The answer to this question is to be found among the laws of economics. The size of the market, and consecutively, the demand, is what dictates the degree to which one can effectively specialize. In other words, the general store is there because there simply can’t be a successful ‘specialized’ store in a small Wild West town. There’s not enough demand to keep, let’s say, a shop that just sells spurs afloat. But when the Lone Ranger decides to treat his horse to a carrot, Arthur Morgan needs a pack of smokes, or Buster Scruggs runs out of bullets – they all go to the general store. The bills are paid.
It’s the same way with people. Smaller companies tend to employ generalists – workers with a wide gamut of skills who can wear a lot of hats. Meanwhile, bigger organizations have the capacity to pay for very narrowly-specialized professionals, since there are enough projects to keep them busy and justify the hire. The upside of being a specialist is that you get to become very good at one thing. The downside is the same. Specifically true in advertising, where media vehicles and consumer behavior often change on the daily – it might be unwise to put all your skill eggs in the same basket.
If a skill set of a specialized professional can be represented with a vertical line, as in depth of knowledge, and the skillset of a generalist is defined by a horizontal line, as in breadth of knowledge. The answer to successfully navigating this dichotomy lies in the sum of the two. The T-shaped skill set. Being an expert in one field, and knowing enough to be dangerous in the adjunct areas of expertise, is where it’s at.
Our team has done a tremendous job of hiring and cultivating generalizing specialists: our project manager can build digital banners, the lead strategist is capable of adding a text overlay in After Effects, and the interactive designer has no issues stringing together a couple lines of thumb-stopping post copy.
There are a plethora of very practical benefits to building T-shaped teams. First and foremost, it takes less people to do the same amount of different tasks, as the skillsets are interchangeable, which helps prevent project bottlenecks. Second, broad overlapping areas of expertise make for a lot more efficient communication, since the team members can use the language from the overlapping skill set domains. And finally, cross-training provides challenge and fosters growth mindset – what one person may consider a mundane task, might be of interest and an opportunity to learn for the other.
But enough talk, partner. I hope this has inspired you to hit the saddle, go out there and start T-shaping like the Vitruvian Man is the hottest thing that has ever existed. Just don’t forget to stop by the general store while you’re in town.