Are generalists better than specialists in Digital?

I am a generalist. I have no shame in saying it. My fellow consultants in Digital Rehab tend to be more specialists. But, having owned and run a number of successful digital agencies, I have seen the pendulum swing back and forth between the need for marketers to be specialists or generalists.

An alarming number of clients have recently asked me whether there is more value to them in resourcing a digital marketing team with generalist skills or specific/specialist skills. While my answer is nearly always bespoke to the needs, culture and conditions of each client, there is increasingly a need for generalists to provide a holistic view and plan to inform projects, campaigns and marketing services with the macro perspective in mind.

Generalists tend to have a broad range of skills and experience across a range of disciplines, industry sectors, commercialisation models etc within their chosen field, while specialists invest time and effort in becoming the go-to person or ‘subject matter expert’ in a certain niche. For example, a marketing generalist may have experience across multiple sectors along with transferrable skills; a specialist would know everything there is to know about affiliate or email marketing – that is a particular and very specific facet within the broader digital landscape.

Now, please understand I am not writing off the value of specialists but with tech moving as quickly as it is with a multitude of new platforms being continually released, the danger is if specialists are in senior leadership positions – they won’t likely have the skills necessary to pan out and properly appraise the context and broader environment in business.

Abroad in Silicon Valley, employers wage wars for much coveted technical specialists so there is huge demand for specialists too.

My opinion however is that one key aspect sorely missing in marketing departments is the skill to plan, strategise and procure specialist services to deliver meaningful results. What I have witnessed is either too many subject matter experts all bumping heads against eachother – particularly when mandated to work on an ‘integrated’ campaign which sees that each of them have to harmonise their views and output. Or the opposite, there are too many inexperienced marketers who lack any well honed generalist or specialists skills and accordingly to compensate, they outsource far more than they need to and pay more than they should.

I read an interesting comment somewhere recently that said something like this: generalists will thrive in a culture where it’s becoming increasingly valuable to know a little bit about a lot. Meaning that business, if led by generalists will naturally be more adaptive in their engagement of specialists based on the need for them to deliver output in an ever-changing workplace environment.

This is a view reinforced by Carter Phipps, author of Evolutionaries having said:

“We’ve become so focused on specialisation, but just as there are truths that can only be found as a specialist, there are truths that can only be revealed by a generalist who can weave these ideas in the broader dynamic environments.”

Senior project managers will tell you nowadays, that demands on them and their roles require them to continually balance and deploy a range of skills – one day a business analyst, next a solution architect, strategist, designer, tester etc.

So, will be see a surge in Generalists?

I think we will, and I hope we will. Generalists help to frame up a body of work then go about methodologically planning and overseeing its delivery. Specialists are required to fill gaps and bring in capability where that capability/expertise is not known or had by a generalist and or his/her team.

About the Author

Alisdair Blackman has been both a specialist and now generalist digital marketer for over 18 years. Having run a number of agencies he now is committed to consulting clients to partner with them and to ensure projects, campaigns, strategies, plans and budgets are effectively devised and delivered.

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