We’re all familiar with the warning against having too many interests: “Jack of all trades, master of none.”
However, businesses are becoming more interdisciplinary, research is crossing domains, and people with hybrid job titles such as data journalists, financial marketers, and creative technologists are now highly relevant to the digital economy.
Perhaps being a jack of all trades is really a compliment!
Who is a polymath?
A polymath is a person whose interests and knowledge capabilities span multiple disciplines. He or she draws on disparate fields to generate new insights, and leverages upon the best human discoveries to enhance their own understanding of a problem or phenomenon.
Beyond diving into multiple fields of study, a polymath draws connections across domains. In academics, no one studied sociology and biology together until Edward O. Wilson saw connections between the two and pioneered a new field called sociobiology, which explains social behavior in terms of evolution.
Newton, Galileo, Da Vinci, and Aristotle are known as classic polymaths. Polymaths celebrated today include Jack Ma, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk.
Steve Jobs integrated art, technology and business. He saw that the smartphones of the time were poorly designed, and transformed it into a commodity coveted for its aesthetic and usability.
What kind of talent are hiring managers looking for?
Today, hiring managers are seeking candidates with traits such as adaptability, proactiveness, and savviness. HR seeks talent who can face staggering technological changes. Some call them “cross-functional,” others call them “multihyphenates”.
Companies such as GitHub, Spotify, and Slack recognize the untapped potential of the “multipotentialite” polymath, and recruit generalists and train them, matching roles to their emerging human strengths.
Why are polymaths highly suitable for marketing roles?
Despite growing publicity surrounding the polymath in big companies (Tesla, Apple, and Patagonia), polymaths have yet to gain fame in the marketing industry.
- They can grapple with rapid change in the marketing landscape.
- As a marketer, they can facilitate marketing-business integration.
- They can apply a fundamental understanding of human nature to marketing.
1. Polymaths can deal with rapid change in the marketing landscape.
The confusing exchange of martech buzzwords and launch of new ad platforms in today’s marketing landscape demands that we become comfortable with learning and unlearning. Polymaths gravitate to this prospect of continual learning and venturing into unfamiliar territory.
Change in the marketing landscape is multidisciplinary in nature. Take semantic search engine optimisation as an example. Marketers will eventually need to go beyond traditional SEO to comprehend entity relationships and structured data, to fully tap into the potential of semantic technologies in marketing.
An openness and genuine interest in fields beyond marketing better equips a polymath to navigate the evolving marketing space.
Traditionally regarded as a creative, right-brained activity, the scope of marketing has evolved with the rise of data and analytics. A successful marketer has to develop a “centre-brain” mentality to be able to balance data-driven initiatives and creativity.
A centre-brain marketer can draw connections between the two, thus championing data-led creativity.
For example, as part of a campaign, Uber visualized thousands of data points from its riders to create a hyper-personalised ad. These ranged from journey locations, times, and durations, right through to city-specific references such as sunrise, sunset, and weather conditions.
Uber overlaid this data with local cultural nuances for events such as Ramadan, Lunar New Year, and the Formula One Grand Prix.
2. Polymaths can integrate marketing and business.
To become a good marketer, one needs to first and foremost understand business. In the words of management consultant Peter Drucker (1909-2005):
“Because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two–and only two–basic functions: marketing and innovation.”
The fallacious incorporation of marketing as an operation under business contradicts the idea that customer-centricity is a core business value.
Instead of regarding marketing as a function of business, marketers worldwide are beginning to view marketing as the distinguishing function of a business.
According to Deloitte (2018), marketers are increasingly valued for having an enterprise-wide strategic influence, one of the top factors viewed as driving CMO success.
In order to communicate the value of marketing insights across enterprises, marketers should be able to assimilate knowledge from various domains of business. In other words, marketers need to speak the language of their peers in other departments (financial, sales, talent, IT, etc) to make marketing make sense.
For instance, if a CMO cannot translate customer-centric initiatives to financial outputs such as profit margins and shareholder value (common language of the CFO and the CEO), the CMO’s agenda may be ignored. Polymaths, who make good collaborators and empathetic communicators, are ideal initiators of marketing-business integration.
3. They possess a fundamental understanding of human nature, which is crucial to marketing.
Beyond the flurry of tactics, marketing’s fundamental strategic responsibility is understanding the customer and human nature. At the business level, marketers should be fervent advocates of the customer, steering meetings towards customer-centricity and empathy.
We can learn a lot about human truth from different disciplines. The economics of decision-making explains how cost-benefit balances affect an individual’s choices. The sociology of symbolic interactionism situates such individual decision-making in the context of larger cultural players. The biology of epidemic viruses simulates how ideas might become viral. A polymath who can appreciate diverse perspectives on the same marketing problem will be able to productively frame a complex issue before solving it.
Diana Santos, digital product strategist, designer, and manager at Intelia remarked on the creative process: “Creativity is nothing but the way to solve new problems.” Isaac Kaplan too reports from a Human Brain Mapping journal study, “creativity is the product of reduced control over what is happening inside of your mind, leading you to entertain new ideas and think more fluidly.”
Polymaths fervently expand the inventory of concepts and things they can connect, and actually enjoy doing so! Against the growing demand for marketers who can assimilate expertise across different fields, it is fitting to reassess the time-dishonored advisory against having too many interests.
Perhaps these jacks of all trades might be the answer to Asian marketers’ talent-sourcing woes.
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