But then I would argue that in this increasingly complicated media landscape you are much better off selecting a specialist to meet your specific need. The key, as always, will be in making sure that you don’t end up taking too much time managing or integrating your various experts. This is the issue is what led to the ‘convenience compromise’ of choosing the one-stop-shop at the expense of the right solution to your specific problem in the first place.

It’s my contention that the world needs experts more than ever. It just makes sense to me that you would get your collection of expert Avengers with key skills together rather than expecting the big Hulk to be able to solve every problem with his big generic Hulky fists (apologies to any non-Marvel fans out there who are probably lost at this point).

Sharper answers come from asking the right questions. Deeper knowledge comes from exposure to real category experts. If you’re just looking for convenience and speed, then you probably should head to a supermarket. But if you are looking for the best answer to meet your specific needs, ask an expert. As my dad always said, “the right tool for the right job”.

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