Embrace the Convergence

The worlds of design, consultancy and software engineering are colliding, with big implications for the creative services industry.

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The creative services industry is undergoing a seismic transition.

As customer experience has become the philosophical cornerstone of almost every successful brand, the number and complexity of customer interactions with those brands has increased dramatically, and their go-to-market strategies have evolved.

In parallel, the availability of inexpensive digital tools has democratised design, the big consultancies are morphing into advertising agencies, and data has been crowned the “new oil” as software has become an essential ingredient in the customer journey.

In short, the worlds of design, consultancy and software engineering are colliding.

As these formerly disparate disciplines intersect in unprecedented ways, a new breed of ‘converged digital agency’ is being born. Smudge exists at this intersection.

So what are the ramifications of this transition for the many thousands of people who have built a career specialising in one of the three existing disciplines? And going forward, what skills will be needed to thrive as a creative professional as they continue to converge?

First, it’s important to recognise that each of the three original agency types are coming from their own position of strength, and likewise each have their relative weaknesses. The big consultancies are known to be adept at pinpointing problems but less equipped to execute solutions, many design agencies are notorious for delivering work that wins awards but doesn’t actually hit the brief, while software engineers have been typecast as nocturnal pizza-munchers capable of little more than a few grunts (much less a meaningful conversation with a customer).

Of course, the truth is less clear-cut. And given the relative strengths and weaknesses of the incumbents, few will mutate into genuinely converged agencies overnight.

Rather, the organisations who will thrive in this brave new world will be those who actively seek to gain a better understanding and appreciation of each other’s abilities, successfully break down the silos between disciplines, and encourage their employees to cultivate broad, multi-faceted skill sets.

This will require an attitudinal shift.

There’s significant benefit for customers in having an ongoing dialogue with the people who are both designing and building a product.

The agencies of the past were assembled around groups of specialists trained to perform specific tasks, while the very idea of a generalist evoked a “Jack of all trades” snootiness that exists to this day.

Truth be told, it’s not surprising that things played out this way. In the developed world, the education system has long been predicated on the principle that an individual is born (or destined to become) a “left brain person” or a “right brain person”. We are encouraged to pick one hemisphere or the other, hone our skills in a particular area, and embark on a lifelong career that was defined by this choice.

That thinking is vastly outdated, and will not serve the workplace well in years to come.

Let’s take the example of a software engineer. Global online talent hub Monster outlines the talents and technical abilities required to be a software developer, which include object-oriented design, software testing and debugging, and logical thinking.

No mention of curiosity, empathy, compassion, creativity, self-awareness or emotional intelligence?

Here at Smudge, we’ve long believed in hiring, growing and nurturing employees who successfully blend these “right brain” skills with the more analytical skills traditionally associated with software development.

There are many benefits to building a creative services business around multi-skilled all-rounders; not least the autonomy and ownership that different types of employees gain from being involved at multiple stages of a project. Furthermore, there’s significant benefit for customers in having an ongoing dialogue with the people who are both designing and building a product.

We believe that anyone who is involved in building a solution should be intimately familiar with the problem.

As an example: before we start the design process, we undertake a period of observation and immersion. This involves spending time in the field, and “walking in the shoes” of users to gain an understanding of their highs, lows and emotions. This helps us create solutions that will be genuinely useful and transformational. At Smudge, everyone involved in a project participates in this process.

Empathy should not be the sole preserve of a Product Manager or Business Analyst. And customer interactions should not be confined to an Account Director.

We believe that anyone who is involved in building a solution should be intimately familiar with the problem. We also believe that wherever possible, everyone who is working on a project should be customer-facing.

That means sourcing and developing curious, lifelong learners who pride themselves on being technically conversant as well as having exceptional design and interpersonal skills.

So we find ourselves back at the intersection of design, consultancy and software engineering.

Given the education system we’ve grown up in, each individual will naturally be stronger in one or more of these areas, which is why we use strengths coaching to ensure that every employee understands his or her own strengths, as well as those of their co-workers. This engenders a deep respect in the team, of the kind that will need to pervade the entire industry if we're to successfully navigate this transition.

So yes, the world is changing but we should embrace it, abandon the dogma of the past, and nurture every part of our brains and personalities. Because as the industry evolves, any creative business (and their people) who don’t adopt a cross-functional mindset are in danger of being left behind.


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