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Talent with a Capital T

Posted on January 30, 2012 and read 3,525 times

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chrisbaylis Talent with a Capital TChris Baylis
Tribal DDB Amsterdam

Okay, jargon alert! I’m going to talk about T-shaped people. While I’m there I may throw in the odd reference to silos, pushing the envelope and fluffing the sausage. So get your jargon bingo cards ready and eyes down for a full house…

Back in the 1950s Bill Bernbach, DDB’s founder and philosophical guiding light, was the first person in the industry to formalise the Copywriter/Art Director relationship. Prior to this, writers would dash off witty headlines in between cocktails, cigarettes and sexism and the art department would then lay out the ads in a fairly predictable and formal way. But Bill Bernbach came along and shook it up. He didn’t just get rid of the silos (make sure you tick that off your jargon bingo card) he also hired people from ‘outside’ the industry. He didn’t hire WASPS, he hired immigrants, Jews – kids from Brooklyn. He mixed it up, challenging the collective wisdom with his hiring policy the same way he did with his ads.

But advertising today is a more complex business. We don’t just create print ads and TV spots anymore, we need to innovate (tick), build relationships (tick), earn media (tick) – oh, and still sell stuff. So by my reckoning that makes us inventors, psychologists, media planners, marketeers and shit-catchers (not on your card?). What can we do?

There are two things agencies can do; they can either hire someone from every single discipline they touch; which is an expensive hobby as it’s impossible to make everyone billable, or hire versatile or ‘T-shaped’ people (tick – that’s the jackpot.) For those of you who’ve been living under an ‘O’ shaped object, T-shaped people describes those who have a strong single discipline such as copywriting – that’s the vertical stalk of the T – whilst the horizontal top of the T reflects their empathy and ability to understand other disciplines. Of course, this was always true to some extent. Writers have never just been writers, they’ve had to understand art direction, strategy, photography, directing, editing etc. But in these digital times, the list gets longer and longer as copywriters and art directors need to be able to talk media planning, UX, creative technology, service design, mobile technology, trend watching – but still be able to write great scripts and create compelling advertising that people want to share.

So where do we find these people? In Amsterdam at a local level, people with this level of expertise and experience are often found running their own agency. Even if they’re not running their own agency, they’re still very hard to find, very senior and very expensive. If you want a big T you have to pay for it.

At Tribal DDB Amsterdam we have hired a range of smaller T’s with genuine variety in their make up. These idiosyncratic-mini-T’s (I’ve just invented a new term that won’t be on your cards) are actively mixed up thanks to our new office redesign to hopefully create an agency that can handle the complexity of modern advertising and the demands of digital. Here’s how it works. We have classic creative concept teams (in name, not make up) who are curious about digital and love new stuff. We sit them in project teams alongside an interactive designer, a user experience (UX) person, a tech lead and just off to the side we have strategists and creative directors who work across multiple projects but can dip in at a moment’s notice. Even project management and account managers are invited to share the space when the project demands it. The office has been intentionally designed to have all creative disciplines around one table sharing a space, knowledge, ideas and respect. So what we end up with are T-shaped pods that can handle anything clients want to throw at them.

Of course, finding the right people who can work in these teams is still a challenge, but it’s not as hard as finding people who can ‘do everything.’ We have to hand pick these teams to make sure we have not only the right mix of disciplines (our vertical stalks of our Ts) but also a good and varied selection of tops to our Ts. Some creatives’ ‘tops’ might be better suited to social media, others may have a traditional background that makes up their top, and some are

happy talking e-commerce. But ultimately everyone learns from everyone else because we literally knocked down the walls, we think hard about casting and how we mix people up. Many innovative companies run on casual interaction – but what we have done is accelerate that casual interaction to help us come up with the kind of ideas our clients have come to expect from the agency of today; socially led campaigns with digital at the centre.

You could say that we simply put a lot of smart people in a room and give them a bit more of a free rein than other agencies. It’s probably the main reason I work in innovation driven advertising (tick); I like being surrounded by smart and curious people because it makes me smarter and more curious. My T gets bigger, which means I can spot the skills and interests of other Ts, who in turn help influence other Ts and help them grow.

We all know that our ideas are only as good as the people who come up with them, our work is only as good as the people who touch it and our ability to change and innovate is driven by versatility, a willingness to adapt and the need to fluff the sausage. (Full house!) More T anyone?

  • Andre Barro

    Cool Article.

    I think the same way, but this can get tricky if their are no limits in these interactions.

    I explain:I work in a digital agency that does the same thing, but not on purpose.I’m one of those T guys you are talking about. I’m a copywriter with interest in UX, strategy, design…I read much, I study by my own and the range of disciplines im interested is wide and diverse.The frustrating thing is when someone asks me to take responsibility in a Strategy presentation for example.Even thou I study lots of planning it doesn’t mean you can simply walk in and say “in this project you will do the planning”. You see, I’m not a planner. I cant take responsibility in an area I’m just curious about, and study by my own. I would happily HELP a planner with insights or my point of view.But nobody can expect me to catch the ball by myself run the whole field, make the goal, and even blow the whistle. Sometimes it’s disrespectful and unprofessional to ask a person to do something that is not her specialty and later on expect that she will bring in the same level of work that the right person for the job would.

    The other way around is also true. Im glad if people give me their opinions on copy. But the ultimate call must be mine. 

    Frustrating for the project and for the professional.




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