Marketing Specialist or Generalist – Which do You Need?

One of my favorite business writers, Bob Bly, published an intriguing article in an October, 2015 newsletter on the topic of whether a marketing generalist or specialist is preferable. Bly opened his article as follows:

Robert Heinlein, the great science fiction writer, despised the idea of specialization. “Specialization is for insects,” wrote Heinlein. “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly.”

I think I will skip the parts about setting bones, pitching manure and dying gallantly (at least for the next few decades) but I have some thoughts about whether you need a generalist or specialist when it comes to marketing. For one thing, I agree with Mr. Bly about how the explosion of data and new technologies makes it much harder to be a good generalist. But I would argue that a generalist has advantages because he or she understands every function, at least to some degree – and this ensures that you have a better chance of recommending the right mix of media and techniques.

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One of the problems with marketing specialists is that they tend to revert to their area of expertise (like the proverbial man with a hammer that sees everything as a nail).  But of course there are advantages to working with specialists, particularly if the specialization is in the specific domain of your company. For example, a B2B marketer who spent a decade or more in the enterprise software industry will have more value to you than someone with equivalent experience in consumer goods marketing – if you happen to be an enterprise software company.  Also, if your business model is based on inbound marketing, a person with strong online marketing skills can be quite helpful.

Perhaps the best option is to hire a marketing generalist who has a couple of identified areas of specialization that are most relevant to how you attract prospects and sell new customers.  If you have a solid generalist on board, you can outsource the critical skills you lack, often at a better rate than hiring internal personnel. In fact, you can outsource the entire marketing operations to a marketing-as-a-service (MaaS) company.

By the way, in my own case, I am considered to be an overall B2B marketing generalist who is very strong in a few key areas; strategic alignment, business modeling, lead-to-revenue, pull marketing, content marketing – and fair in a few other areas like public relations and pay-per-click marketing. This seems to serve my clients well and I am fortunate to have a great team to fill in any needed specialization gaps. You no doubt have your own unique set of skills that can be enhanced with outside specialists.

Christopher Ryan
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  • Mark Suthers November 12, 2015   Reply →

    Great article Chris. I think that specialists are great for their expertise, but you want to have a marketing manager that is a generalist.

  • Jack Scott December 1, 2015   Reply →

    I would prefer Marketing Specialist as they are the ones which gives us in-depth idea about the promotions of the product. Many other things are well explanatory by them.

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