Specialist or Generalist? Where to Invest in your Digital Career
Which path adds greater value to your CV, specialist expertise or broad-ranging skills?
It’s one of the most important questions digital marketers face when looking to build durable, high-paying careers in a fast-paced and competitive industry:
Specialist or generalist?
It’s not an issue encountered exclusively by entry-level job seekers, either.
Marketers of all experience tiers navigate an ongoing series of career decisions, each of which can impact not only short-term job satisfaction but long-term employee worth.
Mile wide or mile deep?
On the surface, choosing between specialist and generalist can seem a fairly easy exercise when weighing the two options in a basic pros and cons analysis.
Specialists can, in some cases, command higher salaries because of in-depth knowledge that relatively few candidates in the market offer to employers.
They can also enjoy better job security (all other factors being equal), for the simple reason that they're harder to replace.
On top of that, they can have an ‘easier’ career path in some senses, since their skill set is suited to very specific jobs. Unlike marketers with a range of abilities, they never face the agony of choice in the same way, and instead can clearly identify roles which directly match their expertise.
The flip side, however, is that specialists can limit their career options to a smaller set of available jobs in general.
This can reduce the frequency with which they can change jobs (if they wish to), as well as restricting the types of companies they can work for.
Most significantly, specialists are also at risk of becoming obsolete or redundant in a way that generalists are not. In the age of AI, this can be a very real concern if your specialism is something that's under threat from automation and advances in machine learning.
Generalists, on the other hand, can find job-seeking to be a more complex (and potentially more time-consuming) process as there are fewer roles for which they are a ‘perfect’ hard skills match.
Additionally, employers looking for all-rounders may not have a precise idea of exactly who they're trying to hire, which can draw out interview and assessment processes even further.
Naturally, the reverse is true – generalists typically have more options to choose between, and can move more freely.
When it comes to pay, generalists do risk being pegged into lower salary brackets, but this is usually dependent on the depth of knowledge of each area that they master, and the overall impact they can have as a result.
A ‘generalist’ who is no more than the sum of their parts (knows a little a lot) has very different worth to an employer when compared with someone who leverages their broad understanding to add strategic value and make big-impact contributions.
This latter type of generalist can command premium pay packages as they offer the potential to accelerate business performance and not merely impact one component.
Different flavors of specialism
A key to making a more informed decision about digital marketing career development is understanding the different forms that ‘specialism’ can take.
For instance, default thinking is often for marketers to view specialism principally in terms of channel – building expertise in areas such as SEO, programmatic, analytics or paid search.
It’s worth keeping in mind that specialism, and the benefits it can bring, can be built in many different ways.
B2B vs B2C is a great example - although many of the core tools and principals involved are the same in both kinds of marketing, the strategies, metrics and methodologies used in attempting to reach a broad consumer market are extremely different from those used to target business customers.
Experts in B2C marketing can create value in their experience and skill set in much the same way a market channel specialist can.
Other ways to develop specialism include aspects like business maturity – early-phase companies face different challenges from established businesses, and marketers who have proven track records of success in those respective environments have a specialism that is valuable to a prospective employer.
Vertical market is another important factor – expertise in digital marketing within sports brands, iGaming, luxury retail and real estate all require unique knowledge and exposure that builds specialism in a different way.
All of these (and many more) are forms of specialism that create employee value without being limited to technical channel expertise.
Adapting to the environment
The business setting in which digital marketers are building their careers also has a big part to play in answering the specialist vs generalist conundrum.
For professionals in an agency environment, looking to develop a career path within the services community of digital marketing, specialism can be of high value due to the silo-ed structure of agency teams and the need for highly skilled professionals to focus on key channels for client campaigns. There is a clear career path for domain experts to climb an established career framework.
In an e-commerce environment, however, a broader skill set can often be valued as an asset, given the need for teams to evolve with shifting business priorities and the high degree of interaction among online marketing colleagues. A marketer who limits their skill set to a single area can quickly find themselves overlooked for promotion due to the rigidity of what they offer.
Specialization without isolation
Whether marketers invest in their future worth by developing deep roots or broad abilities, a crucial part of successful career development in digital is building a robust awareness of peripheral marketing channels and comprehension of the co-dependence of elements of the overall marketing mix.
In Adaptive’s article earlier this year, there was a clear consensus among agency owners and e-commerce marketing teams that candidates who fail to demonstrate a holistic understanding of the marketing process put themselves at a major career disadvantage – both at interview time and in promotion scenarios – even if their hard skills are excellent.
Whether specialist or generalist, a strong fundamental appreciation of how different channels interact with each other and a curiosity to fully understand the mechanics of an integrated digital marketing strategy are the keys to laying solid career foundations.