The marketing industry needs more polymaths
A view from Craig Mawdsley

The marketing industry needs more polymaths

The industry needs more Brian Enos - people who can do it all.

As the culture versus collateral wars raged across adland, it became clear that there would be no winners in this bloody conflict. The battlefield was littered with torn comms plans, their colourful arrows and boxes pointing to nowhere in particular and myriad programmatic variations of the same soldier in marginally different hats and tunics wandering around looking for some direction in the ruins. 

The tattered heraldic flags of dogs on trampolines and extravagantly mustachioed extras from Wes Anderson movies hung limply in the dank air. 

Not even the winds of change could rouse them now.

"We should have been doing lots of things brilliantly but often made the decision instead to brilliantly do just one thing"

But what of their commanders? Those who had previously roused these troops and funded their endeavours were lost. The fabled seemos of previous generations had commanded armies and conquered worlds. But their current counterparts had split into squabbling factions. Only seeing a small part of the battlefield. Only the master of one weapon each. Together they were once formidable. But now they had made themselves small.

On the ridge were pitched the brightly coloured tents and flags of the C-suite. The wine flowed and mysterious hooded figures attended to their every need. It was hard to believe that there had been a moment when the seemos vision was big enough to be a part of this. But that was a long time ago.

Many years before…

I was talking to one of my clients earlier this year about their attempts to hire a new head of marketing. They had seen a number of candidates but nobody was right. Everyone had big gaps in their skillset – they were comms people, or CRM people, or data people. They didn’t know everything they needed to know to do the job properly.

They were being interviewed by a Diageo-trained, ex-marketing chief executive who knows what good looks like, as he was brought up to run a business from a marketing point of view. Much like the Procter & Gamble marketers who were my first clients in the 1990s. They could do everything. Their companies considered it important that they understood business first and taught them to do everything well. And, my goodness, they were impressive. Equally in command of their direct marketing strategies and optimisation as their trade and retail relationships as they were of their telly ads.

They were specialist marketing people. Marketing is already a specialism within business. It was already as narrow as any business role needs to be.

So then we made it narrower.

The industry got confused about the difference between expert and specialist. We should have been doing lots of things brilliantly but often made the decision instead to brilliantly do just one thing.

And we’ve been doing the same on the agency side. Even in what should be the most broad and flexible discipline – strategic thinking – we have allowed ourselves to become data planners, comms planners, content planners, culture planners or whatever else we feel the need to marginalise ourselves with this week.

Marketing and strategy alike has been dazzled in the headlamps of the internet and forgotten that we have always been polymaths and will always be more valuable as polymaths. In the past, agency strategy folks thought nothing of walking from a morning meeting about building an investment banking brand to spending the afternoon applying ourselves to global new product development in sanpro (extend the timeline from a day to a couple of years and you have the equivalent for a marketing career).

The dynamics of different business sectors have far more diversity than the difference between buying and creating communication on Facebook and doing so on telly, but somehow we have decided that it would be useful to segment ourselves that way. Some people’s skillsets may indeed be that narrow, but it doesn’t make them expert – it makes them marginal.

So if you have any sense, whether on the marketing or agency side, you will spend your career understanding how to be good at everything, with creative strategic thinking at your core. 

Be the Brian Eno of your job to prosper now and in the future. It’s more challenging, more fun and simply a better strategy. It’s our choice if we want to stay as important to businesses as they really need us to be.

Craig Mawdsley is joint chief strategy officer of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO