The Specialist vs Generalist Debate

One of the most challenging decisions when building your digital marketing team is hiring the right people. The “right” people, however, are not the same for each business.

Digital marketing covers a wide swath of mediums. There’s email marketing, web design, PPC, SEM, SEO, social and so on. The more detailed you want to be, the longer the list. For instance websites can consist of UI and UX design and development, SEO, content creation, multimedia, analytics, etc.

Your business goals, budget and team size are the biggest drivers in what you should look for in a candidate. This is where you enter the specialist vs generalist debate.

The Specialist

Just like it sounds, a specialist specializes in one area of digital marketing. This person should know almost all things in their area of expertise and be following the latest news, trends, and tools in that field. A specialist should produce exceptional results with a high degree of efficiency, because they know their topic and the tools they use thoroughly. This is definitely a benefit if you are a large company with room for a large team of people dedicated to specific tasks.

The Benefits

Being immersed in a niche field, a specialist can work with speed and accuracy, generating the most optimized results within their expertise.

There is an illustration I’ve heard several times about a handyman who fixes a problem by tapping it with the hammer. When he sends his invoice, the customer is outraged at the price. As requested, the handyman itemizes the bill and shows the work itself to be of little value but his knowledge, his expertise to be of great value. You can send anyone in to swing a hammer, but if they don’t know where to hit or with what force to use, the problem will not be fixed. In fact, new problems could arise by allowing just anyone to swing the hammer.

Large companies can benefit from acquiring and retaining specialists to optimize products and/or processes.

The Challenges

The biggest challenge with specialists lies in the hiring process. It is unlikely anyone involved will know enough to accurately gauge if the person they are interviewing really knows as much as they claim. The proof will come with results (or the lack thereof) after an individual has been hired.

Another common challenge is knowing a specialist’s worth. It can be difficult to understand a team member’s value when you don’t really grasp what they contribute and why it is so important to the success of your digital marketing goals. This can lead to undervaluing a prospect when presenting and negotiating salary. It can also influence management’s decisions regarding bonuses and raises, because it’s hard to justify paying for what you don’t understand. If you want to avoid or limit any damage in this way, take a little time to learn some basics regarding what to ask, what to look for, red flags, how to gauge performance. If you have someone remotely knowledgeable in the field that can sit in on part of an interview to help vet the candidate, do so, of course after running it through your HR department to establish guidelines for participation.

Along those same lines, day to day management of a specialist can prove tricky, and it is important to remember that you are paying for their knowledge and the implementation of that knowledge, not specifically for their time. It is bad form to assign work to a specialist that is outside their specialty. Specialists don’t wear many hats, and forcing them to because “they have time” distracts them from what they know, undermines their role in the company, and creates resentment. Instead, institute a policy that if work is completed, their time is to be used keeping up to date on the latest tools and changes in their specialty.

The Generalist

Just like with a specialist, the name tells us a what we need to know. A generalist has a general knowledge of a lot of areas. A generalist is a Jack (or Jill) of all trades, master of none. While they don’t have any one thing mastered, a generalist can be of great use.

The Benefits

Generalists generally enjoy learning new things. That’s how they got where they are. If a generalist is confronted with something they aren’t familiar with, they have the aptitude to learn at least the basics—often quickly, if given the opportunity. They see beyond individual disciplines to how each impacts the others. Generalists know enough to find a balance. For instance, their coding skills may not be as technically proficient as a developer, but they have a stronger design sense, leading to a better mix of UI and UX than what you may get from just a designer or just a developer.

If you are looking for someone to manage a team of specialists, your best candidate may just be an experienced generalist. They should have a broad grasp of a wide array of topics and disciplines to see the big picture, how all the components work together towards your digital marketing goals.

Both large and small companies can benefit from generalists. Generalists can wear many hats, which is often a need for small businesses. Often times, generalists get their start, grow and thrive in small businesses, but that isn’t the only place they belong. Bringing generalists into larger companies in management or coordinator roles benefits both the employees and company. They contain enough knowledge to communicate intelligently with the rest of their team and keep projects on track. They can identify gaps in your plans and underperforming channels and find solutions for both.

The Challenges

It is important to keep in mind that generalists don’t know everything, and they likely aren’t masters in any area. That means that they do not always work as quickly and efficiently as specialists. Sometimes, they have to seek out information and training on topics they are unfamiliar with but are essential to the task at hand.

It is easy to get caught up in all a generalist can do and expect them to maintain an overbearing workload long term. Because a generalist has a desire to learn, it can be more difficult for them to draw boundaries. It can also be difficult for a generalist to have time to keep up with the latest news and changes in digital marketing, because they are often stretched thin. Generalists wear a lot of hats, and sometimes it is up to management to identify which are most important or simply take some hats away. It is also important to give them time to learn new things. This benefits both them and you.

Who to Choose?

Large companies with an existing team will need to consider what role they need filled to meet their goals. Do you need someone to focus primarily on one area of marketing? Hire a specialist. Most digital marketing roles for larger companies should be filled by specialists. This helps establish clear roles for each team member and optimize your efforts. But, if you really need someone that can wear multiple hats, even if it is just 2-3, you’ll want to look for a generalist. Just because a generalist isn’t a master of anything doesn’t mean they can’t be perform strongly in a few areas.

Are you a small company? You probably need a generalist. Consider your budget and workload. If you can afford two lower salaried (and less qualified) candidates or one highly qualified, higher salaried candidate, choose the latter and pay them their value. You can use the remainder of the budget to hire freelance or contract specialists, as needed, for specific projects. And when your budget grows a little more, add someone less experienced to grow your team. Your more experienced digital marketer can take on the more advanced projects and possibly even mentor your newest team member. In doing this, you will have laid a good foundation for your digital marketing program while establishing a team that can help maintain and grow it. Maybe one day you’ll even be able to add some specialists to further optimize your efforts.

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