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.

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.

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Christopher Ryan

Christopher Ryan has 25 years of marketing, technology, and senior management experience. As both a marketing executive and services provider, Chris has created and executed numerous programs that build market awareness, drive lead generation and increase revenue.
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2 comments

  • 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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