What The Death Of The Renaissance Man Taught Me About Advertising

About specialization & the jack of all trades

I sometimes think the world went to hell when the last renaissance man died.

When the sciences fractured into isolated conclaves and scientists became experts only in themselves.

Now a biologist, a psychologist and a sociologist can walk into a bar — and not agree what a beer is. Yeast-fermented hops, an oral escapism or a social construct?

Advertising went to hell when the agencies exploded into specialized entities and media consultancies to “be more agile” — but now have the rug pulled whenever the paradigm of social media changes or new legislation is introduced.

Specialization is for Insects

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

— Robert A. Heinlein

A renaissance man was someone who knew everything.

Because there was a time when you could do so. Simply sit down and obtain all of humankind’s knowledge in a single lifetime.

No one can agree who the last real renaissance man was. Possibly Leonardo Da Vinci, Ben Franklin or J.W. Goethe. Maybe it wasn’t a man at all but actually Ada Lovelace.

Whoever it was, they’re dead now.

For more than 300 years we have moved towards hyper-optimized specialization.

Even now, with everything we know about the human mind, children are asked to choose life-defining paths earlier than ever.

Many of them will become experts in static systems for the present while slung into the future by the disruption of exponential change.

Outside the Hive

The Age of Enlightenment send us to the future of efficiency — but became the Reign of Reason, built on the myth of the rational ape.

It’s how classical and neoclassical economics created models and paradigms that only made sense to insects and Econs.

It’s why old-school economists loved the beehive for its efficiency — but hated the 10% of the bees that seemingly did f**k all.

The inefficient 10% were considered the expectation to prove the rule — until evolutionary biology discovered that the rogue bees are essential to the survival of the hive.

Those bees are R&D, they discover new fields of income — so when the main flower bed is turned into a parking lot, the road to a new paradise is already paved.

The more specialized a business becomes, the more vulnerable it is to disruption — and the more it needs rogue workers to find new ways of thinking.

It’s why we need more outsiders in advertising — and everywhere.

Joni Mitchell’s warning to all overly efficient beehives.

Master of None

Words and expressions change meaning over time to reflect the world and wants they describe. Though not always for the better.

“Pull yourself up by the bootstraps” originally meant to stupidly try an impossible task. Now it means to overcome the task by sheer willpower.

“Curiosity killed the cat” is commonly used to discourage new ways of thinking but is rarely quoted in full: “Curiosity killed the cat but satisfaction brought it back” = Curiosity is risky but equally rewarding.

And finally, “Jack of all trades, master of none” can sound like the saying is in favor of specialization — until you finish it:

“Jack of all trades, master of none / though oftentimes better than master of one.”

The modern renaissance person has to be a jack of all trades because the master of one is an insect stuck in a rationally justifiable but evolutionary unhealthy efficiency model.

If you spent your life becoming an expert at fax machines, your skills may not translate very well to TikTok.

The 20th century built scaffolds of optimized systems — that fall to the wayside when disruption (digitally or pandemically) happens increasingly more often.

Control & Agency

I have a close friend who worked six years at a digital agency and one day quit out of the blue.

The day came when he heard himself suggest an animated film to a client because “all data suggested so” — knowing full well it was for a room full of graphic designers who needed something to do.

And so he left the agency game entirely.

The lure of the specialized agency is to be leaner and more agile so clients can combine services across multiple agencies more efficiently.

This requires clients who know what they’re doing — and aren’t themselves stuck in specialization bias.

Otherwise it’s all too easy to become the bloat that the fractured agencies were supposed to avoid.

Be a renaissance person — good at something but knowing about everything. Enough to realize when specialization becomes limitation and installs systemic biases that leave you vulnerable to disruption and talent drain.

Advertising should be the rogue bees that help businesses find new fields and sustainable constructs. Even if it means going up against rigid spreadsheet crusaders and the flaws of neoclassical economics.

It’s the creative imperative to work outside the system — and to create new solutions when best practice is preventing better practice.

Systems are temporary. Creativity is not.

To quote another economist who has been misinterpreted quite a bit:

“All that is solid will melt into air.”

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