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December 11, 2019

By: John Wells, President, RAPP LA/Dallas

Our marketing world — and our world in general — have become infinitely more complicated from decades past and grow more complicated every day. New tech and new consumer experiences spring eternal. In a reaction to that, marketing has become increasingly specialized, with job positions granularly focusing on one technology or one vertical. But where are the marketing generalists, those who can span these areas of expertise and sew them all together to ensure they’re effective? And what separates a marketing generalist versus a specialist?

First, let’s consider what a marketing generalist is. It’s someone with ability to demonstrate multiple skills, a value that has gotten lost over time. Generalism goes unrecognized as marketing and advertising job descriptions — targeted to disciplines within technology, marketing sciences, UX, product development, and more — proliferate in increasingly ultra-specific ways. As new channels have emerged, new positions focusing exclusively on those channels have arisen and grown, leaving agencies open to potentially building one disparate team after another.

Specialists can serve to nurture focus, but they also risk contributing to creative myopia. Those who excel in their disciplines are extremely valuable assets, with their ability to gain depth of expertise and keep up with the ever-changing world of marketing and business. But agencies should not overlook the individual who can understand multiple skills and apply them adeptly. It’s important for agencies to both focus on the skills needed to evolve their businesses and solve their clients’ problems, as well as to see those problems through the right mix of depth and vision. If you can find and nurture the marketing generalists who can do the latter, they’ll play a key role in the success of your organization and clients.

A Specialist By Any Other Name

In some ways, a marketing generalist is just a specialist by another name — only the specialty is making the big-picture connections across the broader marketing plan, dissolving the negative effects of silos, and improving the customer experience. Workers who have depth in multiple areas but also the skill to see how it all fits together can be invaluable assets. These generalists have the knowledge necessary to understand the many facets of marketing, from analytics to strategic insights to business application.

When a great marketing generalist is in action, the organization and its clients benefit in several ways. A generalist can foster collaboration and leadership across disciplines, translating how various disciplines come together in order to develop a solution to a business or marketing challenge. A marketing generalist also can broadly apply different disciplines to a client’s business to forge better solutions. Generalists are the ones who understand not only what is needed, but also when and why, because they put the team’s work into the broader picture of the customer’s experience.

Generalists are also those in the organization who challenge conventional thinking and contribute new perspectives to a problem. Without being beholden to any particular discipline or perspective, a generalist can scan across the team to find solutions using a more holistic approach. At the same time, this effort to connect the teams can benefit the entire collaborative culture of an organization by encouraging its members to seek novel points of view and remain open to different avenues of thought.

How to Generate a Marketing Generalist

Looking for ways to gain a more comprehensive view of your team’s solutions across channels? Here’s how a company can begin to identify, nurture, and support a marketing generalist on its team:

  1. Look for well-rounded solutions to challenges.
    Identify the talent who will provide suggestions that span outside their own disciplines. They are naturally inclined to collaborate and look to other areas for influences and inspiration into the work at hand. 
  2. Give them multidimensional challenges.
    Don't just give potential generalists tasks to complete; give them complex problems to solve. See how they handle complexity — how they pull in information and resources from multiple sources, how they organize the problem in order to create a solution — to identify a generalist in the making.
  3. Get them involved outside their area of expertise. 
    Provide generalist talent with opportunities and exposure to different areas within the organization. Challenge them to lead other teams, not just the team they are on. A successful generalist will gravitate toward opportunities for leadership, organization, and management, and will show cross-disciplinary strengths in interpreting data, creating interpersonal connections, and determining priorities according to the team’s larger goals
  4. Expose others in the organization to the talent. 
    Develop a culture in which ideas and thoughts can come from anywhere, not just each discipline. Generalists tend to be curious; they will explore and learn on their own. Identify this trait and provide those people with the opportunities to learn.
  5. Keep them stimulated and inspired.
    At RAPP, we keep our talent inspired by giving them the resources to work on projects and efforts that spark their passions. To keep people inspired, don’t just confine team members to a single set of objectives; give them the latitude to learn and grow their talent. Enable and cultivate the variety that generalists crave and that helps them thrive long-term.

Marketing specialists have become agencies’ recruiting focus, while marketing generalists have become associated with startups’ jack-of-all-trades approach. The truth is, successful marketing operations need insights and perspectives from both.

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