Customers demand interactions with brands that are coherent across a range of channels and throughout the customer journey – we call these connected experiences. Generalists are often positioned as a silver-bullet in delivering these experiences on the basis that they can better work across the bigger picture.

Generalists are indeed an invaluable asset to any organisation. However, at Digitas we believe that teams of specialists are just as critical because it’s important to maintain the right blend of the two. If there are too many generalists then there’s a risk that nothing gets done. Too many specialists and you’re in danger of doing a lot without connecting the dots.

The complexity of modern brand ecosystems means that one marketer cannot profess to have detailed answers to all the big questions. And any that claim they do should be marched out of the building as quickly as possible.

For instance, providing frictionless check-out and payment in supermarkets, launching a new banking app, and unveiling a loyalty scheme for a hotel chain all require specialisms to deliver on the promise.

So if specialisms are good, then where is the danger? The problem is silos. As Dr Gillian Tett, the author The Silo Effect and speaker at a recent Digitas UK event, said: “Silos make bright people do stupid things”. She cites the financial crash of 2008, the inability to stop the 9/11 terror attacks and, in the corporate world, Sony’s failure to take the iconic Walkman into the digital age, as examples of this.

Silos – organisational, mental and social

Let’s first address what we mean by silos. The traditional view is focused on organisational design. Econsultancy’s report, A Guide to the Modern Marketing Model (M3) and Organisational Structures, addresses silos as the enemy of effective marketing by suggesting better ways for marketing organisations to be designed in order to foster greater creativity and effectiveness.

A clear example that many would recognise is the need to break down barriers between the teams responsible for traditional and digital marketing.

However, silos exist beyond the structure – they can also be mental and social silos. Mental silos exists in people’s heads, in their cognitive patterns and established ways of thinking, while social silos relate more to barriers that can prevent the exchange of ideas and tend to be related to factors such as the seniority, age, gender, and interests of people.

The anthropologist perspective

So, what are we proposing? Most obviously, you cannot bring in the right people if you don’t know they exist. This is relatively easy to fix via org charts and intranets. The trickier and more pervasive issues require a different perspective, something more akin to that of an anthropologist trying to understand the different “tribes” within your organisation – how they think, how they behave and how they like to work.

  • In terms of organisation and culture, create a shared language between the different teams and departments. In doing so, always try to use the language that customers use – how do they classify your business and your services?
  • Recognise the importance of knowledge and listening to others. Give your people some “slack” so that they have the time to observe different realities, to really talk to, and understand the different populations in the organisation.
  • Consider how you encourage people to share information, and whether you are taking steps to make it easy for them to be introduced at the right time.
  • Workplace technologies can definitely help but they also have their limitations – a cautionary tale can be workflow management tools that, if only adopted by one team, have the potential to make us more tribal and to create even more established silos.

Overall, we need to accept that mental silos are part of being human. We must acknowledge that they will always exist and establish teams (of both generalists and specialists) that are on the lookout for them. Then we are on the right path to creating the connected organisations required to deliver connected experiences.

To think big, agencies must think broad