Case for Digital Specialists

A new decade has begun with a lot of hype (around Facebook’s $50 billion valuation) and a bit of fear (around the health of Steve Jobs). Every Tom, Dick, and Harry is talking about technology, digital, social, tablets, mobility, IPTV, and even cloud computing. Even my serious banker friends are discussing the future of digital. Needless to say, there is a realisation that all media vehicles are going digital and there is no running away from that. These days, I often hear senior advertising and media leaders talk about the importance of digitising our entire industry – essentially all our people. Training programs are being rolled out and people are given a clear mandate to become digital. So if all goes well, the entire industry should be digitised shortly and we’ll not need any specialists. There is ongoing debate on why do we need digital specialists when we can get the generalists to do the job. So this is my attempt to put up a case for digital specialists.

I believe there are five critical success factors for any true digital specialist – passion, curiosity, imagination, speed, and application.

First and foremost, one needs to be passionate about digital (like any other profession). Unless you love all things digital and are willing to play with them it is very difficult to create solutions for your clients. Passion is different from fashion (just talk about digital). In my observation, there are many people embracing digital as a fashion accessory but unfortunately lack the passion. In my opinion, clients respect passion and our industry desperately needs that respect.

Secondly, curiosity helps in exploring all things new and trying technologies/tools/platforms that are yet to be proven. Curiosity keeps you current and helps build knowledge by learning new things. Curious people self-educate and don’t wait for corporate training. Given the fact that barriers to learning digital are next to zero, I refuse to accept ‘lack of training’ as an excuse for not learning new things. I come across a lot of people in our industry who call themselves digital enthusiasts but unfortunately they fail to answer a simple question – ‘Have you tried anything new today or within this week or within a month’? Frankly speaking, it bothers me because enthusiasm needs to be reflected in action rather than mere discussions.

Thirdly, imagination plays a crucial role in developing ideas that can captivate people. All new developments in digital would not have happened unless someone imagined it. Without imagination it would be impossible to create new ad formats, custom content, make different platforms work together, and even develop new approaches for measurement. Our industry is full of young digital people who dare to imagine the impossible. Unfortunately, it is shut down with some very common excuses – ‘the client will not buy’, ‘it is not yet proven’, ‘publishers will not execute it right’, etc. We actively discourage people from creating something new.

Fourthly, speed plays a crucial role in digital as things change quickly, constantly, and without any advanced notice. Digital requires you to learn and master fast. It is important to launch innovations, ideas, and concepts quickly, otherwise someone else will launch them in no time. I recently came across a very interesting essay by Matt Mullenweg on why “1.0 Is the Loneliest Number“, where he argues the importance of speed and iterations.

Finally passion, curiosity, imagination, and speed need to be put into application. Like any other craft, digital is all about being hands-on and applying things that we learn – just like you can’t learn swimming without jumping into the water. I get worried when I see people flaunting their digital (search) proficiency certificates without even actually executing a single digital (search) campaign or even having the inclination to execute one. And like other crafts, practice matters and the more time we spend on application of theory, the better it is. Have you ever seen a musician who doesn’t practice music on a regular basis?

While the new decade will bring a lot of promise and enthusiasm, it will also bring a lot of challenges that we need to overcome. So unless we recruit people who are passionate, curious, imaginative, speedy, and application-oriented, we’ll never be in a position to transform our industry into a digitised one.

And if you’re still not convinced about why we need digital specialists, then consider this:

Imagine a woman is feeling unwell and visits a general practitioner. The GP checks her and determines that she is pregnant. He refers the woman to a gynecologist and obstetrician. The specialist continues to monitor the patient through the pregnancy but for some crucial scans the patient is sent to a specialist sonographer. Near the full term, the gynecologist suspects some complications and invites a pediatrician and anesthetist to be present at the time of the delivery. Finally, with the collective efforts they deliver a healthy baby and keep the mother safe.

Now the GPs get the basic training in obstetrics, sonography, pediatrics, and anesthesia. But these days they seldom deliver the babies. The reason being that medical science has become really advanced and you require passion, curiosity, imagination, speed, and application to get the job done.

Similarly, digitisation of media has made things difficult for the advertising and media generalists. Even when they go through digital training, all they will know is to diagnose the problem and not have either the ability or confidence to solve it on their own. And like any other profession, our clients only pay us for solving their problems and not diagnosing them. So the industry has no choice but to bring in specialists.

(Originally published on 27 January, 2011 on ClickZ.Asia.)