The Specialists

In our move to the suburbs a few years ago, my wife and I bought a house built in the early 1920s. The previous owners had neglected its beautiful bones and it needed extensive rehabbing that I couldn’t possibly do; I can’t tell the difference between a glue gun and a blow dryer. A sympathetic neighbor hooked me up with a brilliant handyman who, I was assured, could fix anything.

Months later, I found myself calling specialists — certified plumbers and electricians — and contractors expert in their trade. They knew exactly what had to be fixed, fortified or upgraded. Expensive lesson learned: Expertise rules.

It’s a lesson that applies to many mainstream agencies trying to plant their digital flag.

In the last 15 years, I’ve spent time in virtually every aspect of this business, from media and account management to strategy, design and ultimately digital. So, I see value in cross-functional, whole-brain thinking. But we sometimes mistake homogenization (a drive towards uniformity) for integration (the process of combining things), and therein lies a big problem, especially in the digital space.

Take broadcast production, for example. Since the mass proliferation of video on the Web, a new and growing trend at some mainstream agencies is to integrate the broadcast and digital production departments.

In theory, this makes sense. Video and film assets developed for TV are now being shared online and vice versa. Also, branded entertainment has evolved on the Web and now looks more like long-form commercials and movie shorts than Flash design and application development.

Broadcast and Web producers also share many of the same objectives, including achieving creative excellence, precision management of outside vendors, and bringing jobs in on time and on budget. But that’s where this kinship generally ends.

Advertising agencies have been producing TV spots for a thousand years — or so it seems. Broadcast producers have developed production shorthand and generally know how to bring even the most complex jobs in on time and on budget. A candid broadcast producer will tell you that the majority of jobs he or she produces is rote — even predictable.

Digital production and development, on the other hand, stand at the beginning of a new s-curve. We’ve only been producing Web and emerging-media content and applications for a blip of time. The rules of engagement haven’t settled as consumers Twitter their political views or customize pizzas and diagnose illnesses online.

So even though most digital creative and technical talent will tell you they know how to produce some newfangled concept, the truth is many of them don’t — especially at the larger mainstream agencies. It’s not that they can’t figure it out; they just haven’t done it before. As a result, budgets are busted and time is wasted without the technical proficiency of a skilled producer and a team of specialists — interactive designers, programmers and developers — who understand the complexity of the digital canvas. These skilled practitioners turn out some of the best, most innovative work and make it look easy. It’s not.

Yet senior management at large agencies ask their existing talent to produce award-winning digital work. They’re demanding that everyone become multi-lingual — able to conceive of and develop digital and “traditional” ideas for any client. It’s true that good ideas can come from any corner of the office, but development? That’s when you need a licensed plumber, so to speak.

Art directors who have never pushed a pixel in their lives are now expected to design for the Web. Writers who have spent their entire careers developing TV scripts or print ads are being asked to develop hundreds of pages of digital content, and broadcast producers who have honed their skills in television and animation are now summoned to create muti-channel programs that include new campaigns for the Web.