In recognition of a discipline in flux, WARC presents a special debate series, featuring members of the Singapore Strategy Group, on a topic close to the hearts of strategists the world over.

The debate around whether to be generalists or specialists can seem never-ending – and has raged on in private and public forums well beyond the sphere of advertising and marketing.

For the strategist community, however, the decision on which direction to commit to has taken on added urgency. WARC's Future of Strategy Report 2019, for example, found that 63% of strategists do not think their next role will be with an agency.

More worrying still is a perception that the discipline is undervalued: Though most strategists believe their influence is growing internally, selling the value of strategic services to clients is a challenge in an environment of budget cuts and a lack of understanding around the role.

“While the influence of strategists has increased, the role needs clarity in both function and value if it is to thrive,” notes Amy Rodgers, WARC’s managing editor/research and rankings.

This state of play informed a meet up that was convened by the Singapore Strategy Group – an informal industry community that made its debut late last year with the goal of “enhancing the value and profile of strategy” – and hosted by Facebook, the social network, in February 2020.

Loosely structured as a debate, four strategists were invited to present their point of view on a pressing question: “Is the future of strategy in the hands of a generalist or specialist?”

Amer Iqbal, APAC head of digital transformation at Facebook, opened the floor in classic consultant-style by introducing the characteristics of “purists” and “pragmatists” – adding not just an additional dimension for more meaningful analysis, but also the must-have 2x2 matrix.

“Like many topics worth debating, the question of strategic generalists versus specialists is incomplete when viewed as a black and white choice,” he argued.

Were attendees closer to answering the question of which type of strategist will inherit the future? Not so much. But Nicole Tan, regional associate strategy director/experiences and engagement (APAC) at McCann Worldgroup, the agency network, was next up with her take.

A last-minute pinch hitter, stepping in with less than 24 hours to prepare her argument, Tan took a personal approach to the question at hand – mapping out her case for being a generalist against a roadmap of her own experience in rising through the ranks.

“The role of a strategist has often been ambiguous, its very existence born out of ambiguity itself,” she observed. And that ambiguity will give rise to a demand for what she dubs “I-shaped generalist strategists” who can orchestrate teams that elevate conversations and campaigns.

Ben Jackson – head of strategy for Pinwheel, a creative agency that works exclusively with video-streaming giant Netflix – sought to win the crowd over to his cause by tapping pop culture for the ultimate specialist: John Wick, the hero of an eponymous action movie franchise starring actor Keanu Reeves.

“It struck me that Mr Wick – assassin-for-hire and general all-round badass – represented the best argument for why the future of planning belongs to specialists,” Jackson reasoned. “As long as there are boogeymen to kill, Wick is guaranteed work.”

But it was Katie Ewer, head of strategy at independent creative agency Jones Knowles Ritchie, who won the evening’s quasi-debate (determined by volume of applause) with her wittily delivered case for why generalists will rule the roost.

In a classic debate power move, she re-framed the situation by pointing out that the very word “generalist” prejudiced the entire argument, in contrast to the positive tones that “specialist” enjoys.

“The word ‘generalist’ is loaded with sneering suggestions of superficiality, slipshoddiness and amateurism,” she argued. “But it wasn’t always this way. People who possessed skills in multiple areas of expertise were called polymaths, renaissance men, gentlemen scholars and pioneers.”

So, if John Wick is the ultimate specialist, who is the ultimate generalist?

“Let’s not forget the most influential generalist of them all – God – who was just as skilled at developing first-to-world innovations, such as the kangaroo, as he was parting the waters of the Red Sea or turning water to wine,” said Ewer.

The close of the evening’s programme did not result in a definitive answer to the central question, but it did offer attendees some additional perspectives (and matrixes) to consider.

With support of the Singapore Strategy Group, WARC is pleased to present written versions of the event’s deliberations for the strategist community to absorb and enjoy.


Strategists should be Jacks - and Jills - of all trades
Katie Ewer
Why strategists should be more like John Wick
Ben Jackson
In a world of ambiguity, strategists need to be 'I-shaped' generalists
Nicole Tan
Strategic generalist or specialist? It depends
Amer Iqbal