Is Jeff Goodby the Best Copywriter at Goodby Silverstein & Partners?

Why specialization isn't the secret to success

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Is Jeff Goodby the best copywriter at Goodby Silverstein & Partners? Is Rich Silverstein the best art director?

Maybe. They’d be right up there, for sure. (I don’t want to get fired for being more specific.)

For almost 20 years, I’ve been lucky enough to lead creative recruiting at GS&P and global creative recruiting at Wieden + Kennedy and Google, and the most impressive people I’ve worked with are rarely the best at any one thing. Instead, they are significantly better than most at a handful of skills, creating a unique combination that no one else possesses.

In an industry where we celebrate the best writing and design, if you look closely, you’ll notice most of the people at the top aren’t the best in their own companies at one specific skill—although they’d probably like you to think they are.

Specialization is risky, and I often see young creatives hunting for their first jobs, their dream jobs, mistakenly believing they have to be the best at one thing to land them. And when employers pass them up in favor of their classmates, they often can’t understand why.

Zach Canfield

Unfortunately, this often leads to an even deeper obsession with becoming the best at that one skill. If they were only better in that one area, their misguided story goes, then everything else would fall into place.

Before I go any further—and to avoid getting fired for my intro—I’d like to point out the things Jeff and Rich are good at. Because therein lies today’s lesson.

Besides the writing thing, Jeff is more charming than 93 percent of our presenters, is more determined and tenacious than 95 percent of our staff, is 97 percent more well-read and has 98 percent more ponytail than anyone else.

Rich, for his part, has more energy and enthusiasm than the majority of the twentysomethings he employs. He’s brutally honest and knows a ton about art, and he certainly surpasses his employees in the amount of time he spends wearing spandex.

These rare combinations of skills are what make them who they are. Agencies promote and fight for these unique concoctions.

Sure, there are some people who do succeed by being the best at one particular field. If you want to be the next Jordan, Einstein or maybe Matt Damon, go for it. But the chances of your becoming the best at something are pretty slim. It’s a big risk to be so specialized, and sadly, it usually only gets people so far in our industry. As Heinlein said, “Specialization is for insects.”

Embrace the things that make you unique, and try to be really good at a few of them. It’s fine to be a student of the great advertising of today, but don’t forget to exercise the other parts of yourself that make you special. Your advertising muscles will be stronger if you develop other muscles around them.

And when you do land a job, if your boss encourages you to stay a specialist instead of helping you grow other skill sets, you might need to look elsewhere. They are most likely just trying to ensure that you don’t take their job one day.