Pinwheel's Ben Jackson argues that one only need look at the role assassin-for-hire John Wick fulfils,  for why the future of planning belongs to specialists.

I am a specialist. My specialism isn’t specific to a channel or format, and nor is it limited to one industry or sector. It took me a while to realise it, but my particular area of expertise is defined almost entirely by a specific audience behaviour – being a fan. As a result, I tend to view the world through a pop-cultural lens. 

I recently re-watched the John Wick trilogy while idly thinking about the specialist vs generalist debate and 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. (If you haven’t seen the movie don’t worry; there aren’t any spoilers ahead but also you should stop reading this and go and watch the best action movie of the past decade, you’ll thank me later.)

Let’s start with the obvious; The future belongs to anyone who can fulfil a need, and clients need specialists to do the things they don’t know how to do. John Wick isn’t exactly the boogeyman, he’s the one you send to kill the boogeyman.

The skills required to be a senior manager in a successful crime organisation are wide and varied; while they may be skilled in ‘creative’ accounting, logistics, people management and bribery stakeholder engagement, crime bosses and their consiglieres can’t possibly be experts in everything.

Like all great specialists, John Wick fills a clear and unambiguous gap in the organisational structure; he is the person they call when boogeymen need killing. As long as there are boogeymen to kill, Wick is guaranteed work.

Our clients are the same, though hopefully with a little less emphasis on murder. There is too much for them to know; complex audience needs and behaviours, a wide variety of channels, budget management, diverse product and service portfolios etc, ad infinitum. Working with specialists to fill unambiguous knowledge gaps means that specialists will always have a role in solving client problems. Planners who can identify a boogeyman and build the skills and experience necessary to get it killed will always be in demand.

The added benefit of this is the communal diversity of thought; specialists who can work with other specialists will always be more effective and boundary-pushing than a rag-tag group of generalists. Francis Crick (a physicist and expert in information theory) and James Watson (a biologist) combined their deep specialist knowledge to discover the helical structure of DNA; each needed the other and neither could have done it alone.

Generalism, on the other hand, often leads to ineffectual anarchy, which in turn inexorably leads to the perilous idea that clients, as generalists themselves, don’t need outside help. That doesn’t end well; the moment clients start thinking that they know everything and that they don’t need specialists anymore is the moment they start bringing the work in-house. This is how we ended up with Pepsi paying Kendall Jenner to trivialise Black Lives Matter, and if that isn’t the best argument in support of specialism then I don’t know what is.

There’s an underlying issue here, and that’s trust. John Wick’s employers trusted his ability to always get the job done; his narrow skillset translated to proven effectiveness. Clients will always prefer working with the world’s foremost expert than the world’s best generalist because the risk to their business is minimised - lower risk translates to higher degrees of trust translates to more work.

Of course, all of this goes without saying. Why is there even a debate to be had? In my experience, the debate stems largely from an incomplete understanding of what a specialist is; there is a tendency to view specialists as myopic, unwilling or unable to look for answers outside their narrow field of vision.

What would Mr Wick have to say about that? Throughout all three movies, John’s employers and colleagues seem enamoured with the fact that he once killed three guys in a bar with a pencil (“who the f**k can do that?!”) and the story becomes a shorthand for just how badass he is.

But it is by no means the limits of his abilities; if John Wick’s only skill was the ability to murder people with stationery, then the moment he brings a pencil to a gunfight he’s going to get himself shot. This would not make for a very long movie; after all, the pen is mightier than the sword only when the sword is very small, and the pen is very sharp.

The fallacy of intellectual parochialism

If we were to apply this to planning, we might call it ‘intellectual parochialism,’ the narrowing of our areas of knowledge to the point of uselessness. I think most people who consider themselves generalists would agree that their reflexive rejection of specialism is informed largely by their dislike of that parochialism; by limiting our scope aren’t we specialists intentionally choosing myopia? Aren’t we ultimately just bringing a pencil to a gunfight?

Fortunately for film fans, Mr Wick has a lot more in his arsenal than just well-sharpened HB’s. He knows Sambo and kung-fu and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu; he can shoot, he can drive, he can shoot and drive, and somehow, he can also ride a horse while effortlessly shooting up a gang of bad guys on motorcycles with their own guns.

Does this make him a generalist? Of course not. He has a deep well of knowledge and experience, yes, but he is constantly applying it in a narrowly focused way. Specialism is about output rather than input; in the case of John Wick his output is being the best assassin he can possibly be, and his inputs are apparently every conceivable way in which that single-minded goal can be achieved, up to and including weaponised equestrianism.

As specialist planners, we should be as critical of intellectual parochialism as the generalists. At its very best, specialism in our industry is the gathering of as much diverse and widely variegated knowledge as possible, applied consistently in the pursuit of a small handful of goals.

Specialism is the bird-watching engineer obsessed with making trains go faster, or the epidemiologists using World Of Warcraft to understand infectious disease. The single-minded pursuit of a goal should never mean that we limit our curiosity or the scope of our knowledge; real breakthroughs and true insights always come from the places we least expect, which in turn leads to the best possible work.

Of course, it makes my argument harder to defend when there are specialists who fail to recognise this. Channel specialists are consistently guilty of intellectual parochialism. Since audiences don’t distinguish between platforms in a meaningful way and therefore the insights gleaned from their associated behaviours are shallow at best, channel specialists are in effect technical rather than strategic experts.

The planner who knows all there is to know about the various types of Facebook ad formats is about the least useful planner in an agency, especially when Facebook’s sales team are falling over themselves to give you that information for free.

More to the point, defining your worldview entirely through the lens of a particular channel and platform is rarely going to work in your favour; as media consumption habits change, or as new technology comes along that supplants whatever exciting platform is the app du jour, channel specialists are setting an artificial limit on the length of their career.

If, for some inexplicable reason, you have decided that you want to be the world’s foremost expert in a social media platform, do yourself and your career a favour and have a conversation with a planner who thinks exclusively in terms of TVC’s. They’re easy to find; they’re the haggard, caffeine-addicted mess in the back corner of your agency, bemoaning the rise of on-demand content services and insisting to anyone unlucky enough to walk by their desk that a Superbowl spot really is the wisest investment that a marketing director can make.

In my experience, the best specialists didn’t start out that way. They’ve meandered through a few roles and areas of expertise with a generalist’s attitude, collecting wisdom and anecdotes and skills. What makes them different from generalists is that eventually, they find their thoughts coalescing around a specific area, something that they love to do and think about, often to the point of obsession. John Wick clearly seems to enjoy his job; he’s really good at it and frankly, you don’t get that good without being a bit obsessed.

That obsession drives them to find answers to burning questions on behalf of clients, which is, in turn, infectious; what client wouldn’t want to work with someone like that? Who wouldn’t want to be like that?

This is why the future of planning belongs to the specialists; it’s just better

This article is part of a debate series that address the question: “Is the future of strategy in the hands of a generalist or specialist?” The content was borne out of an event hosted by the Singapore Strategy Group – an informal industry community with the goal of enhancing the value and profile of strategy.

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