Do you know the territory, or are you just a tourist? As artist Julian Schnabel wrote, tourists many have significant technical skills, but they don’t really know the territory. They know how to get some things done, but they don’t have deep expertise in a particular area.
The tourist digs many shallow holes, while the expert digs one deep one and mines rich veins of knowledge and understanding. In basketball, Michael Jordan was an expert, and became the best player of all time. In baseball and golf, he was a tourist.
The interesting stuff happens when you go deep, not wide
Think of all the truly interesting breakthrough work being done in any field – science, medicine, architecture, art. It’s being done by the specialists, not the generalists. That’s because once you get deep enough into a particular area, you have the framework and insights that allow you to really innovate. Otherwise you’ll just be scratching a very superficial surface. It’s pretty unlikely that Jonas Salk would have developed the polio vaccine if he weren’t a medical researcher and virologist.
A band that can play a dozen different genres may be entertaining at a wedding, but they’re unlikely to develop the next big thing in music. Agencies that attempt to do a little bit of everything, in every kind of category, aren’t the ones doing the interesting work.
Generalists don’t push boundaries
If you want to work at the edges of web development, it helps to be a web development expert. Just like if you want to push beyond the expected solutions in healthcare marketing, it helps to be a healthcare expert. If you just dabble in healthcare, you may have some well-crafted advertising to show for it, but it’s unlikely that you have developed a video game to teach kids suffering from juvenile diabetes how to use an insulin pump. Or produced as series of webisodes designed to help recently-diagnosed HIV patients learn how to cope with their disease. It takes deep expertise to get beyond the expected “campaigns” to deliver solutions like these, which were in fact developed by health specialist Ignite Health.
“Full service” generalists are unlikely to develop products like Rockfish’s “Coupon Factory” or Teehan+Lax’s “TweetMag,” both of which were developed by digital specialists. In depth studies of American travelers aren’t going to come from generalist agencies, but from travel specialist MMGY. You might be able to help a client develop outstanding branded content about food, but it helps to be an expert like The Culinary Agency.
Writing in his insightful book Linchpin, Seth Godin believes that the very best reason to become an expert in your field is because “Expertise gives you enough insight to reinvent what everyone else assumes is the truth.”