The return of the generalist marketer
Published: 22 January 2015 By Steve Hemsley
As Marketing Week recently reported, organisations are increasingly turning to ‘generalist’ marketers who can work across all channels and have a rounded blend of skills while specialist digital skills go without saying. So is it true, and if so, what does it mean for marketers’ career and training requirements?
Marketing Week: Are generalist marketers back in demand? If so why?
Charles Allen: I doubt I would ever write a job description asking for a marketing ‘generalist’ but it is true that we do want people with a breadth of experience across different sectors and channels. I tell people not to specialise too early in their career but to put as many tools as they can into their professional tool box. They can then decide later whether to specialise.
Sally Cowdry: This is a debate that can go around in circles because it is a dynamic that is cyclical. Generalist marketers have never gone out of fashion. It is more a matter of getting the right combination of experience and skills in-house and from external agencies. This will usually depend on what the organisation is trying to achieve.
Michael Magee: The level of demand for generalist or specialist skills does depend on market trends and the relative effectiveness of different channels for your industry or company. In FMCG you need a good mix of generalist and specialist skill sets on your team. Digital channels have created an over-emphasis on media versus other business growth levers such as portfolio management, new products, price management and strategic brand management.
Julia Porter: Strategic marketers who have a clear understanding of the business are certainly in demand, but you still need specialists. Digital marketing is so data-driven that you require people who can handle the detail and fine-tune your activity.
Rufus Radcliffe: Primarily we want people who are passionate about our industry, where it is heading and its future. Yet within that we might recruit someone who is more commercially-aware, fluent with data or highly creative.
Andy Edge: There will always for a role for junior generalists but as people move into more senior roles they need to understand the full extent of how customers are being communicated with. If you train people as specialists at a junior level they will not get the range of experience the industry needs.
Margaret Jobling: Did generalists ever go away? With increasing P&L [profit-and-loss] pressure, marketers must certainly be clearer about what they deliver, speak the language of the business and understand complex consumer lifestyles. They must be commercial as well as creative.
“Digital channels have created an over-emphasis on media versus other business growth levers such as strategic brand management.”
Michael Magee, Mars
Marketing Week: What impact will this demand for marketers with broad experience have on people’s careers? Is it essential everyone has their own personal development strategy?
Sally Cowdry: Whether an individual marketer has a training strategy depends on their career ambitions and what they are passionate about. As a general rule – client-side at least – in CMO, director and CEO roles you do need enough knowledge of specialist areas to ask the right questions, but you are making decisions based on a broad view and a huge range of information. However, being a specialist can be a powerful selling point and make you a very in-demand marketer.
Andy Edge: Appointments are often determined by the role being advertised. We might be looking for a ‘social media manager’, but it is important that once someone joins us they are given the chance to experience other areas of marketing. Everyone needs a marketing tool kit, so someone appointed to a particular role should consider specific training or shadowing relevant people.
Margaret Jobling: There will be more demand for people with rounded business skills. Marketers need to understand how their business works. Anyone in an FMCG role should get some sales experience, for instance. You need to understand how consumers interact with your brand in the real world across different channels. There will always be areas people must up-skill in.
Michael Magee: The flexibility of sound generalist experience is more of a career advantage over the longer-term. A stint at an agency is also useful to accelerate someone’s understanding of different channels, but marketing is much broader. We challenge our marketers to take a strategic overview of our brands rather than focusing purely on execution by channel. When it comes to a training strategy, you need to take the attitude that you never stop learning. Mars supports that with its online and classroom-taught Marketing College.
Julia Porter: The big challenge for a marketer is getting his or her head around how they use the data. They do not need to bury themselves in the detail but they must be able to ask the right questions and not be scared of data. The most successful marketers will understand both the creative and the numbers. This is not an either-or situation any more. Brands want marketers to have skills in both. We could be recruiting different people in future.
Charles Allen: What I do look for is a lack of acceptance of the status quo – people who want to change things and who are progressive. Is the work they are doing different? You need a curious mind and to be willing to take risks. People need the freedom to fail.
Marketing Week: What specialist skills do brands want to see? Which skills are the hardest to recruit for?
Michael Magee: In my view, the best marketers have a broad set of skills, from strategic brand management to media planning, project management and beyond. The most difficult part is finding good people with the perfect balance of brand acumen, commercial understanding and category strategy. To discover someone with all of these skills is pretty rare.
Rufus Radcliffe: People need to understand where their industry is heading, the technology changes and how the marketplace is evolving. Finding and recruiting brilliant people is always difficult. It is part of any marketing director’s job to take this seriously to ensure they get the right skills and culture fit. We want people who have good interpersonal skills, who can influence and get others on their side. Brands must conduct proper due diligence in the recruitment process and go that little bit further to ensure they have right the person for the job.
Sally Cowdry: Speaking for Camelot and The National Lottery, our major area of focus is digital development. We are one of the leading lotteries in the world, digitally speaking, and have huge ambitions – not just in terms of digital sales but internally, in retail and in our player relationship strategy. Digital development across our entire business presents an opportunity and has opened up some great new roles for talented specialists.
Charles Allen: We have a small marketing team and as we build our CRM capability we will need people with specific technical capabilities who can help us build campaigns and deliver on insight and segmentation.
Andy Edge: The struggle is finding people who can tell your brand’s story but can also analyse what is working and what is not when it comes to telling that story effectively. These people do exist, but marketers tend to have a bias [towards a particular set of skills] so there is a role for marketing director to help their team members see the bigger picture.
Julia Porter: Digital specialists remain in short supply so more traditional creative marketers need to boost their skills. There is also a shortage of people who can think strategically as well as understand the data. In future, your typical marketing professional could be very a different beast. They will be much more analytical than in the past. We have a graduate trainee in our marketing team with an economics degree and A Levels in maths and physics.
Marketing Week: What does all this mean for the future of specialist agencies?
Julia Porter: We still use specialists for different aspects of our marketing but what we expect from them today is a more detailed knowledge of the technology and how to use it, because we cannot keep up with everything. With the rise of the generalist we may need these agencies more. The trick is making sure you understand what an agency is going to deliver for you. There are so many services and software solutions that it can get confusing and you can end up with lots of solutions looking for problems.
Michael Magee: All agencies need to adapt to the changing needs of the sectors they work with. Specialist agencies are just that, and there is a time and a place for bringing in that depth of knowledge. The challenge is making sure that the agency does not become too blinkered by its own specialism.
Andy Edge: Agencies do need to think beyond their specialism. Even if we are buying their particular expertise we would like their opinion on other parts of the marketing mix.
Sally Cowdry: For all brands, the trick is getting the right balance between your in-house team and where its strengths lie, and then having a fantastic roster of agencies who you can call on to complement this, or offer specialist support where and when it’s needed. Specialist agencies will always have an important role and some of the freshest and most exciting developments originate within them. What those specialisms are will change over time and the agencies will alter too.
Margaret Jobling: There will always be a need for experts in certain areas, but specialist agencies must be clear about what they bring to the party that makes them different. Brands must work with the agencies that deliver the best return. It can be hard to decipher where there is true specialism and where there is smoke and mirrors.
Rufus Radcliffe: Increasingly brands will have fluid arrangements with agencies. We have a slightly different model at ITV where our in-house advertising agency ITV Creative produces our advertising, but we still need to bring in specialist skills to work alongside it where necessary. The nature of our industry means you cannot have all the skills you need in-house so you will always want access to specialists depending on the project.
Charles Allen: Marketing is so multi-channel that we need agencies that can themselves partner with others and call on other resources. During Christmas we worked with different specialists to get the most from our online retail store. This activity involved social media and a website as well as CRM and DM campaigns. I expect my agencies to adopt the thinking and templates I have been hard-wired with over the years from my time at PepsiCo and Diageo.
You either believe passionately that you train, develop and progress your people or you don’t – you can’t sit on the fence. You can have all the tools in the world but if people cannot use them effectively, it is all for naught.
Everything is joined up by technology now so you have to think about integration, and that is difficult to achieve in silos. You need some specialists, but increasingly it is also necessary to have either lots of generalists who understand the broad mix of channels that are available and how they all interact, or specialists who have robust generalist skills too.
You need customer or prospect programmes that work over time; that you can measure and report on effectively and change on a continuous basis. That’s modern marketing.
In the end, it’s about a mix of skills that people, or teams, need to have – and you can include within that numeracy, an understanding of human behaviour, and social and cultural knowledge. All these things are joined up and you cannot teach bits of it in isolation.
Our specialist training courses at the IDM are always put in the context of the multichannel mix. Our social media courses are about how social works from a PR and search point of view too, for example. You cannot divorce practitioner skills from the generalist knowledge that you need as background, especially in marketing planning.
The most important ingredient is great ideas that work across all the channels that a brand operates in. That should be taught, nurtured and driven into people. It is complex today in a way that it didn’t used to be when there were fewer channels to play in, but it is also more exciting – you test and learn every day.
An increasing number of people taking our diploma-level marketing courses are in the 40+ age group. These are people who maybe missed being digital practitioners because they were already managing teams. Now their teams are practising across the digital mix and they can no longer wing it.
There is a whole generation of people who are still denying the inevitable – that they need to go back to school.