Let’s play “What’s your niche?” Or maybe not

Excellent advice on specialisation from David Ogilvy and Ian Brodie – and two mistakes to avoid

One question pops up constantly – especially from people getting started.

It is, “should I specialize?”

A copywriter asked me this the other day, and I’ll tell you what worked from me in a minute, but David Ogilvy’s advice was simple.

He said “Be a generalist, but become a specialist.” Or maybe it was the other way round – it amounts to the same thing.

My friend Ian Brodie tells this story which explains why. He was working for one of my former clients, Gemini Consulting.

He was lucky because his personal mentor was a very able man who rose to
to become worldwide head of Marketing and Business Development for Gemini. Here’s the story:

“I remember very clearly a discussion I had with him a few years into my career.

We were reviewing my performance appraisal for that year. I’d kind of hit my stride – had done really well and got great reviews. I was feeling pretty pleased with myself, so I wasn’t expecting Kieron’s question:

“OK, that’s all fine. But what do you want to be famous for?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, so far you’ve done a bit of everything. Strategy, marketing, supply chain work, change management. What are you going to focus on?”

“Can’t I keep doing a bit of everything? I like the variety.”

“Not if you want to progress. You might have been the star in your previous company – but everyone is a star here. Everyone is a high performer.

Unless you focus and really build up your skills, there’ll always be someone better than you at each of the things you do. You’ll never be the first choice when a project manager has a role to fill.”

My own career has been a bit odd, because I was quite successful when young –  creative director of a medium sized London Ad agency by 28 – but catastrophically unsuccessful 6 years later when my business went broke for a fearful amount of money.

For seven years I lived under an assumed name to avoid the tax man and did almost anything and everything to make money, partly because I had a very expensive wife.

I sold investments in malt whisky on the phone. I was a freelance creative director, speech writer, copywriter, marketing director, created video presentations, banged out parts of books about everything you can imagine from cowboys to Bugatti cars.

To give you an idea, two days ago a professor at London University wrote to get my permission to use something I wrote about the world’s weather patterns in 1977.

I was forced to do everything that involved communication. I HAD to be a generalist.

You name it, if it involved selling or writing or pictures I did it. Swimming pool franchises in France and Germany, fake Chagal paintings in Australia, how outside broadcasts are made, how the TV news is produced – I even wrote and directed a film about property in Spain

I am lucky in that I love to learn. If I don’t know about something, I want to – and the more obscure the better.

If you don’t love to learn, your brain will atrophy, you will become a bore to others and yourself, and you will fail as a human being.

I am also lucky in that I find people fascinating. If you don’t, then you’re going to find it hard to get them to do what you want.

And if you can’t get people to do what you want, you’re going to spend a lot of time feeling extremely frustrated. You will spend your life doing what other people want you to do – not what you want to do.

But let’s go back to the beginning of all this.

Ian’s story explains why it pays to specialize.

But it is just as important to be a generalist. I was forced to. But the benefit of understanding everything, as far as possible, is simple. You understand why you are doing what you are doing. You understand why it matters to other people – and who those people are.

Otherwise you are like a mole, burrowing away in your own little tunnel, but knowing nothing of the great world around you.

About the Author


In 2003, the Chartered Institute of Marketing named Drayton one of 50 living individuals who have shaped today’s marketing.

He has worked in 55 countries with many of the world’s greatest brands. These include American Express, Audi, Bentley, British Airways, Cisco, Columbia Business School, Deutsche Post, Ford, IBM, McKinsey, Mercedes, Microsoft, Nestle, Philips, Procter & Gamble, Toyota, Unilever, Visa and Volkswagen.

Drayton has helped sell everything from Airbus planes to Peppa Pig. His book, Commonsense Direct and Digital Marketing, out in 17 languages, has been the UK’s best seller on the subject every year since 1982. He has also run his own businesses in the U.K., Portugal and Malaysia.

He was a main board member of the Ogilvy Group, a founding member of the Superbrands Organisation, one of the first eight Honorary Fellows of the Institute of Direct Marketing and one of the first three people named to the Hall of Fame of the Direct Marketing Association of India. He has also been given Lifetime Achievement Awards by the Caples Organisation in New York and Early To Rise in Florida.

1 Comment

  1. Yes, so very true. Also, very reassuring to read that you have done everything before focusing more on a niche and also that Ian liked the variety before he too became the go to expert. I still have too many niches but I love them all 🙂

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