Writers that draw. Art directors that bake. Creative directors that do improv, homebrew and play in a band. In past agency lives and my current one, I’ve had the privilege of working alongside creatives with a big “C” and little “c.” Regardless of title, all of these fine people had creative specialties, outlets, passions and side gigs. I’ve also worked with and written for a couple unicorns, a handful of hybrids and several jacks- (and-jills-) of-all-trades.
Each individual’s skillset and strengths were unique and creatively powerful. But it begs the question … is it better to really focus on trying to master your craft and then build up another, split your creative powers between work and another passion or broaden your abilities and experience a little of everything? Let’s jump down each rabbit hole to find out.
Everyone knows the unicorn as a mythical horse-like creature complete with a horn protruding from its head. But what makes them so appealing in our industry? The term ‘unicorn’ is used for prodigies who are supernaturally skilled in multiple crafts – writing copy, directing art, pitching or rewriting strategy. Maybe they have a knack for building client relationships as well. These magical creatures are the stuff of legends – the Drogas, Goodbys, Wiedens and Clows of the world. And the mythos is ever evolving. Because unicorns are a very rare breed indeed.
One that comes to mind – but I never worked with – is Alex Bogusky. This modern day creative unicorn left the ad world in 2010, but when he was in it, man, was he in it. Starting as an art director in 1989, he quickly moved up into a creative director role five years later, agency partner three years after that and co-chairman by 2008. From art direction to pitching and winning multi-million-dollar accounts to spearheading cause initiatives and more, Bogusky now uses his powers to advocate for and invest in startups, accelerate social ventures and mentor entrepreneurs. Following much of his agency’s work as a student at the time, it was shocking to hear the news that one of advertising’s modern greats was on the way out right as my foot was getting in the door.
Finding a unicorn is, for some creatives, an essential part of the creative quest. Working for one, the ultimate career goal. You’d do good to learn as much as you can from them before they disappear back over the rainbow.
HYBRIDS A.K.A. CREATIVES WHO CROSS THE STREAMS
You’ve heard the term “hybrid” before, but probably not used like this. Hybrid creatives are those who split their time between two passions equally – usually one in the office and one outside. Yes, like the district attorney who gained a new coin-flipping passion, they are two-faced. Although not in the villainous way, of course. A couple agency lives ago, I worked with an art director who loved baking so much that she clocked in at a craft donut shop on the weekends. Not to pay the bills, mind you, but to feed the hunger that art direction only nourished half way.
What is it about pastry-proficient art directors, doodling copywriters and homebrewing creative directors that’s just so tantalizing? Well, as a student, you’re taught to pick a path, so you know what creative title to build your portfolio toward and then apply for. Once you’re in the industry, when someone hears your professional title, they immediately have an idea for what you do – and that’s what they expect you to keep doing. Your title is your typecast, if you will. If you’re a copywriter, you stick to writing. If you’re the artist type, you do the art thing. You know, “stay in your lane.” But these hybrids don’t feed on that notion. In fact, while they may be hungry to do what they love, they don’t adhere to the starving artist cliché or the art-starved creative who solely works for a client day in and day out. They go out and live two lives. The resourceful ones combine them into something amazing. If you’re lucky to work with a hybrid creative – or are one yourself – celebrate it! (And maybe get a free donut or two.)
IS A MASTER OF NONE BETTER THAN A MASTER OF ONE?
There’s a hard line in the sand that a person must cross to get into the realm of the polymathic unicorn or even into the dual-wielding powers of a hybrid. More than simply dilettantes who like to dabble, the jacks-of-all-trades I’ve collaborated with weren’t content with dominating just one discipline – or two. These individuals had so many hobbies, skills and interests that it was hard to nail down what exactly they were into.
What’s amazing about a jack-of-all-trades is that they’re never comfortable. They’re constantly learning and pushing and growing. And when it circles back to how they solve problems, these jacks or jills have new approaches and ideas that wouldn’t have popped up had they not dove headfirst into something new. It’s these types of creatives who blur the lines between art director/video game designer/whiteboard sketch artist/photographer/brainstorm facilitator or copywriter/voiceover inflection wrangler/social media strategist/subject matter expert/songwriter. There’s something to be said about a personality that is never satiated enough to stop learning and doing.
A UNICORN, HYBRID & JACK-OF-ALL-TRADES WALK INTO A BAR
If you aspire to be the much sought-after unicorn, start at being great at something—truly try to master it—before you try to build up another specialty. And then, be the most unique unicorn the world has ever seen. If the idea of being great at your craft and double-clicking hard into some other passion suits you, do what you’re good at in both fields and take advantage of your dichotomous nature. Create a comic if you love to draw and you’re a writer. Combine your home brewing passion and graphic designer talent to wrap those bottles in an epic design. Truly embrace the hybrid life. And finally, if you’re constantly hungry for something new—and people close to you often say, “Oh great, you have a new hobby…”—show them how these new somethings keep your heart pumping and your frontal lobe fed. Stay uncomfortable, jack.
Maybe the punchline here is, there’s not just one right way to eat a Reese’s. Surround yourself with any and all of these creative types and you’re going to have a great time. Head down any of these paths yourself and your creative career will thank you. Or maybe lead the way into defining a new technology-forward creative type – the cyborg. The truth is, the future belongs to the creatives who are brave and nimble enough to not only change with the times but follow their passion. Or passions, as it were.