In the marketing industry, the debate between being a jack-of-all-trades or a master of one is perennial. This discussion is vital for anyone in the marketing industry, particularly those in leadership roles like CMOs.
Often, in an era where people praise specialization as the key to success, many underestimate the value of being a generalist. But why is this so? “We need to be generalists in a world of specialists,” my friend and author of the “Adam’s Letter” newsletter, Adam Vazquez, recently opined. This statement, though seemingly counterintuitive, holds a profound truth.
Fragmentation and focus: The unstoppable wave of marketing specialization
Like many other sectors, marketing has seen a marked increase in specialization, driven largely by rapid technological advancements. Specialists face several challenges when collaborating, according to a 2021 study by Woo, Pierce and Treem. They stress the need for effective communication strategies to bridge gaps between specialized areas.
Taylor Bryant, CMO at agency Mythic, concurs that these factors have “accelerated” the movement, not initiated it. He underscores the inherent fragmentation in the marketing field and the consistent demand for the “tactic du jour,” which further amplifies the need for specialists.
Michelle Taite, Global CMO at Intuit Mailchimp, echoes this sentiment, emphasizing the dynamic nature of the marketing industry. “Marketing is a constantly changing industry that creates space for generalists to really thrive. The best generalists grow from specialists and getting to that level takes dedication to continuous learning, adaptability and a genuine passion for marketing,” she notes.
Marketers with a clear area of expertise are nearly three times more likely to experience significant annual revenue boosts compared to those who haven’t specialized their offerings. This finding, from Mailchimp & Co’s 2023 Benchmark Report, underscores the tangible benefits of specialization in the marketing realm.
Seasoned fractional CMO Kristin Gallucci offers a unique perspective on this trend. The marketing industry has oscillated between periods favoring generalists and specialists. In times of budget constraints and rising demand for performance-driven roles, generalists may seem disadvantaged. However, a skilled generalist possesses the knowledge to focus on specific disciplines when necessary, proving invaluable in the rapidly evolving technological landscape.
While specialization is foundational in marketing, its domains have expanded significantly, Alex Beal, CMO at Wipro Digital, observes. With the rise of digital marketing, AI and analytics, these new areas complement traditional specializations such as brand management and advertising.
Gaining hands-on experience across various mediums (including paid search, programmatic media, web analytics and SEO) is crucial, notes Brian Reilly, senior manager of digital marketing at medical technologies corporation Stryker. “I’ve honed my skill to know enough to get small projects done myself, but also know when to call in the big guns. Having even a basic understanding helps me liaise with SMEs that I can call in on a project,” he shares. He likens the role of a digital generalist to that of a general contractor in construction, tying together different elements to create a cohesive whole.
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The renaissance marketer: How generalists shape success
Enter the generalist. A generalist understands various marketing disciplines, from content creation and search engine optimization (SEO) to social media management and data analysis. This comprehensive knowledge allows them to see the bigger picture and understand how different elements of a marketing strategy can work together to achieve a common goal.
Drawing from the insights of Woo, Pierce and Treem, generalists use their broad knowledge to communicate effectively with specialists, ensuring that different areas of expertise are combined effectively.
Bryant emphasizes that successful generalists must be deeply committed to understanding various marketing disciplines and recognize when to invite a specialist to the conversation.
Taite sheds light on the evolution of a generalist, stating, “Specialists have the ability to understand the intricacies and nuances of specific areas, which is why specialists who morph into generalists are ideal; able to see the bigger picture and also appreciate the challenges and thought processes of expert teams.”
She believes that beginning one’s career in various specialist roles prepares individuals to handle diverse marketing challenges effectively when transitioning to a generalist role. This experience allows them to connect dots others might overlook, offering a unique perspective that fosters collaboration amongst diverse teams.
Beal suggests that this journey often begins with specializing in a specific area and building a reputation. Then, expanding one’s knowledge base to cover secondary areas of specialization, ultimately assuming more of a generalist role in senior marketing leadership.
Staying relevant and adaptable in the marketing industry is a must, Matt Sudol, the head of digital marketing at Tata Consultancy Services, highlights. This isn’t about chasing the newest gimmick but understanding how evolving trends impact our business and consumer engagement.
He adds, “As a generalist, understanding what the specialists are special in and how that fits in the overall dynamic marketing mix is more important. The goal is gaining a wherewithal of the gestalt.”
The generalist’s role is crucial in today’s ever-changing marketing landscape. As Gallucci puts it, “The adaptability of a generalist is highly valuable as we delve further into AI. The depth and scope of the digital tools available to marketers in 2023 are insurmountable (see Scott Brinker’s Marketing Technology Landscape that has grown by 7200% since 2011) for any marketer.”
They must be ready to integrate new trends, technologies and strategies, ensuring your marketing efforts remain practical, effective and relevant.
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The art of equilibrium: Harmonizing generalists and specialists in marketing
However, the choice isn’t about being a generalist or a specialist. It’s about finding the right balance. Specialization allows you to delve deep into a specific area, providing valuable insights and expertise. Conversely, generalization enables you to adapt to changes, see the bigger picture and combine different elements in a cohesive strategy. Woo et al.’s research suggests that generalists and specialists play crucial roles in collaboration.
Jerry Bernhart, principal at Bernhart Associates Executive Search LLC, appreciates the merits of both paths. He notes that marketing professionals are often eager to learn as much as possible at the onset of their careers, giving them a broad knowledge base. As they progress in their careers, they naturally gravitate toward distinct areas of specialization that they enjoy and excel at.
Bernhart also recognizes that only some aspire to become a “Swiss army knife” marketer. Some prefer to specialize and become highly sought-after experts in their chosen areas. He emphasizes, “Not everyone aspires to become what I call a ‘Swiss army knife.’ Some want to be one or a few of the fold-out tools in that knife and become a sought-after specialist in those functions. There is plenty of room and plenty of opportunity for both.” What a great analogy.
The secret sauce of successful marketing: A blend of depth and breadth
For a CMO building a marketing team, the decision isn’t merely about hiring generalists or specialists. It’s about understanding the unique strengths each brings to the table. A well-rounded marketing team harnesses specialists’ in-depth expertise and the versatile breadth of generalists to excel in a constantly evolving landscape. Studies like that of Woo, Pierce and Treem highlight the synergistic advantages of integrating both roles effectively.
As a marketing leader, understanding the balance between generalists and specialists in your team is crucial. Reflect on your team’s current composition. Assess the blend of generalists and specialists, identify skill gaps and determine if upcoming marketing projects require a generalist’s broad perspective or a specialist’s nuanced expertise.
Undertaking this assessment will enable you to address shortcomings in your team’s skill set, promoting stronger collaboration and setting the stage for cohesive and effective marketing strategies.
Encourage your team to embrace their roles as generalists or specialists and promote a culture of collaboration, mutual learning and leveraging individual strengths. This approach will nurture a vibrant, adaptable team atmosphere and fortify your marketing initiatives with a potent mix of wide-ranging insights and focused expertise.
In the diverse marketing landscape, generalists (“jack-of-all-trades”) and specialists (masters of one) have crucial roles. As a marketing leader, it’s vital to maintain a harmonious balance between the two, as this equilibrium can significantly influence your strategic decisions and the overall success of your campaigns.
Regularly evaluate the mix of generalists and specialists in your team. Address skill gaps, promote collaboration and ensure each member understands their role. The effectiveness of your strategies and your team’s success depends on maintaining this balance.
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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.