Why Lineage is not a “specialized” agency

We succeed because we have a very particular set of skills—which are applicable to all knowledge work.

by Steve, VP Strategy

At the start of this year, our CEO Anthony and I met with one of our clients to discuss new opportunities in 2020. The first question they had: how do you feel about sepsis?

Personally, I think sepsis is bad. But if you’re asking me to create sepsis-focused marketing materials in the healthcare industry, then, friend, nobody gets sepsis better than me.

Let me rephrase. Plenty of people know more than me about the implications of sepsis for individual patients, patient populations, and the economic health of hospitals and other providers.

So why not hire one of them to write your blog post?

The short answer is that most prospective customers don’t make purchasing decisions purely based on academic journals, product fact sheets, or Harvard Business Review case studies. The specialized knowledge behind that kind of writing is a necessary element of a persuasive piece of marketing collateral, but not a sufficient one.

A deeper exploration of the best response to our client’s request led me to interrogate the nature of specialization, and affirmed many of the reasons why we don’t do it at Lineage.

Certain fundamental competencies are applicable to all knowledge work. A New York Times article from last fall examined the career earnings of STEM and liberal arts majors, which, contrary to popular wisdom, even out over time. One study the Times cited lists several reasons why, but one in particular caught my eye (emphasis mine):

According to a 2018 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the three attributes of college graduates that employers considered most important were written communication, problem-solving and the ability to work in a team. Quantitative and technical skills both made the top 10, alongside other “soft” skills like initiative, verbal communication and leadership. 

I attribute almost all of my professional success to those first two attributes (I’ll defer to my co-workers on how well I manage the third). The ability to synthesize facts and perspectives into a concise, clear, and convincing bit of text covers a multitude of sins, whether or not your job title contains the word “writer.” And the ability to F.I.T.F.O (“figure it the”—well, you figure it out) pretty much handles the rest. It’s not foolproof; you won’t be able to bluff your way into getting hired to design a logo if you’ve never opened an Adobe program before. But 60 percent of the time, it works every time.

We apply this principle to the work we take on and the people we hire. The mindset that enables us to work successfully in sectors from home improvement to professional sports to niche B2B marketing operates in a virtuous cycle with hiring workers with that same fundamental mindset and the skillset to match. We don’t generally hire against new clients (unless they need full-time resources against a single service), trusting that one of us will have whatever it takes to make the thing and solve the problem.

So when someone asks us if we have experience in healthcare IT, or industrial construction, or managed wide area network hardware, we answer honestly: Yes. (We got that work because we were able to synthesize those clients’ subject matter expertise and key messaging into persuasive marketing).

In fact, we’ve found that for some workers, specialization can mask a lack of core competency, forcing the companies that employ them to reshape their organizations to buttress the deficiency. It’s a bit like having a point guard who can’t shoot—Ben Simmons is almost irreplaceably talented at many aspects of playing basketball, but how much better would the Sixers be if he did this a little more?

For our workers, taking on all comers can be disorienting at first—there’s a whole ‘nuther post to be written on maintaining an even keel as roles and responsibilities shift in response to the client roster. But our refusal to specialize has had a positive long-term impact on the company and the people that work here. Clients cut their budgets. They pivot to video. They fire you. But because we’re not tied too closely to any one industry or type of work, none of that means we have to fire our staff. And bouncing from healthcare to footwear one day and CPG to CBD the next helps stymie the burnout that anyone gets from doing the same kind of work for days or weeks on end.

After all, you’re eventually going to get sick of sepsis.