3 reasons T-shaped is still relevant in advertising

I’ve started writing regular guest posts for Advertising Week Social Club. You can find it here. 

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

Robert Heinlein

In advertising, there are more specialties than you can shake a stick at.

Copywriters, art directors, accounts people, strategists, producers, project managers, front-end developers, back-end developers, UX specialists, activation specialists, information architects, retouchers, animators of various kinds, PR people, and coders of all varieties.

Add digital on to the beginning of most those titles and you’ve still barely touched the surface.

New roles appear every day due the increasing number of media channels by which people can consume content and ignore advertising.

Since the early 2000’s (and plenty before that too), if you wanted to work in an ad agency you needed to be relatively T-shaped – someone with a single specialisation (the vertical stroke of the T) and a broad knowledge across a number of areas (the horizontal stroke).  You need to be T-shaped In order to effectively communicate with all the other specialised people, this makes sense.

However now, some people are suggesting that “Square-shaped is the new T-shaped”. That is “You should just KNOW EVERYTHING”.

In my opinion, this is bullshit. In more ways than one.

1. Specialisation takes a long time

It’s easy to say, “You should just know everything”. But being a specialist is incredibly hard.

I work in an agency and also run my own business. At the agency I’m primarily a copywriter and creative, that’s my specialty. In my business I’m the whole agency. What I do for my business is definitely satisfactory, but the work I do doesn’t come close to that produced by a whole group of specialists.

I might know how to set up an email autoresponder – but I don’t know how to set it for business hours only.

I might know how to code in HTML – but I have no idea how to do responsive.

I might know how to use Analytics – but Google AdWords’ PPC algorithm stumps me.

Being a specialist takes time, around 10,000 hours depending on who you ask. Being a tried-and-true specialist across multiple fields just isn’t possible.

2. Square-shaped isn’t marketable

Let’s forget my first point. As someone working in advertising, ask yourself, “Is ‘square-shaped’ really marketable?”

Whether it’s true or not, most people prescribe to the ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ school of thought. If you are looking for a job and announce that you’re good at everything, they’ll either think you’re an asshole or a liar.

To take inspiration from old school advertising, you need a USP (unique selling proposition). You need a single thing that you’re good at, because that’s easy to sell. Easy to explain. And a hell of a lot more believable.

Once you’ve coaxed people with your specialty, then you can sell them on your breadth of knowledge.

3. The demand is still for T-shaped specialists

Let’s pretend this square-shaped person exists. Someone who has an in-depth knowledge of Photoshop, Indesign, Mailchimp, Analytics, WordPress, Flash, HTML, .NET, and PHP. Someone who has a good eye for design, how to write compelling copy, and how to develop a sound strategy. To finish it off, they also have some decent account management skills.

This person just couldn’t work in an agency. Or if they did, they’d be doing two of these tasks, maybe three tops. Because often, these tasks occur concurrently. It’s not possible to do a scamp, plan media and develop a wireframe at the same time. But that’s how agencies work.

The only time I can imagine a square-shaped person being highly useful is when starting their own business. And if that’s what you want to do, great.

But if you want to work at an agency that does good work, you need a specialisation. Do you still need a breadth of knowledge? Absolutely. But that breadth of knowledge can’t be as deep as your specialisation. Simply because if it is, your specialisation is lacking.

Specialisation might be for insects. But ad agencies look more like a colony than ever before.

Is there some truth to “square-shaped”? Let me know on Twitter. And while I’ve got you here, check out similar stuff on my blog.