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The increasing role of generalists at digital agencies

In an era where digital transformation is the key to success, it's no wonder that agencies are expanding their teams and capabilities as rapidly as they can. But with such a wide range of job roles required to deliver successful digital, has the pendulum swung too far towards specialisation? Might we be reaching peak specialism? Where does repeatedly subdividing into new specialisms lead?

There's no doubt that the rise of digital has led to a more complex landscape for everyone to navigate. As agencies strive to keep up with the latest trends and technologies, they have had to adapt their own models in order to stay ahead of the curve. This has meant adding new job roles and capabilities at an almost unsustainable rate, in order to meet the ever-growing demands of clients.

However, this focus on specialisation has led to a production line approach to digital delivery, with each team member working in siloed roles with little overlap or understanding of the bigger picture. This can lead to inefficiencies and a lack of creativity, as teams become bogged down in the details rather than seeing the wood for the trees.

Is it time, then, to move away from this model and towards a more generalist approach? Will generalists help to plug the gaps and provide support between teams? Is there value to specialists looking outside of their core skills and becoming more general in their outlook?

With the advent of new technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), improved processes and simplified tooling, we are beginning to see how it will be possible for people to become competent in more than one role. This could lead to a more collaborative and fluid way of working, with team members sharing ideas and knowledge across disciplines.

Digital is still complex

The complexity of digital has not gone away, rather it has been amplified by the need to integrate new channels, technologies and tools into the mix. This means that agencies still need specialists in each of these areas, but what is changing is the way that these experts work together.

In the past, an agency might have had a team of designers, a team of developers and a team of strategists, all working independently on their own part of the project. However, what we are seeing now is a move towards more integrated teams, where designers, developers and strategists work together from the start to create a more holistic solution.

This approach has many benefits, not least that it helps to break down silos and encourages knowledge sharing. It also helps to create a more cohesive final product, as each team member has a better understanding of the other disciplines involved and the whole picture. In addition, it can lead to improved efficiencies, as teams are able to work more collaboratively and avoid duplication of effort.

The benefits of specialisation

Of course, there are still many benefits to specialisation and there is no doubt that specialism has its place in the world of digital. Specialists are often able to go deeper into their area of expertise and this can lead to improved quality and effectiveness. In addition, they are often better placed to keep up with the latest trends and developments, as they will have a more comprehensive understanding of the subject matter.

However, what is becoming increasingly apparent is that the specialist model is no longer sustainable in its current form. With the ever-increasing complexity of digital, agencies simply cannot afford to create more and more job roles to fill specific requirements. They need to find a way to work more collaboratively and efficiently, and this is where the generalist model comes in.

The rise of the generalist

Generalists have been here since the start of digital but after a time they were forced to specialise. It's only now that generalists can spread their wings and have an impact in multiple areas. We are starting to see the true potential of what can be achieved with their broad understanding. In the past, the generalist was often seen as a jack of all trades and master of none, but that can no longer be the case. This was seen as a disadvantage in the past, as it was impossible to keep up with the rapid pace of change in multiple areas. But after all, we are all human with a broad range of thoughts and interests, it's unnatural to keep a person pigeonholed into one area. With the right mindset, training, technology, processes and tools people are now able to become competent in more than one role.

This is happening because although technology is still changing as quickly as ever, our understanding of processes has matured and it's now easier than ever to learn a new skill or tool, the democratisation of online learning has given us easier than ever access to the hidden secrets of different specialisms. Human curiosity is doing the rest and many specialists are discovering that many of their skills are transferrable. They are becoming more generalist in their outlook.

The danger to the agency model

However, there is a danger that as we move toward more generalist teams this may signal the demise of the digital agency. With the greater proliferation of skills and ideas, it is more possible for clients to complete work in-house. The time of being able to rely on just selling the 'black art' of digital is over. Generalism could be a major blow to the agency model, a reduction in the demand for specialist skills and knowledge.

In order to survive, agencies need to find a way to balance the need for specialists with the benefits of more generalist teams. They need to supply direction and expert support in a collaborative relationship with their clients instead of an 'us and them' approach. Directing, supporting and collaborating is where they can add real value and how they will thrive in the future.

Managing Artificial intelligence

As we've already said it's becoming easier for generalists to access the specialist knowledge they need to complete a task. Additionally, artificial intelligence is making it easier to automate many tasks that would traditionally have been carried out by specialists. In effect, generalists are becoming managers of artificially intelligent systems, by having a broad understanding and controlling the quality of the output from their generalist experience they can ask the machine to do the detailed work. Tweaking, editing and curating the output into what is required.

By having an understanding of multiple areas of specialism a generalist can manage multiple AI producers. Bringing together different parts into a cohesive whole. This is the way I see creative work heading over the next 10 years and an important reason to start embracing generalism today.

New tooling and processes

Historically one of the largest barriers to generalism was the complexity of tools and processes. But with an improved understanding of UX and the drive to UI simplicity, we are seeing processes and tools become easier to pick up and understand, each tool is becoming more specialised for certain situations.

Photoshop / Illutrator vs Figma / Sketch

The Adobe toolset was never designed or comfortable to use for web production but it was the only way for many years. The complexity of each tool has increased to try and accommodate the requirements of the web. But Figma and Sketch speak in the language or the web, they are designed with UX in mind, and they are easy to pick and use, especially if you understand the web. As a consequence, we are seeing more frontend developers turning their hands to design.

WordPress vs Webflow

On the design side, tools like Webflow make it easier for web designers to create websites using design-friendly tools together with low-code / no-code coding. Designers have the creative freedom whilst working in a walled garden which takes away most of the pitfalls. Whilst also having enough coding hooks to add simple interactivity without having to sweat the detail.

It really is all starting to blur into one...

Clients and agency relationship

The generalist shift will lead to a change in the relationship between clients and agencies. Clients are starting to see agencies as partners rather than occasional resources, working with them over the long term to supply ideas, direction and processes and help them to achieve their goals. By employing generalists on both sides of the client/agency divide there will be a greater emphasis on collaboration and working together to find solutions. This new way of working is much more beneficial for clients, it leads to self-service, common goals and much better results.

With the ever-changing landscape of digital, agencies need to adapt to survive. The traditional large agency (panda) model is no longer sustainable. The future of the digital agency is one that is more collaborative, efficient and focused on long-term relationships and growth.

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