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In our recently published Digital Marketing and E-Commerce Careers Guide, we have put together some of the industry’s best advice on how senior digital professionals can improve their career. The advice we received from our contributors was excellent, and in many cases there was a broad spectrum of opinion regarding how best to accelerate one’s career.

One of the questions we asked the leaders in their field was, “Is it more important to have a deep knowledge about a specific area of digital expertise, or all-round digital experience?” In the light of discussions regarding the importance of “t-shaped people”, as highlighted in our report on digital marketing organisational structures, this discussion is particularly significant. 

The answers from our contributors are below.

Luca Benini, Managing Director Europe, Buddy Media

I don’t know that either is necessarily more important than the other, but both are taken into consideration for their own reasons. At Buddy Media I think we look for very specific skills, such as experience at similar tech companies, familiarity with social media and Facebook, etc. But the all-around digital experience is helpful because things change so quickly. Skills that might have seemed important in a job description or interview might be rendered completely useless in three months. So having a wide-ranging background in digital can ensure that a professional is not pigeonholed into a position that ceases to exist. 

Ros Lawler, Head of E-commerce and Digital Marketing, Random House 

I have worked with great people from both backgrounds.  The most important thing at a senior level is to understand how specialists’ skills (eg. analytics, search, social) work together and integrate with the business.

David Paice, E-commerce Director, Merlin Entertainments

To begin your career, specialist knowledge is more valuable as it will be easier to stand out with this particular USP. As you progress and the responsibilities move from tactical objectives to business strategy, it is vital you take a more broad and all-encompassing viewpoint. This could be gained by ensuring you keep fully up to date with everything else ecommerce-related in your own firm but also keeping abreast of relevant blogs, publications as well as training and development opportunities.

Fiona Spooner, Head of Acquisition and Optimisation, Financial Times

This depends on what you want to do and what your business needs.  We need experts in search, social, CRM and more, so if that is your passion then focus on it.  However, the ability to be able to relate your expertise to the wider business objectives and to contribute to strategy is integral.   We all need a balance.

Allison Wightman, Head of eBusiness, Virgin Atlantic

A good grounding in digital would see you getting involved in as many different areas of e-commerce and digital marketing as possible, as it really is the sum of its parts. It’s then possible to specialise somewhat managing a specialist team before taking on a senior leadership role. If possible, it's important to have commercial responsibility at some point before going for a senior role.

Angus Cormie, Online Director, Dell EMEA 

For digital leaders, you have to make the assumption that they have a support infrastructure of specialists, either as in-house staff or agencies. Some businesses can rely on a single expert with a specific digital expertise, for example where search is at the heart of the business digital performance. However, most businesses require a rich suite of skills that can then be supported by an all-round generalist, knowledgeable enough to be able to point the broader team in the right direction to align to the business and digital and strategies, and knowledgeable enough to know when the specialist is not delivering or going “off-piste”.

Matt Simpson, Head of Digital, EMEA, OmnicomMediaGroup

If only life was as black and white!  Ultimately the top jobs in business are one's which require a generalist skill set which are rarely based around a specialism.  Specialising can help propel you to senior positions through lack of competition and rapid growth of your specialist area, but the most senior jobs will require you to broaden your skill set at some point.  My advice would be to try and make sure you always know more than others about at least one area, but don't do this at the cost of having a broad digital understanding.

Russell Gould, Former Managing Director, e-StrategyConsultancy.com

I don't think it matters.  If you have a deep understanding of a particular area you must ensure you also fully understand how this area influences and is influenced by the other areas.  

Claire Higgins, Head of Digital Marketing, Selfridges

It depends on the job role, but if are a specialist in one area, you need a strong overview of how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together to be able to really deliver effectively.

Most senior level roles do however, require well-rounded digital experience. It gives more opportunity for the business to diversify and brings a strong digital voice to the table that can be confident around how the various parts of the digital mix interchange with one another. 

Although, by diversifying you also need to have a good understanding of the key areas to be able to influence, drive change and achieve results. 

Rosalie Kurton, Head of New Business, LBi

At this level (and ideally any level whether specialist or not) you need to have a blended brain. It’s no good having 20 experts in a room every time a client has a brief. You need to think holistically about the solution and how all the component parts will work together. From there you can direct a team using smaller groups of specialists to deliver the solution at the appropriate points.

The other thing to point out is that typically under the pyramid model, the higher up you get in an organisation, the more operational the role tends to become which results in more admin and people management rather than being able to share discipline expertise with the client or the team.

As the digital industry has matured so rapidly it means that senior experts can be spread thinly at a time when they should be spending more time with senior clients given the maturity and importance of digital to most organisations.

Alison Lancaster, CMO, Kiddicare, and Marketing Director, Morrison’s Non-Food

Ideally both!  In the early days of .com and digital marketing, there were so few of us, we all had to do everything and learn it all along the way!  Now the market is so much bigger, there are lots of specialists and experts working in silos.  Personally, I prefer more rounded digital experts who can take a bigger picture view and work across different dimensions with a portfolio of tools in their tool kit.  However, it largely depends on the size of your team and budget! The common primary focus is the customer and how we use digital expertise to create better brand and online user experiences - whatever category, service or department we operate in. 

Andy Harding, Director of E-commerce, House of Fraser

Having a deep knowledge about a specific area will ensure fast progression within that area but to progress into senior digital management and beyond requires a solid understanding of the mechanics of all disciplines. 

Chris Ketley, Head of Digital and E-commerce, Bupa

It really depends on the role and responsibilities. You will be perceived as others as the digital expert so need to ensure you can manage and deliver against expectations.

Paul Wishman, Group E-commerce Director, LV 

For me the ideal person is someone who has demonstrated their ‘depth’ in at least one area and then shown versatility to propagate experience across a range of digital techniques. I say this as I believe to lead from the front you need to have proved to yourself and others that you have sound knowledge of the mechanics and how to effectively use them to attain optimal results.

Your thoughts?

What do you think? Is it more important to be a generalist, or a specialist? With the amount of information out there, can you be both? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

For further information, download our free Digital Marketing and E-commerce Careers Guide (registration required) or find out more about the other free reports offered by Econsultancy. 

Andrew Warren-Payne

Published 20 February, 2012 by Andrew Warren-Payne

Andrew Warren-Payne is a Senior Research Analyst at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or Google+

55 more posts from this author

Comments (9)

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Hussain Al-Essa

I would say specialists. Traditional marketers need to know they can use their skills for digital. Example: Copywriter can be a content marketer. This would lower the barrier of entry and stimulate the need for rotation.

over 4 years ago

Andrew Lloyd Gordon

Andrew Lloyd Gordon, Digital Marketing Expert, Speaker and Trainer at New Terrain Limited

I'd agree with Alison Lancaster's comment that, in the early days of the Web, you needed an understanding of the many fewer areas of online marketing. Ironically, just by being part of the industry, you were both a generalist and a specialist.

This is impossible now. The industry has grown much more complex. No one person can know it all.

However, whilst I think it's healthy to have a solid background in one or two areas, it's vital to have a grasp of how the other technologies and techniques knit together. And, as you rise up the digital career ladder, an appreciation of key business and management skills become ever more important.

over 4 years ago

Sylvain Querné

Sylvain Querné, Head of Digital Marketing at Nokia

The answers are quite obvious... And there is too much of "it depends" in the answer. The debate is open.
Probably the more you grow into responsibilities the more you need to enlarge your view. It just works in pair, just like any area of the business.

over 4 years ago

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Raj Ladwa, Senior User Experience Manager at Lloyds Banking GroupEnterprise

Agree most of the above. Specialising early on makes absolute sense for large businesses as teams are split up into dedicated areas, however to the higher up you go, it makes sense to be more of a generalist. No harm in keeping an interest in your chosen specialist area though!

over 4 years ago

Andrew Warren-Payne

Andrew Warren-Payne, Senior Research Analyst at Econsultancy

Thanks everyone for all your comments, including the ones coming through on Twitter. There is definitely a debate when it comes to this question, which was inspired by our Organisational Structures and Resourcing Report (link below) when writing the careers guide.
http://econsultancy.com/reports/digital-marketing-organisational-structures-and-resourcing-best-practice-guide

@Hussain - specialists are definitely required within digital marketing. Without them, any strategy would fail in its execution, and there has been much discussion about the shortage of digital talent within the industry.

@Andrew - this is highly relevant - I remember you highlighting the point that nobody can know it all at the Fast Track Digital Marketing training you gave.

@Sylvain and @Raj - your comments about enlarging your view as one goes up an organisation are those reflected by many of our contributors. Maintaining an interest or deep knowledge about one field, combined with a broad overview, has been discussed before with the "t-shaped people" theory.
http://econsultancy.com/blog/8539-will-2012-be-t-shaped-2

I think it is for the individual to decide on how they will structure their career, but the generalist/specialist question is definitely one to bear in mind when planning the next steps.

over 4 years ago

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Jeff Ferguson

I've always prided myself on being a digital media generalist during my over 16 year career. I feel that it's allowed me to not only have a broader understanding of how all the facets can fit together, but also tended to put me in a better position for management over an entire digital marketing team.

That said, the industry itself loves a specialist. Even with my knowledge and practice of a myriad of digital channels, I still get pushed into being the "search guy," "the seo guy," etc. despite my countering and proof to the contrary.

over 4 years ago

Vivien Underwood

Vivien Underwood, Econsultancy

It feels like there's a developing consensus on what a digital career might look like which is really important as the industry matures. For the training team, a big driver in 2012 is ensuring we provide training and education which directly supports these development phases.

Doing more to attract new talent and provide a thorough grounding is exceptionally important, and developing both digital and business skills is essential for anyone entering the industry as universities don't seem to deliver this successfully (certainly in the context of digital). We're looking at a number of ways to address this and helping to make new entrants more work ready.

In addition, the specialisation stage seems to have been fairly ad hoc to date, delivered through short training courses and work experience. Our new Graduate Certificates are an excellent way for people to formalise these skills, which is increasingly important in a more competitive job market. Of course, the certificates also lead into the MSc programmes very neatly, and these broaden out again to provide the skills required for strategic leadership.

In particular I think Luca Benini's comment is key -specific practical skills are only half the battle in digital. The ability to continue to grow and develop is essential when skillsets can so quickly become outdated. This is the main reason why we chose to move towards academically driven qualifications when we looked to accredit our courses - learning to learn pays as big a role now as learning to do.

More info about qualifications is available via http://econsultancy.com/qualifications.

over 4 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Andrew,
Sylvain is right, the answer depends. You have to define what your desired progression path is before you can decide to be a generalist vs. specialist. In some disciplines, like SEO and analytics, there are senior positions for specialists. Senior SEOs for large organisations bring in salaries commensurate with executive positions.
However, if you compare that to a senior SEO role in a small e-commerce company, it's not the same.
I think that regardless of your core focus, everybody in e-commerce should have a wider understanding of what e-commerce & digital marketing means and the touch points across the organisation. This is even more important in a multi-channel environment.
How can you be an effective PPC specialist if you don't know what is happening with SEO, display, offline advertising, on-site optimisation etc. You have to understand the customer journey and what influences conversion, so that means thinking outside your particular area.
For me you have to start by defining what you are interested in and what your key skills are. That goes a long way to helping identify what type of role you are best suited to. If you are obsessed by detail, then being a generalist might not give you the kick you need.
thanks
james

over 4 years ago

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Victoria Dunmire

I agree with the points made about specialization being more important earlier on in a career, with overall general digital strategic vision being more important later on with senior-level positions. I think Angus Cormie's comment fits what we're seeing in agencies most accurately - a team of specialists with a senior-level digital strategist to guide the department and overall direction of work.

Being a "specialist" myself (although I started as a generalist - had to be in the early stages of implementing digital for companies), I'm concerned that the structure does not support a specialist growing into a generalist. In this more distributed model of specialist areas, how does one gain access to other areas? I feel this is a missing piece - current senior-level digital strategists have an all-over knowledge because of their years of experience "doing it all" as digital exploded.

However, us "newbies" are being forced into specialties to bill out to clients more effectively, creating silos and an approach that is often far from integrated. How can we get beyond this to make sure our specialists have track to gain new knowledge and experience within the departmental structure?

This, to me, is a key area and I think that agencies and companies that invest here will have higher retention rates - something which also needs addressed in this era of constant job-changing.

about 4 years ago

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