Todd Defren has an excellent piece of what I can only assume is link bait over on PR Squared. In his post, Todd outlines his vision of the “new agency” in which he seems to outline what he is, has and will be building at Shift Communications, the “all purpose” PR agency he co-founded and runs. He believes generalist practioners and counselors are the way to go. They are, Todd purports, more efficient and more, well, all-purpose. The virtues of a well-trained cadre of enlightened consultants who can work on any part of your business are legion, but give me specialists any time.
1. De facto/de jure. The work always finds the right people and gravitates to talent. If all your team are generalists, some will be slightly better than others. If the work always finds the best people, then these people, who start off slightly better than the rest of the team will be able to practice, develop and hone their skills, and suddenly the differential between their skills and the rest of the team’s has been magnified. Ipso facto, hey presto: specialists.
2. Put the client first. I am a communications consultant first and a social media d-bag second. I’m as comfortable discussing communications strategy in general as I am its application online and in the social media space. That said, do you want me leading a policy debate or healthcare account? No. Do I want a Public Affairs or Government Relations specialist conceiving an online execution? No. while the results may not suffer, do you want to take the risk that the execution distract from the core message? No. As a client, I would want people with vast experience of the myriad nuances and regulatory environments for my industry working on my business. Because there are specifics peculiar to each sub-section of our industry, and our clients’, you want specialists. The clue is in the nomenclature. In this case, generalists do the client a disservice: don’t try to shoehorn a client into your own philosophy.
3. Talent Development. Todd argues it is cheaper to hire a rock star and surround them with recent grads to form a department than it is to ingrain a specialism into the whole agency. I disagree. One of the benefits in having a core group of people who are knowledgeable and passionate about a common area is that they can become greater than the sum of their parts – using each other as sounding boards for ideas and insight. As one of four rock stars at com.motion (plus a double rock star senior associate), I think it’s cheaper to hire great people than many mediocre ones. One look at the talent pool in Toronto, one the cities with the most switched on and connected agency networks, will tell you it is nigh impossible to hire a great mid level consultant. That so called rock stars are over paid and over hyped (hope my boss doesn’t read this!) And that there are a tonne, literally a tonne, of junior level people claiming they have digital expertise because their prof told them to start a blog and they have obligatory Twitter/Facebook presences. Whats more, having a central talent pool can excite the surrounding agency – I cannot tell you how energizing it is to see professionals at the top of their game as it is as Veritas with the Marketing Public Relations (MPR) and Corporate Public Affairs (CPA) practice groups. Only specialists can help you achieve and more importantly sustain this sort of momentum.
4. One of Todd’s main criticisms is that when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Point taken but a true communications professional should be able to step outside of their specialty to develop a holistic strategy. My MPR colleagues have a high profile client who is happy to hear my recommendations to not get hot and heavy about social media. And based on their target demographics, I am happy to keep giving that advice as long as it makes sense from a business perspective AND a communications perspective.
Much of this post is born out of a frustration from seeing too many firms offering “tradigital” consulting to their clients. I’m all for a higher (much higher in some cases) base line of knowledge from consultants across all spheres of our business but for Todd to choose social media as the one area which everyone should be proficient in is…disappointing and kind of counterintuitive to his whole point. I deliberately tried not, in the points above, to focus too much on social media and online/digital/Internet communications. I’m not expected to be an Investor Relations consultant so why should I expect IR consultants to be be (workable) experts in my world? I guess this is a deeper philosophical question about whether social media and online is going to completely change the way we as an industry does business or whether social media is *just* a new channel for the marketing matrix to consider.
Ironically for some who accuses the specialist’s camp of drinking too much Kool-Aid, it is the generalists who are drinking the Kool-Aid if they think this is going to provoke a fundamental shift (no pun intended) in the communications business. Social media is not the first new channel to emerge for marketers to reach their audience and it surely won’t be the last.
Shift Communications seems to be more of a tech shop so I can certainly see how this core expertise tessellates very neatly with the social media/online space but I can’t help but think Todd is trying a bit too hard to make a specific point. Maybe a big new business pitch is coming up and he’s looking to do a bit of de-positioning for a competitor?
Another train of thought is that maybe it’s my own brand of myopia at work. I can understand that clients who like working with a small shop would ask for tradigital generalists but if a client is looking for first class partners (not suppliers) I can’t see the benefit or value in overlooking dedicated, passionate, knowledgeable specialists. I’ve worked as a hybrid, at FH, and my last two positions, at iStudio and now com.motion within Veritas Communications, have been as a specialist. I can’t even begin to tell you how much more I’ve enjoyed being a specialist.
My view is that specialists add exponentially more value for the client, to their employer and to the team they work within. This is true of all facets of Public Relations, not just social media.
Would you rather be a specialist or a generalist? Would you rather hire a specialist or a generalist? Comments are open!
Links added Oct 17.