Early in her marketing career, Katie Perry was offered some advice: Why not specialize in product marketing, since that’s where the opportunities are?
“I don’t know,” Perry thought at the time. “That seems really narrow.”
She didn’t take the advice. Instead, she dove into a few different roles that allowed her to wear several hats — first at an agency, then a small startup and eventually a publicly traded company. At various points, she handled paid advertising, organized events, managed a company blog, ran sales enablement, led brand marketing and worked on corporate strategy.
Perry, now the vice president of marketing at social investing network Public.com, fancies herself a generalist. She wouldn’t change a thing about the winding path it took to get there. And yet, “I definitely had periods of my career where I thought, ‘Maybe I should have gone the specialist route,’” she said.
What Is a Marketing Generalist?
The world prizes specialists. Browse any job board and you’ll find companies seeking marketers with deep expertise in one or two specific channels, rather than people who can think strategically and connect the dots between several of them.
That inevitably leads marketers who have more range than depth to ask: Is trying to be a generalist worth it — or even possible?
“I think so,” said Marcus LaRobardiere, senior director of marketing at NewStore. “But it is difficult.”
Is There a Market for Marketing Generalists?
As businesses have emphasized measurement and optimization in the past couple of decades, marketing teams have tried to keep up by hiring specialists and subject-matter experts who can get into the weeds of various digital channels.
That’s especially been true for marketing agencies (which trade on their expertise to get hired by clients) as well as very large corporations (which can afford to have marketers stay in narrow lanes).
But even so, the marketing leaders I spoke to for this story are confident their generalist sensibilities add value to their organizations. It’s why they’re there — and it’s why they’ve all hired generalists at various points themselves.
There are some things generalists may bring to the table that specialists normally do not, like the awareness and empathy needed to stay attuned to the zeitgeist. That allows brands to find strategic ways to tap into cultural moments, which is an integral part of marketing a brand (consumer-facing ones especially), Perry said.
“Thinking about strategic marketing [and] positioning overall — that innately is not a specialist role,” she added.
“Thinking about strategic marketing [and] positioning overall — that innately is not a specialist role.”
And without a generalist in the room, organizations risk having a bunch of siloed specialists without anyone to orchestrate them.
“It can’t be [overstated] how important it is to see all the different pieces and understand how they ebb and flow,” LaRobardiere said.
LaRobardiere began his career at a PR agency before taking a job at a startup as an assistant marketing manager, the first of several roles that had him toggling between different specialties.
“Understanding all those pieces put me in good spots to help add value to the team and the organization in different ways,” he said.
LaRobardiere added that, to his dismay, most companies haven’t been prioritizing generalists in their hiring in recent years — though he hopes the landscape changes soon.
Some are optimistic that it indeed might be.
“When something is in chaos, who can help see something more clearly? It’s going to be people who have a wider breadth of experience.”
“It is fascinating ... watching how quickly the pendulum seems to be swinging back — at least in terms of demand from people hiring — over to brand marketing and some of these more generalized roles,” Wallace said. “And it’s because, usually, when something is in chaos, who can help see something more clearly? It’s going to be people who have a wider breadth of experience.”
The tide may be turning for generalists looking to break into the agency context, as well, says Olivia Mariani, director of marketing at Curbio.
Mariani told Built In she’s heard that agencies have started to hire and train up generalists. That’s partly because companies are questioning the role of agencies in the first place — and they want more omnichannel-proficient, strategically bent people whom they can embed in their marketing teams.
How Do You Make It as a Marketing Generalist?
While incremental changes may be on the horizon, there are still some actions marketing generalists can take to set themselves up for success.
Tips for Marketing Generalists
- Start with curiosity.
- Get exposed to different specialties.
- Clarify your specialty (even as a generalist).
Start With Curiosity
Looking back on her career so far, Wallace sees curiosity as a key theme. She started as a journalist, then moved into content marketing. As part of her job at BigCommerce, she forged relationships with customers and partners. She wanted to learn from them, and in turn, tell better stories.
Wallace collected so many insights that she was asked to present them at the company all-hands meeting. From there, she was encouraged to speak at events, where she’d present similar data. Not long after, she was tasked to run a virtual conference for her company, the promotion of which she did all on her own — down to writing website copy and setting up email marketing campaigns.
Wallace’s curiosity led her to opportunities where she had to flex a range of marketing muscles. It allowed her to round out as a generalist and make the jump into a more strategic, brand marketing role. Now overseeing all the marketing functions at MarketerHire, she has the breadth of experience to “know what’s good and what’s bad,” she said.
Gain Meaningful Exposure to Different Specialties
“As a generalist, you need to be able to have competencies across specialist lanes,” Perry said. “You need to understand them enough to hire and to coach.”
To get to this point, one needs experience working across various marketing specialties. Early career professionals can often obtain that by joining a company as a marketing coordinator or a marketing manager.
Marketers who are already a few years into their careers, though, are finding it tricky to stay as generalists. At that point, they typically need to narrow their focus in order to advance.
“As a generalist, you need to be able to have competencies across specialist lanes.”
In those cases, LaRobardiere suggests generalists look for roles at startups that are preparing to enter growth mode. Because these companies are often trying to do a lot with a little, they’re more likely to have room for marketers who can stretch into several different positions.
And for aspiring generalists who don’t have the opportunity to work directly in several distinct marketing specialties, it’s still helpful to look for ways to get some sort of exposure to them.
“Even if you have been actively working more on a particular area, to be cross-functional and have that kind of environment where you’re able to say ‘I wasn’t in charge of writing content, but I created all the briefs and I was the one who had to come up with the plans,’ that definitely gives you a lot more flexibility if you then want to specialize in content marketing, but you still aren’t marrying yourself to one path,” Mariani said.
Clarify Your Specialty (Even as a Generalist)
“The personal brand is a lot more important on the generalist side,” Perry said. “It’s not as linear of a thought process for a recruiter to look at your resume and be like, ‘Ah yes, I need that.’”
The value proposition of a specialist is a lot clearer than that of a generalist. Whether someone is an SEO director, an email marketing manager or a media planner, it’s clear what they bring to the table and what is expected of them.
But the value add is a bit more nebulous when it comes to generalists. The term is intentionally broad, which makes it difficult to discern where they fit within a given organization.
Because of this, “generalists just have a higher bar for telling the story of what they’re actually good at,” Perry said. “When you’re a generalist, you have to figure out what your unique narrative is within being a generalist.”
“When you’re a generalist, you have to figure out what your unique narrative is within being a generalist.”
Perry narrows her strengths down to storytelling and taking a customer-centric approach to marketing. Though she’s a generalist, she uses those specialties to describe her strengths. They signal to others what sort of environment she, as a generalist, would best fit into.
But even more important than the ability to spin a good story about one’s strengths is the ability to demonstrate that one’s generalism has led to real business success. Generalism may be about big-picture strategy and less about channel expertise, but results still matter.
“You still have to find ways to measure what you’re doing and prove the impact,” Perry said. “And it’s just more important if you’re in this role as a generalist.”