The Authority Of Specialty

A favorite ritual sparked this week's musing. Over the weekend, I joined my friend in San Diego to celebrate his new wedded bliss. This guy has always been like a little brother to me, so it was with particular anticipation of cuteness that I took in his father's toast. I love hearing parents brag about their kids during this ceremonial nod. You get to hear of Boy Scout prowess, science fair victories, wrecked cars, chicken pox, and the dislike of loves past.

On Saturday, as my friend's dad raised his flute, he said, "I am so proud of my son, who I'll have you know is one of the top SEOs in the world."

The lauded sprout muttered audibly, "Dad, no one here even knows what that is."

Meanwhile, the aunties I had befriended over mini quiches and pinot grigio all looked over at me. I just nodded my head, and whispered, "Yes, ladies, that is the technical stuff we discussed." They all smiled with the satisfaction of being on the inside.



I have been spending the hours since mulling the relative importance of "specialties." Most of us learned young the value of mixing innate talent, curiosity, and intellect -- with the studied development of skills and selection of a trade. A specialty has authority within certain media circles and client or business situations. But what is the value of that authority in the greater marketplace?

Having just spent time at Search Engine Strategies in New York, I found the SEO toastmaster moment and market introspection timely. Producers of the show will tell you that although they still take an integrated stance, there has been a concerted effort to focus on the core -- which is search. This trend is evident in the programming, the casting, the banter and the feedback across the blogosphere. The result is a sense of targeted, applied takeaway value for everyone.

For me, as long it sits within business context and strengthens the overall outlook, the specialty focus is a good thing. But in the broader marketplace, when is specialty an asset -- and when is it an impediment? To break this down, I think about other specialists I know within our general sphere. They are:


  • Email marketers
  • Direct response and performance marketing mavens
  • Design luminaries focused on newspaper and magazine redesign
  • Brand marketing experts
  • SEOs with a cult following
  • Investor relations go-to gurus for technology companies
  • Paid search practitioners
  • Universal or blended search wizards
  • Brand identity and graphic design geniuses
  • Social media futurists
  • Blogosphere commanders
  • Global thought leaders on search at large
  • Multimedia technologists
  • Content and community taste-makers
  • Entertainment sector specialists in tune-in marketing
  • Trusted advisors in luxury marketing
  • Affiliate marketers


I could restructure this list as a roster of 100 people we should trust, at least within their specialty. And within that roster, we've a shorter list of 20 who can play their specialty broadly, who bring the integrated perspective and business acumen to be absolutely indispensable. Especially in these turbulent times, when the stakes could not be higher, we want specialists with legs.

When it comes down to it, we love specialists, because their values seem undiluted. So, what are the core values of specialty that give it such authority?

Trustworthiness: If the specialist really knows his business, when he takes the assignment, he understands how you are measured and how you will gauge success in your work together. This clarity of talent and trade instills certain trustworthiness. Whether you are hiring, retaining, or deploying this person with a new client -- as long as he is properly cast, it's a pretty safe bet.

Devotion to quality: Specialists generally have a certain level of obsession with what they do. She is proud of her command of the specialty and the repute it has brought her. She will devote herself to a certain level of quality.

There are also a few mixed blessings of specialty:

Market seasonality: This applies from a career standpoint and an application value. As the market shifts, so might demand for one's particular specialty. During one period, said specialty may be a secret weapon, an indispensable power. During another, it may be a liability. This is obvious. The less obvious aspect is how this pertains to staffing and what you need when. And, in a down economy, these choices take on extra weight.

Bias: When the expectation is for something more integrated, severely limited specialties may create a bias that whacks the program off-point.

On a higher level, above and beyond specific media, marketing, creative or content trade specialties -- I believe we all should value something I call "storied experience." As we collaborate, it's helpful to really get one another's client history, trials and tribulations, business and career exaltations and failures. Killer business acumen, and seasoned chops that can put that specialty into full gear, are golden. It can be hard to work productively for very long with someone who has been in one box, no matter how sweet the box may seem. And, we do well to bring our full array of experience to bear -- the good, the bad and the ugly -- as we blend our various specialties with our teammates to collaborate.

Still, if you've found yourself standing with a band of gurus bantering about their own insulated splendor, you've seen the insidiousness of specialty gone bad. The savvy required to truly apply one's specialty in a sustainable way in the real world is the true treasure.




2 comments about "The Authority Of Specialty ".
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  1. Mike Patterson from WIP, Inc., March 30, 2009 at 3:06 p.m.

    Hey Kendall - Great article, I am always impressed by the breadth of your topics. I was wondering if you'd be willing to share some "Investor relations go-to gurus for technology companies"...experts and/or specialists. I've been looking for a resource in this area, you can email me directly at or DM at Twitter: mpattyfly. Thanks,

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, March 30, 2009 at 5:22 p.m.
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