Should You Hire an Anthropologist?
By Mike Carlton

The only constant is the human mind of the consumer
Have we inadvertently created a tortoise and hare situation for our young agency people?

School Days

One of my Mother’s favorite brothers was an engineer. And she really hoped I would become an engineer, too. Like many kids, when I finished high school I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. So, it pleased my mother greatly when I enrolled in the College of Engineering at the University of Delaware.

Now, I have never been very good at math. And it quickly became clear that differential equations were going to be my downfall. At that time, anyone flunking out of college had a good chance of being drafted into the Army and sent off to Korea or Greenland for a few years.

The College of Arts and Sciences

With that specter looming, I quickly hustled myself across campus and talked my way into a mid-semester transfer to the College of Arts and Sciences. Their curriculum was pretty well fixed for the first few years with required courses like history, literature, composition, psychology, geography, philosophy and at least four semesters of a foreign language.

In those days Delaware did not have a separate business school but the College of Arts and Sciences did offer some business courses at the Junior and Senior level. I discovered that I really enjoyed marketing and even though I didn’t like math, for reasons I did not understand at the time, I took a liking to statistics.

I ended up with a BS in Business with a leaning towards marketing. But in retrospect, most of my time had been spent in liberal arts courses.

What to Do Next?

After doing my military time as an Army Officer I had to get serious about landing a job. My Dad had been in the agency business and he had always enjoyed his work. So, I decided to try that, but I wanted to do it without any help from Dad.

I quickly learned the meaning of rejection. After trooping with little success through all the big agencies in New York, I was finally offered a job by a very small agency in the Midwest. My first assignment was to clean up a big mess in their magazine library. And for that I was paid minimum wage.

But I was employed. And off on the start of my career.

Advertising School

One problem. I didn’t know anything about advertising. I had never taken a course in advertising. Since I wanted to keep my job, I hurried over to the local ad club and signed up for their evening classes in advertising and PR.

One important benefit that I didn’t expect was at the ad school I met the wonderful young woman who became my wife.

Best investment I ever made!

Work Environment

Right from the start I was delighted by the people I worked with at the agency. They were exceptionally bright, inquisitive people. Interaction with them was stimulating, inspiring and often challenging. They were fast moving and fast thinking. Everyone was always on their mental toes.

We worked hard. But it was fun. We laughed a lot. Nights and weekends were not unusual. It was an environment in which each of us had to keep our brain working full time. It wasn’t always easy. But the mental tiredness at the end of the day felt good.

These folks were fun to be with. They were genuinely nice, caring people, too.

I had stumbled into an ideal work situation. I couldn’t get over my good luck.

Diverse Educational Backgrounds

I soon learned that their interesting points of view sprang from their diverse educational backgrounds. They came from all kinds of colleges and universities. They had studied things like architecture, philosophy, religion, literature, political science, music, history, theater, psychology, mathematics and sociology.

From their keen sense of the humanities, everything started with an almost personal, and sometimes emotional, connection to the client’s customers. Our team brought their understandings and empathy for the conditions of humankind to all their thinking. And thus to our little agency’s solutions for our clients.

I was surrounded by true renaissance people.

As I recall, none of these folks had a degree in advertising. And I think maybe only one, and possibly two, had studied journalism.

So to build and maintain our craft skills, our agency generally sent each of us away to appropriate craft seminars a couple times a year.

Fast-Forward to Today

I really enjoy working with young agency talent. For a number of years I have been an instructor for open enrollment agency training seminars as well as in-house sessions. One of the things we always ask the students is to tell us about is their educational background.

Interestingly, over the years we have seen a steady increase in the number of young agency people with degrees in advertising, mass communications and journalism; and a corresponding decrease in those with liberal arts backgrounds.


If this is a trend, the obvious questions are; Why is this happening? And what are the implications for the agency industry? As well as the implications for the young talent entering the business? And their future careers?

What Agency Leaders Say

When we ask agency leaders about this the typical response is, “We need entry level people who can hit the ground running. We can’t waste time while they learn about the craft of advertising.” Or, “People with a liberal arts education just take too long to come up to speed.”

What Young Agency Talent Says

When asked the same questions the typical response is, “I have big college loans to pay off and I need a good job quickly. It is easier to get a job with an advertising, journalism or mass communications degree than with one in liberal arts.” Or, “With a liberal arts degree you need to go on to graduate school or expect to have to spend a couple of years working at McDonald’s before you can find a real job.”

Education vs. Training

Is this an indication that our industry has shifted the entry criteria for its young people from education to training? Have we come to value doing over thinking?

At this point it might be helpful to step back and take a look at the meaning of the words education and training. Here is what Wikipedia has to say:

“Education is any act or experience that has a formative effect on the mind, character or physical ability of an individual. In its technical sense education is the process by which society transmits its accumulated knowledge, skills and values from one generation to another.”

“Training refers to the acquisition of knowledge, skills and competencies as a result of teaching of vocational or practical skills and knowledge that relate to specific useful competencies. It forms the core of apprenticeships and provides the backbone of content at institutes of technology.”

Interesting. The definition for education uses terms like “formative effect on the mind” while the definition for training uses terms like “teaching of vocational or practical skills.” Some substantial differences here.

Differences that can say a lot about our industry’s strategic direction and business model. As well as its future relevance.

What Do Agencies Want? And Need?

This raises the questions of what is best for an agency. Should there be a bias for broadly educated entry level people? Or should there be a bias for specifically trained entry level people? Or should it be balanced between the two? Or should all starting agency people be both broadly educated and specifically trained? And is that possible? Or practical?

What We See

While this is just anecdotal, in our work with many agencies over many years it is obvious that the more responsible the agency position the more likely the person is to have a liberal arts education.

Conversely, the more tactical the person’s position the more likely that individual is to have a degree in the craft skills.

It seems that the craft trained folks start out faster but somehow are less likely to progress to significantly greater responsibilities. While the folks with liberal arts backgrounds start much more slowly but seem to be able to eventually move to higher responsibilities.

You might want to check to see if this pattern exists in your agency.

The Tortoise and the Hare

Have we inadvertently created a tortoise and hare situation for our young agency people? One that can potentially backfire in the long run?

Unquestionably, young folks with craft skills can become billable more quickly than those without them. But should we be asking ourselves how well prepared craft biased folks are for the human sensitivities and mental gymnastics that will ultimately be required if they are to make a career of the agency business?

And in an environment where elements of the craft technologies are changing almost daily what will happen if their craft skills become outdated? Will feeding an agency’s talent pool with a bias toward craft skills be the best way to generate the big ideas that likely will be the ultimate measure of the agency’s success?

Agency Magic Dust

Agencies get hired for their big ideas. Ideas that can change the behaviors of the marketer’s customers. Agencies are differentiated by the quality and effectiveness of their big ideas. This is their core value. And this is their magic dust. That is what marketers want. And they fire agencies that don’t give them those big ideas.

Yet ironically, it is estimated that 80% of most agencies’ gross income comes from implementation work, not from conceiving the big ideas themselves.

This is a strange business model. Being meagerly paid for the high value front-end intellectual work, while relying on compensation from the low value back-end implementation work. In effect selling the big ideas for the hourly billing the implementation of them will generate.

With this reliance on implementation work, perhaps it is no wonder that agencies are looking for entry people who already have craft skills. They can, in fact, hit the ground running and immediately generate implementation income.

But, does this ignore where the big ideas will come from? Both now and into the future?

Two Big Problems

Unfortunately, if that model is being used it carries with it two big problems:

1. First and most important is that implementation is a commodity. It contains little exclusive intellectual content. Its value is not protectable. And so like all commodities, low price inevitably becomes its key selection criteria. With no bottom in sight.

This reality is played out every day as clients increasingly pressure agencies to reduce their hourly rates. And most agencies are ill prepared to play, much less win, the commodity pricing game.

2. Second, craft skills can be fleeting. Technology has profoundly changed how communications programs are implemented. And that rate of change is not only continuing, it is accelerating.

Thus, the useful life of many craft skills is diminishing. An in-demand craft skill today may become irrelevant in just a few years. Thus, a lot of craft skills are rapidly deteriorating assets. Both for agencies as well as the individuals that possess those skills.

Not a pretty picture for young folks entering the business today to know that much of what they have been trained to do may well become unneeded in the near future.

Is that the kind of career you would like to be embarking on?

The One Constant

Yet in all this technology driven turmoil there is one unchanging constant. It is the unwavering beacon of hope and inspiration for all advertising and marketing practitioners.

That constant is the human mind of the consumer!

Let me say that again;

The one constant is the human mind of the consumer!

For as far back in history as we can see the mind of the human has not changed much. The fundamentals of life, food, health, shelter, family, love, reproduction, companionship, parenting, emotion, acceptance, value, contribution are all rock solid. The way we think, the way we process information, the way we make decisions, are the same today as they were thousands of years ago.

This has not changed. Nor will it change. Ways of reaching and engaging the consumer may come and go, but the consumer herself is an enduring anchor. An anchor that smart agency people grab onto and embrace.

Helping marketers influence the day-to-day commercial behaviors of these consumers is what advertising agencies and related business are all about.

A Growth Market

The need for people who are able to develop big ideas that will influence consumer behaviors will grow. Because the consumer market (B to B as well as B to C) will grow. And continue to grow around the world.

And those folks who are good at creating big ideas will be constantly in demand and able to command significant compensation. They will have the ingredients for an enjoyable, rewarding lifetime career.

Conversely, the need for people to implement programs for marketers may very well shrink. Certainly in the past decade the head count of agency people charged with implementing work has been declining. And as new technologies improve efficiency that trend is likely to continue.

And if what they do becomes increasingly commoditized, those individuals will surely experience downward pressure on both their compensation and job satisfaction. Not a happy prospect.

Simple Questions

So it comes down to this. What do you want your agency to be like in five years or so? How much of your gross income do you want to come from big ideas? And how much should come from implementation?

The answers you come up with should form the basis for your staffing strategy. The kind of people needed to populate your agency. It is really just that simple.

Who knows, now may be precisely the right time to hire an anthropologist. Or a mathematician, Or a sociologist.

They just may surprise you with the contribution they can make to your success.

© Carlton Associates Inc.

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