Why Marketing’s Love Affair with Specialists Must End

Four Ways Marketers can strike a balance between Generalists vs. Specialists

Why Marketing’s Love Affair with Specialists Must End
Photo by Marah Bashir / Unsplash

The CMO of a Telecommunications company recently shared her frustration over available talent for general media roles that had been sitting vacant for six months. All the while, specialists had been getting picked off from her team because their skills were in such high demand. When it finally came time to fill a data scientist position, there were none to be found.

“I’m fighting for good talent and losing because I need to be prepared to pay a premium right now of about $20-30K above our top rates,” the CMO said. “We have to go back and redefine the role with HR and leadership.”

She is not alone. Many CMOs are struggling to retain staff and talent at a time when so-called quiet quitting is giving growing voice to employee discontent and job dissatisfaction is at an all-time high, according to Gallup’s State of the Global Workforce report.

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‍At the same time, marketing is growing more complex and increasingly requires specialized knowledge, particularly in digital marketing. Many marketers recognize that they have capability gaps among their staff and have become convinced that the only way to get closer to the customer is to own and control a specific customer-facing capability or channel (e.g., social media, DTC). This has led to an over-reliance on specialists and a short sighted view which CMOs may simply overlook the long-term downside of having too many direct reports focused on just one thing.

All of this speaks to marketing’s growing imbalance between generalists and specialists—a problem that at first glance may seem theoretical but is actually at the root cause of many brands’ real struggles to achieve organic growth. Eighty percent of marketers believe silos prevent them from having a comprehensive view of campaigns and customers across channels, which in turn enables dysfunction between teams and ultimately stagnant growth.

‍While there are cyclical aspects to the trend, there are steps that marketers can take now to reboot the organization and fix this imbalance over the long term.

‍Focus less on ownership, more on Real Teams

Mirroring the issues exposed by a lack of Real Teams, individuals with overly specialized roles typically spend way too much time in meetings, communicate chiefly amongst themselves and are paralyzed by a lack of decision-making power or cannot move their idea through the organization effectively. While generalist are not usually in the best position to ideate, create or bring the deep thinking only a specialist can, at the same time a generalist can play an important role to insulate a specialist from unnecessary burdens, translate business jargon into actionable insights and even elevate solutions from a siloed opportunity into a broader business platform that allows a specialist to thrive.

‍CMOs should focus less on the amount of individual capabilities within his or her direct ownership and more on creating highly functioning Real Teams. That process requires stepping back from the needs of a specific discipline and asking yourself, where do I place my big bets with time and talent so that we can grow together as an organization?

‍Stop over hiring, start upskilling

Recognizing you have gaps in your capabilities is very common, but be careful not to over staff too quickly without fully understanding your long-term needs. Grow the capabilities that are essential to the core of your business. Canva, for example, is all about offering design to its end user, so naturally a large internal design team is critical to meeting speed to market and differentiation of product, as compared with a DTC beauty company that can hire those services through a third-party partner and focus on strong demand generation and digital marketing expertise instead.

‍It is critically important to invest in people and build capabilities in-house that drive a competitive advantage in your industry. This might mean you can stop at “digital marketer” and not go so deep as to bring in a specialist for display ads, another for SEO, another for social media and so on. It is recommended to ask yourself, how can I build the right teams with the optimal mix of people who know enough about the topic to advise me but are also connected to the rest of the business?

‍Moreover, hiring too deep in one or more areas of specialization leads to islands of workers who become far too removed from the core of the brand or product and can often leave these specialists with little room for growth or development. Instead, think about who within your talent is open to learning new things, wants to take on expanded scope or be upskilled so that cross-functional career development can take place.

‍Unlock the value of an ‘integrator’ role

Creating a better balance between generalists and specialists does not require a commitment to an organizational redesign up front. But it does require you to find the right mindset and a talent that can blend art and science—thinking and doing, making and managing—in favor of deeper integration and connection across teams.

‍ An “integrator” position can be an easy addition to help bridge the gap, for example, between disparate marketing roles. For example, an integrated marketing and communications expert could bring together specialists on media and creative teams, providing collaboration tools and guidance that help each side better understand the other’s objectives, work more effectively together and improve their collective output.

‍Find the right partner set

No two companies will have the exact same proportion of generalists and specialists. Each company has to take time to really think about what it is selling to customers and needs to outpace the competition in order to identify what can be outsourced to partners.

‍Marketers are often better served by going to an agency or freelancer to acquire select digital and creative skills. Agencies can skill up faster than a big company because they can hire and fire faster and service more than one client. They can build bigger teams with a deeper bench and more resources. And they have access to the best talent because those individuals will be able to perfect their craft and grow across different brands and experiences.

‍In Recap

The reality is that both generalists and specialists have important roles to play in a successful marketing organization. A good generalist is skilled at communicating big ideas across disparate teams, naturally sees the big picture and is highly collaborative. A specialist is an expert at his or her designated craft bringing to the team the latest and freshest thinking and ideas to push the team forward as a leader in their space.

‍The ultimate test is to challenge everyone on the team to have accountability in the deliverables and the outputs they oversee. This will keep skills developing, engagement high and your team operating like a best-in-class marketing organization.

Why Marketing’s Love Affair with Specialists Must End – Advertising Week