How can agencies embrace complexity?

Things were already complex. Client marketing teams. Account Planning. Media Strategy. Getting to great creative solutions that worked for all parties was hard enough.

And then the Internet happened.

So the powers that be threw the kitchen sink at “digital.” It was a bright new day and they were inspired. I mean, there were colorful screens. And buttons. They saw the promise of connection, innovation, and invention. And they liked buttons. So they scrambled to hire the talent that would make sense of it.

First they hired “computer” guys. (My mom used to tell people that I worked “in” computers.) Then ninjas. Then unicorns. Then, worst of all, strategists. Worst because strategy actually means something in advertising. And Digital Strategy, quite innocently, was set up independent of it.

And then it got worse.

Because Digital Strategy shattered. And got Social Strategy. Or Data Strategy. Which is different from Analytics. Or Content Strategy. Product & Platform Strategy. And that’s kind of like User Experience (which, Yes people, is in fact a strategic discipline.), but not exactly.

With so many different flavors of strategy today, it’s all starting to seem like maybe advertising hasn’t been all that strategic, strictly speaking.

The thing is, we need all this new thinking. As a digital strategist I can say this with some confidence. I see it every day and I’ve seen it throughout my career. And as technology knits itself into every aspect of our lives and shared cultural experiences become more splintered and small, communication challenges are only getting more complex. Unique, far-reaching human insights more difficult to mine. Data sets more varied, less structured, and ostensibly unrelated.

Creative agencies have responded by hiring T-shaped people. People with deep knowledge and skill in a particular discipline, and complementary but comparatively shallow knowledge in adjacent disciplines. You know these people. They know a lot about a little and a little about a lot.

This is great in principle. Get people who can flex to meet the moment, learn on the fly, play multiple roles on a project. T-shaped people make a lot of sense in a complex and changing environment.

The problem isn’t them. It’s the teams, groups, and organizational structures that these people are hired into.

Advertising has always dealt with complexity by being reductive. Both in the work that we create and in the way we talk about doing work. The single brilliant spot, site, or app is deified by clients, agency leadership, and industry echo chamber. The lone genius with the brilliant idea rides in to save the day. They get on 30 under 30 lists. Get promoted. This is the stuff of advertising legend.

We are, after all, myth makers. Might as well be heroes too.

The problem is that individual heroics get in the way of organizational greatness. And while there’s no denying the value of having stars on the team, an organization that’s top heavy with them creates both internal tension and a me-first work environment. It kills collaboration.

And collaboration matters.

How can we fix it? I’ve got a sketch of an idea. But rather than write out process bullets or a flow chart, I’ve boiled it down to two words. Call it a brief.

Be humble.

No one knows everything. Stop trying to be famous. Speak in hypotheses not assertions. Develop a dialectic. Find a way to debate ideas without insult or fear of retribution from those up the food chain.

It starts at the top. Leaders who deify stars and hire for name recognition create competition for the spotlight throughout their organizations. And not the healthy kind. Humility in such organizations is an anchor.

Fundamentally, collaborative work environments start with humility. Each team member must be willing to make concessions. Even change their minds when the situation calls for it.

Complexity demands the skill and flexibility of T-shaped people. And T-shaped people are wired for collaboration. But they’re only going to thrive if agencies can embrace collaboration as a way of both doing and celebrating work. That means valuing employees differently.

People who thrive in collaborative environments in the future will become stars not by developing a personal brand or a cult of personality. They’ll prove their value, project by project, year by year, by delivering results and building the respect of their peers. It’s time to get started.

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