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Too Many Irons, and the Advertising Generalist Gets Burned

Written By Page Jensen-Slattengren | Apr 28, 2015

We’ve all been there–you toil away for hours on a campaign, dreams dashed and Frappuccinos® downed, when you finally present the job only to have some lavender-haired art director inform you that she spent her summer at a local zine and would have no problem just “slapping in some copy” herself. Or a copywriter, earnestly pushing up his Warby Parkers, informs you that he’s “pretty proficient at InDesign” and could just whip something up real quick.

Yep, these people have managed to master, or assume they’ve mastered, copywriting, design, and coding. Armed with fully tricked out MacBooks, these are the hybrid kids of the advertising world; copywriters fresh out of a community college course that taught them to slap some Museo into a triangle and pop out a few logos. Art directors who effortlessly turn puns into copy and spent a couple thousand on a ticket to coders camp. Hell, give them the newest iPhone and they may even shoot, direct, and edit their next commercial. Yeah, we all know someone like that.

All of us in the ad game have thought, more than once, of mastering the holy trifecta ourselves. Working alongside talented designers and coders, you pick up the terminology, the trends, and the techniques. A good CW/AD team works hand-in-hand; both feel comfortable handling copy or design concepts. So it’s not unusual to think, “Why rely on the help and opinion of others when I can be a one-man advertising machine?!”

We even more commonly see young bucks, fresh out of portfolio school, creating intensive books outlining how they truly are the jack of all trades. The appeal is clear–advertising is all about problem solving, right? Who’s a better candidate than someone who can solve the problem visually, linguistically, and build the website as well? Who wouldn’t want to hire you?!

The answer: most people.

“You need to understand all disciplines so that you are able to effectively collaborate, but be a master of one discipline if you expect to be the best at anything.”

“Regardless of how complex our business has become, the adage about a Jack-of-all-trades still applies,” said Bart Cleveland, formerly the creative director at McKee Wallwork Cleveland and the founder of Job Propulsion Lab. “You need to understand all disciplines so that you are able to effectively collaborate, but be a master of one discipline if you expect to be the best at anything.”

No matter how much advertising disciplines seem to blend together, employers are still looking for someone who shines in one area. Agencies don’t want someone who is okay in multiple fields, they want a teammate who’s a master of their discipline.

Still, understanding all aspects of a project is essential. Ask any copywriter who’s tried to write a novel for a pop can before realizing only 90 characters fit, or a designer who masters beautiful hand lettering only to find that the copy is completely illegible. What’s really so bad about trying to master multiple disciplines?

“If you want to be hired as an art director, you may very well be a good photographer and capable of writing headlines, but you need to be a damn good art director,” said Kathryn Harmon, marketing director at Creative Circus.

“…to get a job and keep a job in this industry you’ll need to have peripheral vision that allows you to be versatile.”

“You won’t get hired at an agency by being a general creative,” she continued, “but to get a job and keep a job in this industry you’ll need to have peripheral vision that allows you to be versatile.”

Applicants with an over-the-top resume and portfolio may also come across as not being a good collaborator. In the infamous words of Dizzy Wright, “Teamwork makes the dream work.”

If you introduce yourself as able to “do it all,” you may actually be presenting yourself as “unable to work on a team.” The best work in advertising’s history didn’t come from a single person, but rather a team of devoted creatives. Your portfolio needs to reflect not only your best skills, but the fact that you can work collaboratively to create a beautiful, well-executed campaign.

Whether you’re a seasoned creative or trying to get your foot in the door, make sure your book reflects the job you’re trying to get, not that you’re a creative person in general. You’re not trying to get hired because you’re creative, you’re trying to get hired because you are going to bring a whole new level of creativity to the agency. You may be tempted to put all your irons in the fire, but just remember not to get burned.

Page Jensen-Slattengren is a producer and studio manager for music and sound design house Tequila Mockingbird in Austin, as well as an aspiring copywriter finishing up her portfolio. In her spare time, she enjoys reading feminist literature, rescuing animals from dumpsters and listening to 3LW on repeat.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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