Second Wind founder Tony Mikes liked to talk about the need for ad agencies to hire “intelligent generalists”—people with a wide range of interests, intense curiosity, openness to new ideas and experiences, and who welcome diversity in teams and thinking. Too narrow a focus as a designer used to mean your ideas could become “cookie cutter”—repetitious and stale. Creativity must be constantly refreshed and reborn through new insights and learning.
So how do you combine these “free-range” creative thinkers with the goal of core competency?
Establish internal creative teams. Each team can deeply focus on a core competency, be it a service or a client category. Then, have each team share their knowledge with other teams. When you have multiple people who understand a category or service area, it is easier to shuffle teams to get a fresh mix of people working on a project.
Encourage employees to pursue a wide range of outside interests. The more engaged your people are with the world outside of the agency, the more likely they are to encounter interesting stimuli they can refer to as they develop new ideas for your clients. An narrow in-house focus does not preclude eclectic lives and interests.
Finally, always be prepared to pivot. You don’t have to keep a core competency if you see opportunities in other areas. Constantly watch trends and category/industry news. If you sense a category may lose strength, it may be time to develop a core competency in another category. Look for categories where you can translate some existing skills and get up to speed quickly.