Desperately Seeking Hybrids

This is not a column about automobiles; it’s a piece about people.

However, if you carry the analogy a step forward, the similarities are crystal clear: Just as survival has forced carmakers to reimagine the future of the automobile, it has forced agencies to reimagine the complexion of their workforce.

This is, perhaps, one of the positive developments to come out of the transformative recession in which we find ourselves.

When I entered the agency business in the late ’80s as a junior copywriter, brimming with excitement and a much fuller head of hair, I can remember the rare times I was allowed to attend important client meetings. Men and women I admired, those who founded the agency and cultivated big reputations, would unfailingly boom the great agency-to-client mantra every time they had the chance: “If you want to succeed, you need to break down your silos!”

Back at the agency, however, we didn’t much heed our own valuable advice.

Account executives “managed” the client, though they didn’t seem to have any special abilities to do so. Strategic planners were ordained as deep thinkers, though the conclusions in their briefs — even for brands in different categories and with different challenges — all seemed strikingly similar. Copywriters and art directors, producers and designers, were often barricaded on a separate floor and expected to use their self-imposed exile to conceive the kind of brilliant ideas that only truly “creative” people can conjure up.

This insane construct would then come to full flower at presentation time — when it would take three people, each with a distinct stand-up role in front of the client, to present a simple solution.

The scary thing is, at many of today’s agencies (advertising, digital, direct response), much hasn’t changed.

That is why many shops have died and why others will lose the evolutionary race against time.

Agencies that are surviving, and those that will thrive into the future, now share something increasingly in common: They are stocking their talent larder with the marketing equivalents of “hybrids.”

These hybrids are people who have evolved from core competencies such as account, creative, strategy, media, experiential, etc., but who are less defined by these labels and more acknowledged for:
• Looking at almost everything creatively.

• Having a passion for problem solving.

• Enjoying the challenge of getting others on their side.

• Being highly inquisitive.

• Becoming easily bored.

• Seeing everything that happens around them as a potential new business opportunity.

• Infecting the enterprise with positive energy.

Hard to find these folks, you say? Absolutely. But they do exist. And the war for talent, especially in this market, is all about them.

You may have noticed that some of your competitors are hiring people with titles such as innovation officer (and letting them innovate), creative strategist (because sometimes your best creative person and your best strategist are the same person) and engagement director (because clients want an agency-side person who is concentrating on, and adept at, getting the brand engaged with the customer).

These are positive signs.

They point to the fact that some executives realize the way to make themselves and their clients successful is not to keep tinkering with the same old agency mechanics, but to build a vehicle from the bottom up, powered by a new breed of marketing person who will be the engine capable of taking the industry into the future.

Buckle up. It’s going to be an exciting ride.

Keith Goldberg is senior vice president, client strategy at EWI Worldwide. He can be reached at