The Dissident Spin Doctor: The death of the unitasker
by Emma King (@EmmainSA) I came across an awesome word the other day – ‘Unitasker’. It’s attributed most commonly to Alton Brown, ‘celebrity’ chef and TV personality, who apparently disdainfully coined the term to describe single purpose kitchen utensils that clog up a kitchen and which are only good for one thing. Like a corn kernel remover, or a cake pop maker, or a banana slicer.
Apparently, it can also be used to describe a person – someone who can only do one task at a time (I’m resisting the temptation to insert joke about men and multitasking here). But I’d like to create another way it can be used, in the workplace, to describe someone who clogs up a business and who is only able or willing to do one thing.
I think it’s a pretty dangerous to be a unitasker in this fast moving age. Back in the day, when there were limited channels and disciplines, and ages to work through a brief from a client, we had the luxury of being able to lovingly and single-mindedly focus on our preferred skill of copywriting or design or strategic research.
But those unitaskers are a dying breed, and rightly so, as we need to be ever faster, producing ever more in less time and against smaller budgets. Why would a client wait ages or pay for million different people to progress through one brief? And indeed, why would a business want to hire a candidate who is skilled only in writing, when they are matched against a second who can not only write, but who can also (tick where appropriate) take photos/ edit a video/ liaise with clients/ tapdance.
One would argue, I suppose, against the dangers of the ‘Jack of trades’, ever vocal geniuses (or is that genii?) who claim to be experts in a million disciplines, while seemingly unable to excel in any. And indeed one would caution against it.
But surely being multi-talented or multi-skilled is not a total enigma. Those of us who come from a traditional PR agency background would know this. Indeed, to succeed, do we not need to play multiple roles of client service, strategists, creatives, community managers, writers, event planners and general dogsbodies?
I used to look in bemusement at traditional agencies, when we ended up in those all-agency sessions – there would be the lone, sad, Norman-no-mates representative from the PR agency or media agency, swamped by a million people from the ad agency, each representing some minute role or skill. I used to shudder at the amount of retainer hours being eaten up by having all these people in meeting, and wonder about the convoluted process of Chinese whispers that it would take to relay and feedback changes along the chain of command.
And so, here we are today, where I now work in an integrated agency and the world itself moves ever faster, demanding more from us all. Thank heavens, at least where I’m sitting, there’s an acknowledgement of the speed that things need to happen and the need for us all to be multi-skilled.
But it still amazes me, when I come across people, who push back that “it’s not their job to do something” or who are not open to giving something a go. Or someone, often weirdly enough a junior, who “doesn’t do Powerpoint” or thinks they are above schlepping through a document to eliminate mistakes.
Really? Well guess what Honey, there’s someone right around the corner who will, and guess who we want to hire and which one’s the first to go when cuts are being made.
So, rant over and point being; what it’s led me to believe is a couple of things.
Firstly, as individuals we need to be multiskilled and open to everything. By all means, nurture what you’re good at and what you enjoy, but don’t be too precious about what you will do or what you get involved in. It just makes you more disposable than the next guy.
And secondly, as businesses, we need to take this view too. I shudder when I see PR agencies, unitaskers, who doggedly stick to traditional media relations and nothing else, shunning the world of branded content and digital communities. And likewise, traditional ad agencies who haven’t yet diversified and who are still trying run to a business around producing expensive above-the-line commercials. Because, watch out: there are a million young, talented and hungry operations out there, clamouring for your clients’ budget, and who can do more: faster, cheaper and (probably) better than you can.
Emma King is Head of PR at The Jupiter Drawing Room (Cape Town). She is a columnist for MarkLives on PR and communication issues. You can find her on Twitter at @EmmainSA
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