The Blacksmith and The Economist

I’d like to start, as one does, with The Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th Century.

(no, don’t worry, not all of it… just a bit)

The Scottish Enlightenment was an 18th Century intellectual movement, ranging across the fields of philosophy, chemistry, geology, architecture, poetry, engineering, technology, economics, sociology, medicine and history.

The ideas and advances that stemmed from The Scottish Enlightenment helped forge the world as we know it today.

Central to the Enlightenment was what David Hume (philosopher, historian, economist and essayist) called the development of a ‘science of man’.

This merged a scientific study of how humans behave in ancient and primitive cultures with a strong awareness of the determining forces of modernity

Which to us, who’ve been at the heart of an industry savaged by the forces of modernity, surely sounds like something we should undertake. More than ever, we cannot use the beliefs and tools of the immediate past to frame where our future lies.

The opportunity currently described as ‘social media’ shows our desperation perhaps to frame things in familiar, comfortable terms. But it is about far more than another media buy, or channel to be plumbed into the marketing mix.

It is more than new and improved tools, it is more than better measurement and specific targeting.

It is about being human. It is about being part of communities. It is about helping our clients learn to be people again, not brands.

To understand this properly, we have to study how older cultures and businesses worked, the ones that existed before mass media.

Then we must frame this learning what we know about modern technological capabilities. In short, we need our own ‘Enlightenment’. We need our own new ‘science of man’.

So why hasn’t it happened already?


To help answer this, I’d like to focus on a key protagonist of the Scottish Enlightenment in particular…

Author of the Wealth of Nations, creator of ‘the invisible hand’ of market forces, Adam Smith.

Smith is considered the father of modern economic thought; his ideas helped powered the the industrial revolution at the time, and without doubt still have a huge bearing on how companies are run today.

What is of particular interest to us, a service industry, is what Smith says in book one of the Wealth of Nations, ‘The Division of Labour’.

The division of labour is a simple yet brilliant description of how to increase the productivity of a business using the same finite resources.

Smith observed that by turning each stage of a business into simple, repetitive tasks, with work being passed along a production line, a factory can produce with maximum efficiency.

For a while, the agency model was a factory in all but name.

We had clear and defined roles, and performed relatively simple repetitive tasks.

The advertising agency would make 30 seconds of film, the media agency would place it, the PR agency would gain extra coverage in the ten or so national papers…

…it was a well oiled, efficient machine.

So what happened?

Smith identified three key features which let the division of labour work; dexterity, time and technology.

Firstly, dexterity referred to the repetitive, simple nature of the work any man or woman would undertake.

If you do the same, simple thing again and again, you become better at it, and quicker at it. Your core craft skills improved, and quickly.

In agencies, whereas once we used to undertake relatively straightforward tasks which we repeated and improved, nowadays every piece of work brings new considerations, untried avenues, experimental opportunities.

Don’t get me wrong; We should always, always try to innovate and improve the things we do.

But everyone must recognise that by trying new things, we lose dexterity; it is hard to be dexterous and accomplished at something you’ve never done before.

The second of Smith’s three things is time. In his example, it was specifically the time it took to pass one phase of the work along to another.

By batch working, it’s better to pass 10,000 items once than pass an item 10,000 times.

Now, the way we used to pass work along in the agency model was very clean, very efficient. Everyone knew their place, performed their roles with the utmost efficiency.

But not now. And not just because every agency is trying to be ‘lead’ or take their place ‘at the top table’.

If you were to divide agencies up into separate entities based on today’s landscape, you wouldn’t see what we have now. The reason that everyone says “social media is our area” is because everyone’s right, it is.

So the clean lines of division are gone, and at best there’s confusion about who does what, and in the worst cases it’s open warfare. In each case, it slows the process down. But even within the walls of a single agency, passing work between departments has slowed.

Ideas are more complex, harder to define and describe, easier to get lost down the wrong track on. The simplicity with which work used to be passed through an agency has also disappeared. In an age characterised by speed, it takes us much longer to get things done.

Finally, Smith’s third essential ingredient for the division of labour to function properly; technology.

Now, we are hardly short of new technology. But Smith was referring to technology that would clearly and precisely help the factory function better.

It could come from the improvements made by the workers themselves; if you’ve ever been in a factory, you’ll have seen the cardboard and strings adjustments made by the workers who realise how to make the machine work better.

Or it could be the original designer of the machine, who on seeing Mark 1 in action will redesign Mark 2 with some extra technological advances.

Or, it may be that the people whom Smith calls “Men of Speculation” (“…whose job it is to do nothing, but observe everything…”) would come along, look at the factory in harness, and spot ways in which technology could improve the process.

Currently, given the marketing model used by clients and the agencies is largely unchanged, technology is not helping improve the process, but confound it.

Each additional piece of technology seemingly serves to confuse further, rather than increase effectiveness.


What does all this mean?

Well, in a highly competitive industry, where agencies repeatedly try and shave costs from the process, and increase the effectiveness of their factories, the key principles of the division of labour have stopped working nearly as well.

One solution, and one that some clients may find appealing, is to cleanly delineate who does what again; to reset the boundaries, and as much as possible create a pure division of labour.

And there’s perhaps something to be said for it; it may not get you the most groundbreaking work, but it will increase the speed with which it happens.

However… there’s got to be a better way, surely.

Well, here’s the thing… Smith stated that the Division of Labour did NOT work for every industry.

Take this passage…

“The nature of agriculture does not admit of so many subdivisions of labour, nor of so complete a separation of one business from another.”


Which is interesting, because more than ever, it’s harder to draw a complete separation between different parts of the agency world. Smiths continues…

“The ploughman, the harrower, the sower of the seed and the reaper of the corn are often the same. The occasions for those different sorts of labour returning with the different seasons of the year, it is impossible that one man should be constantly employed in any one of them.”

More and more, teams need to be able to follow an idea from beginning to end, rather than just play their one, single, repetitive part and drop out. Finally, Smith says:

“Country workmen are almost everywhere obliged to pay themselves to all the different branches of industry that have so much affinity to one another as to be employed about the same sort of materials”

We are all increasingly “employed about the same sorts of materials”, perhaps that is the truest part of all. The division of labour has fallen foul of the dissolution of boundaries, but that’s because the very nature of the work has changed, because the materials are all the same.

Now think about the language we use to describe the work we do… we nurture ideas, grow communities, seed campaigns, develop relationships…

…because of the very human and organic work we are now doing, we are becoming increasingly agricultural in our approach.

People from all agency backgrounds are “employed about the same sort of materials” nowadays.

The notion of the “materials” we work with is even more interesting than the ‘agricultural’ idea, though.

I believe we can actually take inspiration from another figure of Smith’s time…

…the one man in the community who would create whatever was need by the community from the raw materials of that age; the blacksmith.

The blacksmith lived and worked at the heart of every village.

He would be the provider of vital technology for the village; toolmaker, engineer, armourer, bladesmith, chainmaker, nailmaker, rivetmaker. He would help travellers get where they wanted to go; mend carts and wagons, make wheels and shoe horses, and invent countless designs of horse-drawn gear.

He would even be the horse dealer, vet, dentist, doctor… or undertaker. As his job demanded sharp intellect, numeracy skills and business sense, he would often hold important offices in the village, such as magistrate or church warden. He’d be the person to bring new technologies to the village… more often than not, most village garages were the old Blacksmith forge.

And on a practical level, a smith knew how to keep a fire going all year round, so much so that the community would rely on the smithy’s fire to roast meat and bake bread. The smith was creator and keeper of the fire at the heart of a community.

In short, the blacksmith was the original generalist, a man who would turn his hand and head to any task the community would ask of him.

Through an innate understanding of the raw materials of the age, he would innovate and forge as required. Each task a unique and specific request, a new problem looking for an effective and speedy new solution. This approach would only serve to develop his skills further with every job.

To me, it feels like we have entered a new age of smithery. But the raw materials of our age are not iron and fire, but materials like technology, connectivity, and generosity…

We must approach the modern world as the smithy would; with flexibility of thought and versatility of action.

We must once more embrace each problem we encounter for what it is, not what we wish it to resemble from our experience.

Only like this can we forge and reshape the world to meet our new expectations of it.

Can agencies really do this, though? Let’s bring this full circle to find out, and finish where we started, with the Scottish Enlightenment.


Why did the Enlightenment in Scotland happen when it did? It was a result of three things; Education, Religion and Politics.

Two centuries earlier, after the reformation, the Church in Scotland decided that everyone should be able to read the bible. From 1570 onwards, every Parish in Scotland had a school.

By the time the 18th Century comes around, Scotland has the most advanced education system in the world.

Then the Church of Scotland, previously vehemently against any new ideas, started to become more relaxed about them. After all, if you educated all these people, it’s a result of your work that they start coming up with new ideas in the first place.

Finally in 1707, with the act of Union, all Scotland’s tribal politicians upped sticks and left for Westminister. The consequence was that a scholar could promote any school of thought or idea without it being dragged to one side or another of a political debate.

What does this teach us for the agency landscape? Two things.

Well, firstly, think about the power structures; the two most powerful bodies, the politicians and the church, either got out of the way or became free and open to change and new ideas. The people who lead our agencies and agency groups must be willing to hand the destiny of their companies to the scholars, the planners, the thinkers.

The creative, cerebral forces within each agency are the best people to plot their agency.

Secondly, and most importantly, we’ve got to be as fanatical about education as the 16th century Church of Scotland…

Only by making sure that every single last one of our people is fully literate in the tools of the modern age can we hope to build an industry fit for the future.