AdLand Suit is Dan Shute, a Board Account Director at Delaney Lund Knox Warren, a top ten London Advertising Agency. This is where I write about the life of a Suit - which can include pretty much anything. Delaney's didn't know I was doing this, but they do now. They still don't agree with everything I say though. They'd also probably rather I swore less.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Here's To The Dilution Of Skill-Sets

Don't tell anyone this, but a Suit is often surprised. Beneath the calm, unflappable, pin-stripe (or, increasingly, corduroy) exterior there sits an ever-shifting, ever-reacting mind that deals with each unexpected obstacle or support it comes across. We just don't let it show.

I'm in no way ashamed to admit that it's happened to me on a number of occasions during my career. There was the occasion, early on, when I was a mildly surprised to discover that it wasn't acceptable to wear shorts and flip-flops to work (I've mentioned elsewhere that I arrived in the industry woefully under-educated on the true nature of a Suit). I'll leave you to imagine my reaction when, a couple of years ago, a Creative Director with whom I used to work uttered the immortal line, "D'you know, I sometimes wish this f*cking internet thing had never been invented."

(And breathe.)

More recently still, I was engaged in conversation with another former colleague - this time, a fellow Suit. His background was digital, as they say, having come from a pure-play digital agency (that I won't name) to join my team. On our first day working together, I explained that I would be looking to give him opportunities to do some work in other media - our clients didn't (and don't) delineate themselves in terms of on and off-line, and as such neither would we. More fool me, I expected this to be a positive thing.

But no. This Account Manager looked me in the eye (more or less) and explained that, if I didn't mind, he'd rather not get involved in any non-digital work (be it TV, press, poster, experiential, DM or whatever) - he rather liked being a 'Digital Account Manager' and was worried that working in any other media would "dilute his skill-set".

We'll leave him there - as it turned out, neither he nor his undiluted skill-set were around for much longer.

It is, of course, his turn of phrase that has stuck with me. Just ponder it for a minute, roll it round in your mouth - "diluting my skill-set". Now think of all that time you've wasted at school, at art college, in meetings, on courses, in life. All that time you thought you were 'learning stuff', when you were in fact 'diluting your skill-set' and making yourself slightly 'worse' in the process. Every moment you've spent since birth has been a gradual degradation of that key breathing/shitting/crying skill-set with which we are all naturally endowed. In fact, taken to its logical conclusion, evolution (with, to name but one, its dastardly introduction of opposable thumbs - don't you find they're always getting caught on stuff?) is the greatest skill-set dilution of them all.

And I'll stop the rant there - sarcasm is most unbecoming in a Suit. But once I'd got past the surprise, the phrase, and the attitude it embodies, really angered me - for me, it represents a fundamental misunderstanding both of digital and of the role of a Suit.

Here's a quick newsflash for you, chaps - digital is a channel, not a solution.

I'm sorry if that hurts, but you're going to have to deal with it at some point, and it'll make you better at your job the sooner you start. I'm not talking about Flash designers, QAs or html programmers here - they clearly need to be specialists, in the same way that a Flame operator, a retoucher or a director does. But the job of a Suit is not to be a specialist, it's to provide the best solutions to our Clients' business problems, and then to work with specialists to implement them. That means seeing at least a million and one possible options when a challenge is presented, and knowing enough about each of them to establish the best way to proceed.

Of course the digital possibilities are exciting, and we should all be extremely excited - but not to the point where we dismiss other, more viable, perhaps better options of getting our ideas out there, simply because they're not digital. Because that would just be stupid. I hate to be the one to say it, kids, but there was a time when people were as excited about TV as we all are now about social media, iPod apps and Twitter clients - and trust me, there will come a time when a specialist digital agency is as anachronistic as a specialist TV agency would be today. You can quote me on that.

If you want to be a Suit, you need to understand that you need to know more, and you need to want to experience everything. If you want to be a specialist, then you don't want to be a Suit.

So is learning about new things diluting an existing skill-set? I guess so. But only in the same way that you dilute tonic by adding gin to it.

Bring on the dilution, kids - it's what we're here for, and it's what makes things exciting.


Andrea Nastase said...

Diluting his skill-set is like a refusal to learn anything else outside his comfort zone. Work isn't about favours and preference but I guess people have to learn it the hard way. Where was he all these school there were things I'd have rather done but I couldn't choose so you had to them all.

When you're that young, you have to comply, arrogance has to be earned if you ask me. But that's just my view. There probably are agencies who will have people boxed into one-two ideas. Or...perhaps I'm being too sarcastic.

AdLand Suit said...

In defence of the unnamed AM (who was and is, in most respects, a lovely chap), I think it was more ignorance than arrogance. He had been told by a lot of people that he looked up to that digital was the future, and that his career would be better off if he managed to keep 'digital' in front of his job title, untainted by any of that nasty off-line stuff. He was misguided, and it was a shame - but there's a huge responsibility on the shoulders of more senior folk to ensure that they're teaching the people who look up to them the right things.

Anonymous said...

Great post.

I think the punchline is that someone told him to defend his digital skills and not learn 'traditional' advertising.

I know we young lion cubs are all keen on the transformation of the industry, but good luck with your CV there, Robotboy. The old guard, not so impressed by your technobabble. But tweet about it freely.

Cat said...

By the same token, there are lots of agencies who seem to subscribe to a similar philosophy, by refusing to hire a digital handler to work off-line or vice versa.

Equally annoying when you’re on the other side of the fence.

Katy said...

I totally agree that the idea of not wanting to learn more in case he diluted his skillset is utterly ridiculous - I'd have been shot of anyone who showed that attitude

But would disagree that digital is a channel - it's the fuel that powers lots of communications, not necessarily just another media channel - I think lots of bad solutions come out of thinking of digital as 'just another channel'. Doesn't mean to say digital solutions are always the right ones, but equally not as straightforward as TV / press / OOH