Calling T-Shaped Creatives: Let's Lift Up Advertising's Drab Into Drag

Teach different skills where roles cross with one another

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Video may have killed the radio star, but the explosion of new advertising media hasn’t quite killed the specialist. It has, however, increasingly demanded that they know how to play outside of their own sandbox.

This challenge calls for T-shaped people—adaptable and skilled beyond their specialty. Simply put, they’re advertising’s drag queens. This description references the term popularized by former CEO of design-firm IDEO Tim Brown. Brown stated that the vertical stroke is “a depth of skill that allows them to contribute to the creative process,” while the horizontal stroke of the T is the “disposition for collaboration across disciplines.” According to Brown, this disposition for collaboration includes empathy and enthusiasm. The former allows them to understand ideas from the perspectives of others, while the latter drives their curiosity for other disciplines. What organizations gain from this combination is someone who is deeply talented, while having a breadth of knowledge and skill which enhances their work and collaborative capacity.

Drag queens are inherently multifaceted, combining talents like makeup artistry, comedy, design and more to create unique performances. On RuPaul’s Drag Race and in the broader industry, multidimensionality is more than a benefit; it’s a necessity. Trixie Mattel, winner of All Stars Season 3, explains it like this: “I guess drag queens, by nature, have to do everything. When you start being a drag queen, you’re grabbing the microphone, hosting the shows. Then, you’re setting the microphone down and doing the number. You’re spending the day before doing your wigs and sewing your costumes. You’re doing everything.” Queens may have an expertise or specialty, but they’re adaptable to their environment’s demands and challenges. Those who combine their distinctive artistic perspective and this hustle mentality are remembered long after they leave the stage.

The future of advertising necessitates this kind of dynamic creativity.

Diversifying skills doesn’t mean being a generalist

While it’s important to expand your skill set, it would defeat the purpose of the T-shape to ask that all creative specialists become generalists. Each week throughout RuPaul’s Drag Race the queens face different challenges from acting and dancing to sewing and designing. In order to survive the cutthroat competition, they must be able to hold their own across all categories, but when they get the chance to shine in their own way you see the full extent of their insane talent: Aja vogueing and death dropping off a seven-foot platform, Bob the Drag Queen landing a mercilessly funny back to back Uzo Aduba and Carol Channing impression and this season’s Utica Queen transforming a sleeping bag into an Alexander McQueen-esque couture gown. These queens survived the challenges of the competition because of their breadth and left us in awe because of their depth.

The why and how of creating drag queens in your agency

Lisa Bodell, a futurist, believes “we’re on the cusp of a hybrid model where the most valuable employees are interdisciplinary.” Bodell explains that these employees are T-shaped.

To encourage these skill sets in your organization Bodell and Jason Yip, a senior agile coach at Spotify, recommend a cross-training technique teaching different skills and programs at touch points where roles connect with one another. Hiring T-shaped people means keeping an eye out for creative agility in candidates.

Kick the label addiction

As college students, we feel pressured to choose a major like it’s a marriage (and after all, even half of those end in divorce). I’ve been so obsessed with finding whatever thing I was meant to that I forgot to ask myself what I even enjoyed doing. Letting go of single-mindedness gave me the peace and confidence to explore new things.

As a creative advertising student, the T-shaped phenomenon provides reassurance that we are better at what we do when we explore all of our creative interests. This includes photoshopping my and my boyfriend’s faces onto Gypsy Rose and Dee Dee Blanchard. While that may not lead me to the next Big Idea, it makes me laugh and keeps me engaged with the programs I need in order to execute my Big Ideas. So don’t feel afraid if you have incongruent passions or don’t know exactly what you want to do. Give yourself permission to soak it all in, take risks without fear of judgement and embrace your multidimensionality.

Human beings don’t fit in neat little boxes, and creatives certainly don’t.

Keep looking for the person who brings vibrancy to your agency and foster their interests and talents beyond just the assignment in front of them. It may ultimately make them an asset in ways you didn’t originally expect. Some of it may have to do with not taking yourself so seriously, finding fun in things and generally breaking through the mundane. Like RuPaul says, “Seeing all the facets of yourself is the next level of our evolution.”