Why Marketing’s Love Affair with Specialists Must End

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Four ways marketers can strike a balance between Generalists vs. Specialists

By Stephanie Eaddy, Senior Director, Black Glass

CMOs are grappling with a growing imbalance between generalists and specialists—a problem that may seem theoretical but is actually at the root cause of many brands’ real struggles to achieve organic growth.

On one hand, CMOs are struggling to retain talent at a time when quiet quitting is giving growing voice to employee discontent and job dissatisfaction is at an all-time high.

At the same time, marketing is growing more complex and increasingly requires specialized knowledge, particularly in digital marketing.

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

1. 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 amongst themselves and struggle to move their ideas through the organization effectively. While generalists are not usually in the best position to bring the deep thinking only a specialist can, they can play an important role in insulating specialists from unnecessary burdens, translating business jargon into actionable insights and even elevating solutions into broader business platforms.

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

2. Stop over hiring, start upskilling

Recognizing you have gaps in your capabilities is 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, as compared to a DTC beauty company that can hire those services through a third-party partner and focus on demand generation and digital marketing expertise.

It is important to invest in people that drive a competitive advantage. 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.

Hiring too deep in areas of specialization leads to islands of workers who become far too removed from the core of the brand or product. Instead, think about who is open to learning new things  or wants to take on expanded scope so that cross-functional career development can take place.

3. Unlock the value of an ‘integrator’ role

Creating a better balance between generalists and specialists does not require an organizational redesign. 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, an integrated marketing and communications expert could bring together specialists on media and creative teams, providing collaboration tools and guidance that help each side work more effectively together and improve collective output.

4. Find the right partner set

No two companies will have the 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. 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.

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 craft, bringing the latest and freshest thinking to push the team forward.

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