Step aside, specialist: return of the marketing generalist

As more specialized marketing roles began to emerge, a generalist became viewed as a “jack of all trades,” excelling at nothing. But the tide is finally turning.

Step aside, specialist: return of the marketing generalist

Over the past decade or so, marketing has become ultra-specialized.

Everyone in every marketing department seems to be dedicated to one particular channel or task. Job titles like “Google display marketing specialist” and “email marketing manager—retention” have become common, particularly within larger enterprises. It’s understandable, given how many channels have emerged in recent years, but is it ideal?

Recent thinking put many people in charge of many channels—and created our current “silo” problems. But beyond the lack of communication between teams that results from this approach, one has to question: Does it make financial sense to put a person or team in charge of each channel? And from the marketer’s perspective, how does limiting a role to a single channel impact long-term career goals, and dare I say, happiness?

For those of us who began our careers as generalists, which many of us in Generation X did, it all seems a little ridiculous. If you began your marketing career in sales, or as an assistant, or in editing, or wherever—and ended up in the marketing department, chances are you spent a good deal of your career wearing many hats. You may have been the entire marketing department. From designing magazine ads in PowerPoint to writing direct mail pieces (and bagging them up yourself!), from creating the sales decks and organizing events to writing press releases and balancing the marketing budget, many marketers of a certain age have done literally every single thing a marketing department does.

One could argue that these marketers are the most valuable because they truly see the “big picture” and understand how all the pieces of a marketing plan fit together. They comprehend the costs, the ROI, and the impact to the bottom line. These marketers, if they’re successful, also share one common, essential skill: They can write. They can communicate the story a brand needs to tell in clear, concise language, and in the words that matter to a consumer or business decision maker.

Yet somehow, these marketers lost their place in the marketing world as more specialized roles began to emerge. A generalist became viewed as a “jack of all trades,” excelling at nothing, as roles emerged for SEO specialists and directors of programmatic. As the siloed marketing department emerged, with every marketer heads-down over their little piece of the work, the holistic approach to marketing fizzled out.

The tide is finally turning, though. (And startups clearly are on the cutting edge if you consider most have a single person marketing department.) For years, articles have been written about breaking down the silos and creating a seamless customer experience. To achieve that, the generalist must resurface. The challenge might be that the generalist in question is one who has had to stay educated. The Gen X generalists will have to educate themselves on social, mobile, and other new and emerging channels. (If they have, they’ll probably quickly see how it can support a program that includes a broader media strategy.) The Gen Y generalist (if they exist) will have to gain an understanding of print media, the value of direct mail, and why live events and linear broadcast media still matter.

Ensuring these generalists get the education they need will benefit both the company and the individual marketer. The company stands to gain a much better marketer who understands the big picture, and who can see how one program can fit into a broader corporate strategy. It will also gain a more invested employee, one who feels like they are making a difference and positively impacting the company. This marketer will be capable of contributing valuable ideas for growth and improvement. Additionally, with a sense of continued personal growth as well as a sense that they’re helping drive results, this marketer is likely to stay with the company longer.

And this is someone you’ll want to keep longer. The generalist with great storytelling skills can bring tremendous value to any organization. In a field that changes direction monthly, they adapt quickly and stay one step ahead of evolution. They know they have to keep learning, and they’re willing and eager to do it.

Are you one of these marketers? Ask yourself what you’ve learned in the past six months. If you can’t think of anything, start looking for courses to take. (I took one in May via Harvard Business School’s online education program.) Stay open-minded. Stay malleable. Complacency has zero place in marketing today. Keep your skills fresh so you can keep improving yourself and add value to your organization.